Lessons from galactic geezers (l-r: Kepler, Galileo, Brahe, copernicus, Newton

1. Message from ancient universe

2. Old photos of young galaxies 3. Hark! Dark energy!

You may know Hubble the telescope. Hubble the scientist (Edwin Hubble, shown here) was the first to suggest the universe is expanding. Photo: Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington

Supernova explosions like this are the key to measuring the expansion of the universe. Against a backdrop of stars and wisps of gas, supernova 1987A blew up in a nearby galaxy. Astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere saw this brilliant bang on Feb. 23, 1987. Photo: Hubble Heritage Team (images taken 1994 to 1997NASA )

Multiple choice test: A) Astronomers invented dark energy to explain why the universe is misbehaving. B) The universe invented dark energy to baffle misbehaving astronomers. C) Both of the above.

Deepest, darkest energy
Pensive thinker, sits at writing desk,  gazes at camera, smokes pipe.Ancient galaxies are not the only bright objects in the distant universe, nor are they the only discovery rattling the realm of cosmology. We've staved off the discussion of dark energy 'til now because it's, well, weird.

We know the universe is expanding from the work of astronomer Edwin Hubble. In the 1920s, he located Cepheid variables, stars with known light output, and measured their Doppler shifts, to find out how quickly they were receding.

Hubble discovered that distant galaxies were receding faster than closer ones -- a revolutionary finding that became a bedrock of cosmology: After the Big Bang, all the junk in the universe began moving away from all the other junk.

As the universe expanded to its present unfathomably large size, the main question was this: Would gravity eventually overcome the expansion, where all the junk there is -- skyscrapers, Oprah Winfrey tapes, outdated computers -- would come crashing together in a reverse-motion "Big Crunch"? Or would the universe expand forever?

Super-duper light bulb
That largely theoretical question was dumped on its head in 1998, courtesy of studies of star explosions called type 1a supernovas. These white dwarf stars explode when they gain too much mass, and gravity overcomes the mutual repulsion of their electrons. For a few days, a type 1a can outshine a galaxy, making it rather obvious to anyone who's closely watching the sky.

According to theory, type 1a's all liberate equal energy, making them all equally bright. To find the distance to a particular supernova, you simply measure its brightness, which dims with distance. Then, emulating Hubble, you measure the Doppler shift, and calculate how fast the supernova is receding.

Glowing pink figure eight in starry, hazy, red sky.

In 1998, two groups of supernovitiates reached a disturbing conclusion: Starting roughly seven billion years ago, the expansion started accelerating, not slowing down, as would be expected from gravity. "We had been working on using supernovas to measure the expansion of the universe, and about five years ago found that the universe was not slowing down, was not just coasting along, but has been speeding up, accelerating," says Robert Kirshner, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a member of one of those supernova teams.

This was shocking, since physicists could dream up no cause for an accelerating expansion (theoretically, gravity should start to restrain the expansion, much as the stretching of a balloon's wall starts to constrain its ballooning). "There were plenty of skeptics, just enough to keep people honest," Kirshner says.

detail of supernova from above photo More of the same
Since 1998, the surprising results have continued, Kirshner says. "In the last 5 years, we doubled the sample, and when we did it again, we got the same answer. Both groups were in a state of violent agreement." And that helped make the heretical notion more palatable to astronomers -- unless systematic errors are misleading the researchers in the same direction. One possible source of error, dust blocking light and making earlier supernovas seem extra-distant, has largely been discounted, Kirshner says.

So has a change in supernovas' light output. "Maybe somehow the supernovas are changing over time, so the distant ones are not the same as the closer ones. There are reasons why that could happen; they are young and ... we know that the chemical abundance of the universe has changed, so maybe the brightness of these stars has changed. But we don't see other evidence for this."

Still, it's sensible to remain somewhat skeptical in a situation like this, says Robert Caldwell, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. "The people who do the actual observation spend a large part of their time trying to trace down possible contamination sources. As far as I can tell, they are doing a very honest job of trying to track down sources of confusion."

Before pics show lights in space, after pics show more bright spots.
Three of the most distant supernovas (arrow) were found with the Hubble telescope. Top: Before explosion. Bottom: After. These stars exploded back when the universe was about half its current age. Supernovae are so bright they can be seen far away and far back in time, allowing astronomers to trace the expansion of the universe, and to detect the repulsive push of dark energy. Photos: Adam Riess, Space Telescope Science Institute.

Here's the rub
An effect as large as the accelerating expansion of the universe calls for an equally large cause, but so far, theoreticians have come up with, well, dark energy. What exactly that might be, and why it would get stronger as objects get further apart remains open to debate.

Is dark energy a fifth force of nature, ready to be enshrined alongside electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear force? "No, "says Caldwell, or "maybe." " I would not say it represents a fifth force. It represents possibly a new type of particle, which may have some new interaction that we have been unaware of, although it could be a fifth force. It might be just another aspect of gravity that we have not seen before. That's really how most people approach it, that general relativity allows for things to be repulsive in exotic circumstances."

If that sounds vague, let's give Kirshner, who helped discover expansion, a stab at explanation. "Dark energy is a quality of flying apart, we think it's associated with a vacuum itself." Under that explanation, quantum energy found in a vacuum is somehow governing the overall shape of the universe.

Maybe. But it would help if the math added up. "If it's energy associated with a vacuum, what's surprising is that the value is so small," says Caldwell. "If we tried to estimate gravitational energy associated with a vacuum, the way people do for other forces, we get a gigantic number, 10 to the 120 times bigger than dark energy, or maybe only 10 to the 60 times larger. (10 to the 60 looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.) As Kirshner admits, this is "Perhaps the worst quantitative disagreement in physical science. It means that the theory is not on the right track, and we need some other ideas."

If dark energy is real, it could spell the end of everything, according to a computer exercise that Caldwell ran. If the rate of expansion continues accelerating, he found, the result could be the "Big Rip." Everything would start to come part -- galaxies, planets, old eight-inch" floppy disks, rusty old Chevy Novas, even atoms themselves.

Within a short time -- say 30 billion years -- the universe would be, well, it's hard to say, but probably not very congenial to people who need to stay in touch.

Now, 30 billion years is not exactly an eyeblink, but when word of the Big Rip leaks out, Caldwell imagines downcast newscasters lamenting the news: "Trading on Wall St. was slow today, as people went home to spend some quality time with the family before the Big Rip." sketchy portrait of Einstein

Albert, again
The explanations may be wacky, but the reality of expansion begs for explanation. In naming dark energy the science story of 2003, Science magazine, like other observers, raised a delicious irony: in 1917, Albert Einstein, invented a "cosmological constant," to help explain the overall movement of the universe. Then he recanted, and dumped the constant from his equations.

"Dark energy could be the modern equivalent of the cosmological constant that Einstein is alleged to have called his 'greatest blunder,'" says Kirshner. "Maybe it wasn't such blunder after all."

So what is dark energy?
We don't know. The experts don't know. But large questions like this tend to grab the audience, says Kirshner. "People are really interested in these big questions. It's surprising, something like this, which has essentially no bearing on everyday life, is something that people really care about. It deals with the big things, the beginning of things, the end of things. A lot of these were the province of legend, religion, and what we are doing is shining a little light on these mysterious places."

Still, some astronomers must swallow twice before buying the reality of dark energy. "We could be on the right track," says Caldwell. "If we are misinterpreting something, it's not just a small thing, it's something really surprising. If it's something else going on, it's pretty spectacular as well."

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