You’ve all heard these words before. Dark Energy. But what is it, and why are we stuck with it? Let me start by telling you a story.
Imagine, for a minute, that you have a candle. You know everything about this candle, including how bright it is and how far away it is from you. Like so:
Now if I move this candle twice as far away, I know it’s going to be one-fourth as luminous. If I move it three times as far away, I know it’s going to appear one-ninth as luminous. And if I move it a thousand times farther away, I know what I see is going to be one-millionth as luminous as the original candle.
Now in space, of course, we don’t have candles. But we do have a special type of event that has, as far as we can tell, the same intrinsic brightness (to within a few percent) everywhere in the Universe. And this special event is known as a type Ia supernova. When our Sun, and for that matter most stars that we know of, burns up all of its fuel, it will eventually become a white dwarf star. Our Sun will be made out of mostly carbon and oxygen, but white dwarfs can also contain helium, neon, and silicon. Here’s an image of one:
Now in our Solar System, there’s only one star. But many star systems have two or more stars. If one of those stars is a white dwarf, it can start to steal mass from one of the other stars. When this happens, it starts to grow in mass. Now, there’s a critical limit to how much mass a white dwarf can hold up before the very atoms themselves collapse. And when the atoms do collapse, that causes an explosion so violent it’s known as a type Ia supernova. Take a look at this movie, simulating one, and notice at the end how the other star gets kicked out of the star system by the violence of the explosion:
- There’s so much matter and energy, and hence so much gravitational force, that gravity wins, and can eventually turn the expansion around, causing the Universe to recollapse on itself. (I.e., a closed Universe.)
- There isn’t enough matter and energy to overcome the expansion, and the Universe keeps on expanding forever. (I.e., an open Universe.)
- There is just enough matter and energy to counteract the expansion but not enough to turn it around, and so the Universe asymptotes to some state where the expansion rate drops to zero, but never recollapses. (I.e., a flat Universe.)
So now we look at the supernova, and see what they tell us the Universe is doing. Guess what? It isn’t doing any of those three things! It looks like it was doing the flat Universe thing for a while, but then all of a sudden the expansion rate stopped dropping, and now will not only never drop to zero but will become a constant at about 85% of its present value! Why is that? Well, to be honest, we have no idea. But there has to be some new physics going on to make this possible, and we give it the name “dark energy,” since if the Universe were full of a new type of energy that had a repulsive pressure, it would cause the expansion rate to speed up again. But it’s weird, it’s definitely happening, and we don’t know what the right explanation for it is. And that’s dark energy!