Dark Energy And The Joy Of Being Wrong
Sometimes nature just throws you a loop. All your carefully laid plans, all your exquisite calculations, all your deeply held beliefs and expectations get blown away in the simple eloquence of real data from the real world. That is how Dark Energy made its appearance into the world of cosmology. Its not just that folks weren’t expecting it. They were, in fact, expecting the very opposite.
Last week I explained how Dark Matter was “discovered” (inferred really), based on observations over decades of the gravitational influence it exerts on matter we can see (the stuff we are made of). Dark Energy was discovered in a similar way, except that it arrived all at once in one big, fat surprise package.
The year was 1998 and two highly competitive groups of astronomers were each rushing toward the same goal: they hoped to hunt down the effects of gravitational braking in the universe. Ever since astronomers had accepted the idea of the Big Bang, they had been out hunting for its subsequent cosmic deceleration.
The idea was simple.
While the Big Bang blows space apart (it literally stretches all points of space-time away from each other), the gravitational pull of matter should, over time, slow down that initial burst of cosmic expansion. The two research groups, (Berkeley vs. Harvard), were racing to find the magnitude of deceleration in the universe. It was a critical project since the rate of cosmic braking is directly related to the total density of mass (and energy) in the universe. It would be a Nobel Prize-worthy result.
Things didn’t go quite as planned. -Adam Frank (Photo credit: WMAP/NASA)