Our Lonely Future: Stars in the Universe Flying Apart Faster and Faster

Last week, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to three scientists who have discovered that contrary to what everybody has thought up until now, the rate of the expansion of the universe is not slowing but speeding up.

Indeed, the studies proving this were created to measure the amount of slowing. They had telescopes pointed out at a group of very bright supernovas far out at different edges of the universe. It was felt that the movements of these supernovas hurtling through the universe could be measured and the rates calculated for comparative speed. [expand]

Once they determined this rate, they could predict when the universe, which was created in a big bang with a tremendous fireworks shower, was going to either fall back into itself (the big crunch they called it) or simply fade away into the darkness—as fireworks we see on the Fourth of July do.

To determine the rate of slowing, there were two competing studies, which some said during the duration of this competition was just a waste of money since just one could do the job. But then, the first of the studies found the opposite of what they were looking for. And when the second study did so too, a whole lot of scientists got very quiet.

Why is this important? Well the rate of the increase means that as time goes by and everything gets farther and farther away from everything else, it will become more and more difficult for different occupants of different stars to communicate with or visit one another. The universe will become more and more lonely. Meanwhile, our search for life on other planets will become more and more difficult. Since that, exactly, is what we have been doing during the last 50 years, both by telescope and by rockets heading out into the unknown each carrying a coin that proclaims a message of greeting and asks for a response so far not received, this is a biggie.

This whole business where it was wrongly believed the rate of expansion was slowing down was largely the result of work done by Albert Einstein in 1917. He was, as you know, a mathematician, not an astronomer. And so he worked with formulas. With them, he theorized that with gravity, over time, the universe must fall in upon itself. But since astronomers at that time reported it wasn’t yet doing so, he introduced a “fudge factor” that would result in a calculation that someday indeed it would. However, after thinking about it later on, he changed his mind and abandoned the “fudge factor,” saying if it wasn’t there it wasn’t there and the universe in some other way would would collapse into itself. Many believe today that his “fudge factor” is this invisible force that is causing the expansion. Some say Einstein’s abandoning looking further into this was the greatest mistake of his life.

The three Nobel winners are all American citizens. They are Saul Perlmutter of the University of California at Berkeley, Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and Brian Schmidt, a U.S. and Australian citizen now working at Australian National University. 

After the release of the two studies, scientists began to look in earnest for what they now call “Dark Energy,” the force that is causing the expansion.

They also are looking in to the possibility that there is more than just one universe. Perhaps there are other universes that have scientific laws that do not resemble the laws of our universe.

I’d like to propose a third thing to look into. The Big Bang took place only 13.4 billion years ago. Maybe, in the scheme of things, the pieces of the universe hurtling apart from one another at increasing speed are similar to the Fourth of July fireworks in that at the beginning, fireworks DO accelerate into the sky in increasing speed, but then, when they get halfway up, they lose their propulsive force and begin to slow down. Maybe the universe is only in these early stages.

In any case, what has so far been discovered resulted in a New York Times reporter, Dennis Overbye, writing “it’s as if, when you tossed your car keys in the air, instead of coming down, they flew faster and faster to the ceiling.”

In more scientific news, it was widely reported last week that scientists at the CERN Laboratory in Switzerland have discovered that a tiny particle they sent through the air at a particle detector 500 miles away traveled at a speed faster than the speed of light, something thought not possible.

The particle they sent was a neutrino, a tiny, subatomic thing that is the smallest physical particle known. It was supposed to travel at just under the speed of light. But it got there sooner. And calculations show it got there traveling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light.

Other science labs are rushing to try to duplicate this finding, which, if true, would turn all science upside down. The CERN scientists themselves say they have checked things and don’t think they made a mistake, but maybe they did. They look forward, as does everybody, to see if what happened in their lab can happen in others.

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