Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Boy of Age 16 Asks Me about Relativity, etc.
14. Relations among the Expansion of the Universe, Gravity, Relativity Theory and Dark Energy

George Gamow's book My World Line, in which Einstein's words "the biggest blunder
I had ever made in my life" were first written.

A friend of mine on Twitter, Aaron (a pseudonym), is an overseas, 16-year old boy, who seriously admires Albert Einstein and wants to become a physicist. He continually writes me (Ted, also a pseudonym) questions about the theory of relativity and related topics, and I am sending answers. In this series of blog posts, those questions and answers are reproduced with modifications. I am not an expert in the fields of physics related to relativity. So, my answers might contain errors. If you find any error, please do not hesitate to write a comment for the benefit, not only of the boy and me, but also of other readers.

Aaron: Why is the universe expanding? Where is gravity? What about Einstein's relativity? Some scientists say that the universe is expanding because of dark energy, don't they?

Ted: The expansion of the universe is considered possibly due to the initial condition of the Big Bang, with which our universe started. In 1998, two teams of astronomers suggested on the basis of their observations of Type Ia supernovae that the expansion of the universe had been accelerating. (Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess of the U.S. and Brian Schmidt of Australia contributed to this finding and won Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.) Until this discovery, physicists were convinced that gravity should be causing the expansion rate of the universe to slow. To explain the accelerated expansion, dark energy, which produces the mysterious force to repel gravity, was proposed and has been constituting the most accepted theory. Scientists are still trying to find what dark energy exactly is (Ref. 1).

As explained above, dark energy is the notion that appeared after the discovery of the accelerated expansion. With regard to the relation between the expansion of the universe found earlier and the relativity theory, there is a fascinating history. After formulating the equation of general relativity, Einstein tried to find the distribution of masses that would lead to a stable universe unchangeable with time (a static universe was the prevailing hypothesis those days). He found that the equation was incorrect to produce such a universe. Therefore, he added a term to the equation, which became known as the "cosmological term" or the "cosmological constant."

The Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann found that Einstein's treatment had been wrong and that the original equation of general relativity was correct to predict time-dependent universes as well including an expanding one, which became the observational fact by Edwin Hubble's work, in the late 1920s, of measuring the redshifts of light from galaxies. Thus, changing the original equation was a mistake, and Einstein once told Gamow that the introduction of the cosmological term was the biggest blunder he had ever made in his life (Ref. 2).

One possible source of dark energy, supposed to explain the accelerated expansion, is the "cosmological constant," a constant energy density filling space homogeneously, and the other is scalar fields (Ref. 3). Therefore, Einstein's biggest blunder has become a central concept of the present cosmology.

Note: Earlier, Aaron asked what would happen to the relativity theory if dark energy were true (see here). I took this as the question about a possible failure of general relativity under the presence of the accelerated expansion. So, I quoted from Ref. 4 the description of some theorists' thought that a failure might happen on scales larger than superclusters. However, the equation of the general relativity with the cosmological constant might prove to be an excellent theory except for such an extreme case.

  1. Physics Nobel Explainer: Why Is Expanding Universe Accelerating? National Geographic, Daily News (October 2011).
  2. George Gamow, My World Line: An Informal Autobiography (Viking, New York, 1970) p. 44.
  3. Dark energy, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (November7, 2012 at 00:22).
  4. 3 Alternative Ideas, ibid.
(Originally written on June 27 and July 5; modified to a large extent.)