American astronomers Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess, and Australian astronomer Brian Schmidt have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for their discoveries and initial theorization as to the rapidly expanding universe.
Scientists point out that with the galaxies, and to a lesser extent, the stars, solar systems, dense star clusters and dark black holes all spreading, the space between entities growing farther, over time the universe will be a far ranging and nearly empty region. What had been our near neighbor, the galaxy Andromeda, will eventually be so distant as to be invisible even to the strongest telescopes. The universe will be a cold and lonely place. That example is quite imperfect, because as time goes by the stars burn out, and even the galaxies undergo change, and die, with new galaxies forming to replace them. Everthing fades over time, and existence goes on.
Most scientists agree that the big bang was the beginning of everything; that the universe is limited. Einstein saw the universe as an expanding sphere, or similiar shape. There are a few scientists who are again leaning to the earlier concept that space is infinite and an absolute. If we journey, they claim, to the farthest reaches of Einstein’s spheroid, to the farthest reaches our imaginations can grasp, we have only stepped just beyond the start.
Space, the capacity for measurement and occupation, is an absolute, going beyond speculation to infinity. Time too may be infinite and absolute, having had no beginning, with no potential for an end. Time is a basic characteristic of existence, and knows no turning. These same modern scientists concede that the touted “big bang” may have been one of a series of big bangs, throbbing forever. And they concede that in infinite space and time there may be, may have been, and doubtless will be, an infinite number of universes; some occupied as ours is, some empty.
The new information that the expansion of the universe is speeding up tends to contradict the possibility that, at some point in time, eons and eons to the future, the galaxies may slow, halt, and begin to fall back toward the starting point. Such conjecture had lead to speculation that all matter and energy could eventually rejoin, coalesce into an immense new black hole, and set the stage for a new “big bang.”
The Noble Prize winning scientists advanced their research by studying the light from decaying supernovas; exploding stars. These supernova studies have allowed scientists to study the dark energy that has been impacting galaxies as far back as nine billion years ago. The Nobel teams became aware that contrary to belief, the universe was accelerating its expansion, and they proposed the cause to be a force which they call “dark energy”. Dark energy is unrelated to enigmatic dark matter. Dark energy, both teams agree is a “repulsive force”, comprising about 73% of the universe.
The chairman of the Nobel committee for physics, Borje Johansson, said, “This discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe is a milestone for cosmology. The expansion history of the universe gives us insights into the evolution of the universe and possibly about the ultimate fate of the universe.” The committee’s assumption is that if the three physicists are correct, and the expansion is accelerating, ‘it could mean the universe will end in a kind of cosmic deep freeze.”
Brian Schmidt, the Australian prize winner, said he was amazed and surprised by the announcement, and the pending receipt of his share of the million and a-half dollar prize. “I feel kind of weak in the knees, very excited and somewhat, I guess, amazed by the situation.”
Adam Riess has something in common with the late Doctor and Professor at Harvard University Albert Einstein. Einstein in 1917 considered the possibility of an anti-gravity effect in the universe. He later called that speculation the “biggest blunder” of his career, and threw it out. Adam Riess first considered acceleration of expansion in 1997. He thought himself wrong, and searched for the error. The following is from Reiss:
Dark energy remains an unexplained force in physics — one that, if better understood, could potentially help reconcile inconsistencies between two of the field’s key theories, quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. General relativity deals with the forces acting on objects on a large scale, while quantum physics deals with such interactions on a subatomic scale, but neither can fully explain both.
Saul Perlmutter first heard that he was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize from reporters. “It’s interesting to wake up at 3 in the morning by someone saying they’re a reporter and they want to know how you feel. I felt fine, but I said, ‘Well, why do you ask?’” One member of the Perlmutter team, Alex Filippenko, said the competition between the teams was intense. “The good thing is, both teams worked faster because both teams wanted to be first; and the quality of the work improved, because both teams wanted to be best.”
Scientific conjecture has run a wide gamut. Some have suggested “quantum vacuum energy”, an idea from quantum mechanics which states that even in the vacuum of space, particles are winking in and out of existence, thus generating energy. The difficulty, they explain, is to unify the math from quantum mechanics and the equations of general relativity.