Researchers examine Einstein's theories on the universe

Nov 27, 2007

Einstein's self-proclaimed "biggest blunder" -- his postulation of a cosmological constant (a force that opposes gravity and keeps the universe from collapsing) -- may not be such a blunder after all, according to the research of an international team of scientists that includes two Texas A&M University researchers.

The team is working on a project called ESSENCE that studies supernovae (exploding stars) to figure out if dark energy – the accelerating force of the universe – is consistent with Einstein’s cosmological constant.

Texas A&M researchers Nicholas Suntzeff and Kevin Krisciunas are part of the project, which began in October of 2002 and is scheduled to end next month after achieving its goal of discovering and studying 200 supernovae. The team uses a 4-meter diameter telescope in Chile during the observing season of October to December to find the supernovae.

In 1917, Einstein was working on his Theory of General Relativity and was trying to come up with an equation that describes a static universe – one that stands still and does not collapse under the force of gravity in a big crunch. In order to keep the universe static in his theory, Einstein introduced a cosmological constant – a force that opposes the force of gravity.

Then, 12 years later, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is not static – it is actually expanding. So Einstein scrapped his idea of a cosmological constant and dismissed it as his biggest blunder.

In 1998, however, two teams of scientists, one of which Texas A&M researcher Suntzeff co-founded, discovered that the universe is not only expanding, but its expansion is actually accelerating – going faster and faster.

“So there had to be some other force that had overcome the force of gravity and is driving the universe into an exponential acceleration,” Suntzeff said. This opposing force is what scientists now call dark energy, and it is believed to constitute roughly 74 percent of the universe. The other constituents of the universe are dark matter, which composes about 22 percent of the universe, and ordinary matter, which is about 4 percent.

“Eighty years later, it turns out that Einstein may have been right [about a cosmological constant],” Krisciunas said. “So he was smarter than he gave himself credit for.”

The type of supernovae that the ESSENCE team studies all give off the same amount of energy and have essentially the same peak brightness. Researchers can compare the observed brightness of a supernova that they see in the sky to its known actual brightness to figure out how far away the supernova is.

Researchers also look at what is called the redshift of the supernova, which tells them how fast the universe is expanding. When scientists compare the distance of the supernova to its redshift, they can measure the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. This acceleration is caused by the force scientists call dark energy.

The ESSENCE team can then use the value of the acceleration to figure out the density of dark energy, which they then use to calculate what is called the w-parameter. For Einstein’s cosmological constant to be correct, the w-parameter must equal -1, and so far, the results of the ESSENCE project seem to confirm that it is indeed very close to -1.

“The magic value is -1 exactly,” Krisciunas said. “If the number turns out to be precisely -1, then this dark energy is a relatively simple thing – it is Einstein’s cosmological constant.” The team won’t have the final results until later next year, but right now, the measurement is coming in at -1 plus or minus 10 percent error, Suntzeff said, so the initial data seems to point to Einstein being correct.

“We can never test [dark energy] in the laboratory, so astronomers have to measure it [through observational data], and one of the ways we’re measuring it is with supernovae in the ESSENCE project,” Suntzeff said. “Dark energy is completely unexplained by conventional physics. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the 5th dimension from string theory. Or maybe it is a new vacuum energy density that is changing slowly in time. We have no idea, and that is what excites both physicists and astronomers.”

Source: Texas A&M University

Explore further: Researchers demonstrate reconfigurable clusters made of colloidal particles as a form of data storage

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Boosting the force of empty space

19 hours ago

Vacuum fluctuations may be among the most counter-intuitive phenomena of quantum physics. Theorists from the Weizmann Institute (Rehovot, Israel) and the Vienna University of Technology propose a way to amplify ...

Efficient structures help build a sustainable future

Jul 16, 2014

When envisioning a new structure, engineers often have to balance design choices against the environmental impact of materials used. It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of greenhouse gases are produced ...

Recommended for you

IHEP in China has ambitions for Higgs factory

17 hours ago

Who will lay claim to having the world's largest particle smasher?. Could China become the collider capital of the world? Questions tease answers, following a news story in Nature on Tuesday. Proposals for ...

The physics of lead guitar playing

18 hours ago

String bends, tapping, vibrato and whammy bars are all techniques that add to the distinctiveness of a lead guitarist's sound, whether it's Clapton, Hendrix, or BB King.

The birth of topological spintronics

19 hours ago

The discovery of a new material combination that could lead to a more efficient approach to computer memory and logic will be described in the journal Nature on July 24, 2014. The research, led by Penn S ...

The electric slide dance of DNA knots

23 hours ago

DNA has the nasty habit of getting tangled and forming knots. Scientists study these knots to understand their function and learn how to disentangle them (e.g. useful for gene sequencing techniques). Cristian ...

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MikeMarianiMD,FAAP
not rated yet Nov 27, 2007
Fascinoma
SDMike
not rated yet Nov 27, 2007
If a bubble is blown in a vacuum wouldn't the bubble expand at an increasing rate? The surface tension of the bubble would decrease as the surface area increases.

What is the universe expanding into? Why would one assume that what ever the universe is expanding into has resistance to this expansion?
am_Unition
not rated yet Nov 28, 2007
Mike, I think the bubble would expand at a decreasing rate - quickly at first, then exponentially decaying as the constant volume of gas trapped inside pushes less and less against the inside of the bubble. Also, wouldn't the surface tension *increase* as the bubble expands (surface area increase)? Eventually, the pressure of the gas inside would decline as volume increases to meet the rising surface tension, and the two should approach equilibrium.

Truth is, we don't know what will become of the universe, although it looks open-ended, i.e. NOT a "Big Crunch" outcome. The resistance to expansion come from gravity, but apparently Dark Energy overpowers gravitational contraction. :)
SDMike
not rated yet Nov 28, 2007
Poor analogy. I should have use "droplet". A bubble has two surfaces - in side and outside. A droplet has but one surface there 1/2 the effect of surface tension. See http://www3.inter.../ste.pdf for a nice mathematical treatment. Note that the ordinary bubble calculations assume a static condition. e.g. inside pressure = outside pressure plus pressure to overcome surface tension. The universe is not static it is expanding. Further, like a droplet, the surface is replenished rather than stretched as in a bubble. Consider a droplet of water above absolute zero placed into a vacuum. It expands in all directions (boils). Each molecule continues it's initial temperature based vector with decreasing interaction. Each molecule velocity does not decrease over time (in a perfect vacuum). Thus an ever expanding universe. Gravity is a weak force compared with momentum.
Noumenon
1 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2007
So, your universe would not create its own space, but would be expanding into an existing space?
SDMike
not rated yet Nov 28, 2007
comment lost due to "flood control"

Too bad, genius beaten by idiots.
Noumenon
1.7 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2007
So not enough room in your margin for a beatiful proof,... now posterity will have to suffer.? Troll.
Ladislaus
1 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2007

instein Wanted to get a picture of a stabl
eUNIVERS,SO hE SPECULATED ABOUT a compressing force.Nothing supports it yet.
Tissa_Perera
1 / 5 (3) Jun 20, 2008
No solution of nature is infinite.
Read cosmicdarkmatter.com for a hint.