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A Runaway Universe

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  • A Runaway Universe

    THE FABRIC of the COSMOS, Brian Greene, 2004
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 10 - Deconstructing the Bang
    A Runaway Universe
    Just as you may seek a second opinion to corroborate a medical diagnosis, physicists, too, seek second opinions when they come upon data or theories that point toward puzzling results. Of these second opinions, the most convincing are those that reach the same conclusion from a point of view that differs sharply from the original analysis. When the arrows of explanation converge on one spot from different angles, there's a good chance that they're pointing at the scientific bull's-eye. Naturally then, with inflationary cosmology strongly suggesting something totally bizarre — that 70 percent of the universe's mass/energy has yet to be measured or identified — physicists have yearned for independent confirmation. It has long been realized that measurement of the deceleration parameter would do the trick.

    Since just after the initial inflationary burst, ordinary attractive gravity has been slowing the expansion of space. The rate at which this slowing occurs is called the deceleration parameter. A precise measurement of the parameter would provide independent insight into the total amount of matter in the universe: more matter, whether or not it gives off light, implies a greater gravitational pull and hence a more pronounced slowing of spatial expansion.

    For many decades, astronomers have been trying to measure the deceleration of the universe, but although doing so is straightforward in principle, it's a challenge in practice. When we observe distant heavenly bodies such as galaxies or quasars, we are seeing them as they were a long time ago: the farther away they are, the farther back in time we are looking. So, if we could measure how fast they were receding from us, we'd have a measure of how fast the universe was expanding in the distant past. Moreover, if we could carry out such measurements for astronomical objects situated at a variety of distances, we would have measured the universe's expansion rate at a variety of moments in the past. By comparing these expansion rates, we could determine how the expansion of space is slowing over time and thereby determine the deceleration parameter.

    Carrying out this strategy for measuring the deceleration parameter thus requires two things: a means of determining the distance of a given astronomical object (so that we know how far back in time we are looking) and a means of determining the speed with which the object is receding from us (so that we know the rate of spatial expansion at that moment in the past). The latter ingredient is easier to come by. Just as the pitch of a police car's siren drops to lower tones as it rushes away from us, the frequency of vibration of the light emitted by an astronomical source also drops as the object rushes away. And since the light emitted by atoms like hydrogen, helium, and oxygen — atoms that are among the constituents of stars, quasars, and galaxies — has been carefully studied under laboratory conditions, a precise determination of the object's speed can be made by examining how the light we receive differs from that seen in the lab.

    But the former ingredient, a method for determining precisely how far away an object is, has proven to be the astronomer's headache. The farther away something is, the dimmer you expect it to appear, but turning this simple observation into a quantitative measure is difficult. To judge the distance to an object by its apparent brightness, you need to know its intrinsic brightness — how bright it would be were it right next to you. And it is difficult to determine the intrinsic brightness of an object billions of light-years away. The general strategy is to seek a species of heavenly bodies that, for fundamental reasons of astrophysics, always burn with a standard, dependable brightness. If space were dotted with glowing 100-watt lightbulbs, that would do the trick, since we could easily determine a given bulb's distance on the basis of how dim it appears (although it would be a challenge to see 100-watt bulbs from significantly far away). But, as space isn't so endowed, what can play the role of standard-brightness lightbulbs, or, in astronomy-speak, what can play the role of standard candles? Through the years astronomers have studied a variety of possibilities, but the most successful candidate to date is a particular class of supernova explosions.

    When stars exhaust their nuclear fuel, the outward pressure from nuclear fusion in the star's core diminishes and the star begins to implode under its own weight. As the star's core crashes in on itself, its temperature rapidly rises, sometimes resulting in an enormous explosion that blows off the star's outer layers in a brilliant display of heavenly fireworks. Such an explosion is known as a supernova; for a period of weeks, a single exploding star can burn as bright as a billion suns. It's truly mind-boggling: a single star burning as bright as almost an entire galaxy! Different types of stars — of different sizes, with different atomic abundances, and so on — give rise to different kinds of supernova explosions, but for many years astronomers have realized that certain supernova explosions always seem to burn with the same intrinsic brightness. These are type Ia supernova explosions.

    In a type Ia supernova, a white dwarf star — a star that has exhausted its supply of nuclear fuel but has insufficient mass to ignite a supernova explosion on its own — sucks the surface material from a nearby companion star. When the dwarf star's mass reaches a particular critical value, about 1.4 times that of the sun, it undergoes a runaway nuclear reaction that causes the star to go supernova. Since such supernova explosions occur when the dwarf star reaches the same critical mass, the characteristics of the explosion, including its overall intrinsic brightness, are largely the same from episode to episode. Moreover, since supernovae, unlike 100-watt lightbulbs, are so fantastically powerful, not only do they have a standard, dependable brightness but you can also see them clear across the universe. They are thus prime candidates for standard candles. 22

    In the 1990s, two groups of astronomers, one led by Saul Perlmutter at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the other led by Brian Schmidt at the Australian National University, set out to determine the deceleration — and hence the total mass/energy — of the universe by measuring the recession speeds of type Ia supernovae. Identifying a supernova as being of type Ia is fairly straightforward because the light their explosions generate follows a distinctive pattern of steeply rising then gradually falling intensity. But actually catching a type Ia supernova in the act is no small feat, since they happen only about once every few hundred years in a typical galaxy. Nevertheless, through the innovative technique of simultaneously observing thousands of galaxies with wide-field-of-view telescopes, the teams were able to find nearly four dozen type Ia supernovae at various distances from earth. After painstakingly determining the distance and recessional velocities of each, both groups came to a totally unexpected conclusion: ever since the universe was about 7 billion years old, its expansion rate has not been decelerating. Instead, the expansion rate has been speeding up.

    The groups concluded that the expansion of the universe slowed down for the first 7 billion years after the initial outward burst, much like a car slowing down as it approaches a highway tollbooth. This was as expected. But the data revealed that, like a driver who hits the gas pedal after gliding through the EZ-Pass lane, the expansion of the universe has be accelerating ever since. The expansion rate of space 7 billion years ATB was less than the expansion rate 8 billion years ATB, which was less than the expansion rate 9 billion years ATB, and so on, all of which are less than the expansion rate today. The expected deceleration of spatial expansion has turned out to be an unexpected acceleration.

    But how could this be? Well, the answer provides the corroborating second opinion regarding the missing 70 percent of mass/energy that physicists had been seeking.
    Last edited by Reviewer; 10-13-2012, 03:49 PM.