A new project is revealing that Einstein was probably wrong about being wrong. In other words, Einstein was right even though he didn’t know it. His self-proclaimed “biggest blunder” was a postulation of a cosmological constant (a force that opposes gravity and keeps the universe from collapsing) may actually be completely correct, according to the research of an international team of scientists. WOW. That means Einstein was so damn smart that even his biggest failure will likely turn out to be true.
This international team of scientists, including two researchers from Texas A&M are now 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.
So here’s how the whole “blunder” situation developed. 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 Nicholas 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 explained. 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],” fellowTexas A&M researcher Kevin Krisciunas added. “So he was smarter than he gave himself credit for.”
The researchers will 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 Einstein was right.
“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 points to Einstein having been correct all along.
Suntzeff is excited to see what else their research will yield. “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.”
Posted by Rebecca Sato
*this post was adapted from a Texas A&M news release
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