In this video pencast, theorist Delia Schwartz-Perlov explains what physicists are really talking about when they talk about extra dimensions of space. Could our universe actually contain unseen dimensions, and could these extra dimensions help unify quantum theory and gravity?
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The universe is simple.
Simulation of the sky as viewed by the Bell Labs microwave receiver. Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team
This is the cosmic background radiation as detected with a Bell Labs radio telescope in 1964. The band across the middle is the center of our galaxy. The rest is the humming echo of the Big Bang, uniform in every direction—just as theorists had been predicting.
“Which is an amazing thing,” P. James E. Peebles—one of the very same cosmologists who helped predict it—recalls thinking. “But there it is: The universe is simple.”
As Einstein once famously said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” But why should it be? Why would something so vast and complex and old be within the comprehension of a species that spent millennia believing it occupied the center of existence? Yet century after century cosmologists have operated under the assumption that the universe is simple, and it appears to have worked—at least so far.
That assumption goes back to Copernicus. The picture of the heavens he inherited from the ancients was crowded with invisible spheres that carried the moon, sun, planets, and stars. The geometry to explain those motions was embroidered with epicycles and deferents—circles, and circles within circles, and circles adjacent to circles, all fabricated by astronomers over the course of a couple of millennia in an attempt to make sense of the motions of the celestial bodies around a stationary Earth. The problem with this picture, Copernicus realized, was that it divided the universe into two realms, the terrestrial and the celestial. What if the universe instead was one big happy realm? Once Copernicus removed the Earth from its place of privilege and set it in orbit around the sun, he arrived at equations that predicted the motions of the heavens with far greater accuracy. A century and a half later, Isaac Newton used the sun-centered model to create his law of universal gravitation—emphasis on “universal.” By uniting the physics of the terrestrial with the physics of the celestial, he showed that Copernicus was right: The universe is simple.
For the next three centuries, the discoveries of moons and planets and comets corroborated Newton’s idea, with one exception: an aberration in the orbit of Mercury. In 1915 Einstein fixed that problem, via the general theory of relativity, by reconceiving gravity not as a force that acts across space but as a property of space itself. Two years later, he published a paper exploring the “cosmological considerations” of this new view of gravity. What might this tweaked law of universal gravitation have to say about the history and structure of the universe? To keep the math simple, Einstein and then other theorists had to assume the universe was simple, too. So they returned to Copernicus’s assumption: The Earth doesn’t have a privileged position in the universe. On the largest scale, the cosmos would look the same in every direction no matter where you are in it.
Which was what the 1964 vision of the cosmic background radiation revealed. This picture of the universe, however, was almost too simple. Where were the subtle fluctuations in temperature that would represent the seeds of the galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and superclusters of galaxies—everything that would grow into the universe as we know it?
To answer that question, NASA set to work designing a satellite to look for those fluctuations. In 1991 and 1992, that satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), found them—differences in the temperature at a level of one part in 100,000:
The sky as seen by COBE. Credit: NASA Legacy Archive for Microwave Background Data Analysis (LAMBDA)
I met the the co-principal investigator of that project, George Smoot, in his office at the University of California, Berkeley, just days after he won the Nobel Prize in physics. Never a particularly calm presence, he was even more animated on this occasion. Underslept and overadrenalized, he shouted, “Time and time again the universe has turned out to be really simple!”
Sitting across from him, nodding emphatically, was fellow physicist Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “It’s like, why are we able to understand the universe at our level?” he said, echoing Einstein.
Yet Perlmutter himself is among the scientists whose work has most threatened the notion that the universe will be ultimately comprehensible. In 1998, he was the leader of one of the two teams that found the expansion of the universe is not slowing down, as you might naively expect, but speeding up. (He would share the Nobel for that discovery in 2011.) At first physicists considered the discovery of “dark energy” difficult to accept—a force more powerful than gravity on a cosmic scale?—but in 2003 came the first results from the successor to COBE, the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe (WMAP):
The sky as seen by WMAP. Credit: WMAP Science Team, NASA
By reading the patterns in those even finer fluctuations, cosmologists could calculate the portion of the universe that takes the form of dark energy: 72.8 percent. So what is it?
Yet before theorists can begin to answer that question, they need to know how dark energy behaves. Does it vary across space and over time, or is it constant? The successor to WMAP, the Planck satellite, should provide a strong clue when its results are released early next year. So far, though, all the data from less precise experiments are pointing toward dark energy being constant. In that case, theorists agree, the answer to “What is dark energy?” will require them to unite the physics of the very big (relativity) with the physics of the very small (quantum mechanics), just as Newton had united the physics of the terrestrial with the physics of the celestial.
“We shouldn’t be shocked that we’re finding a few surprises,” Perlmutter later told me. “Based on just some fragment of information, and a very interesting theory of Einstein’s, people were able to try out the simplest possible model of the universe. ‘We don’t know anything but let’s imagine that it’s as simple as it could possibly be, because we have no other information to go on.’ And then they said, ‘Let’s take a few more pieces of information,’ and those pieces of information fit, and they fit well into this ridiculously simple, intentionally cartoonish picture.”
But now? We don’t know what the vast majority of the universe is. And, physicists acknowledge, we might never know. The universe just might be incomprehensible after all. But assuming the solution exists, Perlmutter at least has faith as to what it will look like: Copernicus’ solution, and Newton’s, and Einstein’s.
“Something,” he said, “equally elegantly simple.”
Last week, we asked whether astronomers could be wrong about dark matter, the invisible stuff that seems to help hold galaxies together. Is it possible that dark matter doesn’t really exist?
This week, we’ll investigate whether there are viable alternatives to the idea of dark energy, the mysterious stuff that astrophysicists believe is pushing our universe apart.
In every direction we look, galaxies are hurtling away from us. That isn’t surprising in itself—after all, the Big Bang sent space and everything in it flying apart. One would expect that the gravitational pull of all the “stuff” in the cosmos would gradually slow down this expansion, bringing it to a dead stop or even collapsing everything back together in a "Big Crunch." Yet instead, astronomers see that the galaxies in our universe are rushing apart faster and faster.
What could be causing this acceleration? Physicists call it dark energy, and it could make up more than 70 percent of the cosmos. But so much remains unknown about dark energy that some scientists are asking whether it exists at all.
What if, instead of a mysterious unseen energy, "there is something wrong with gravity?" asks Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology.
Einstein's theory of general relativity represents gravity as the curvature of space and time. Perhaps this idea "is still right, but we're not solving the equations correctly," suggests Carroll. "We're used to thinking of the universe expanding perfectly smoothly, and we know it isn't, and maybe these deviations are important." If we accounted for how the universe is clumpy instead of smooth, it might turn out that the gravitational pull of clusters of galaxies and other large agglomerations of matter alter spacetime more than previously appreciated. Distant objects would thus appear to be farther away than they actually are, leading to the false conclusion that the universe's expansion is accelerating.
The problem with this kind of model, Carroll says, is that while it suggests that these clumped-up astronomical bodies might distort our view of the universe more than suspected, gravity still remains the weakest of the known fundamental forces of nature. Also, these astronomical clumps would evolve in size and gravitational strength over time. In contrast, the mysteries that dark energy was invoked to solve require something with a lot of energy that changes less over time.
Another approach is to modify the laws of gravity to do away with dark energy. This tack suggests that "the laws of gravity as we know them work better on relatively small scales such as our solar system,” says Carroll, but perhaps they need “tweaks” to work on cosmic scales. Carroll and other theorists have developed alternative descriptions of gravity that could explain why the universe evolved as it did. One set of scenarios suggests that the strength of gravity increases over time and has different values depending on the distances involved. But critics argue that, to avoid contradicting well-established features of general relativity, these models are unacceptably contrived.
Another family of alternative gravity models analyzes how gravity behaves if there are extra dimensions of reality, as suggested by string theory. But this approach has problems of its own: It leads to empty space "decaying" into particles in potentially detectable ways, Carroll says.
To avoid modifying gravity, some theorists have suggested that our galaxy and its neighborhood might lie within a giant void, an emptier-than-average region of space roughly 8 billion light years across. With so little matter to slow down its expansion, the void would expand faster than the rest of the universe. If we lived near the heart of this void, our observations of accelerating cosmic expansion would be an illusion.
"The advantage of giant void models is that they don't require any new physics to explain the apparent acceleration of the universe, like the existence of some weird dark energy or a modified theory of gravity," says theoretical cosmologist Phil Bull at the University of Oxford.
Still, "there are lots and lots of problems with void scenarios," says theoretical physicist Malcolm Fairbairn at King's College London. "It's very difficult to get them to fit existing data—for instance, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation usually gets distorted in these models compared to what we actually see." For the void model to match observations of CMB radiation, we would need to be very close to the center of the void, to within one part in 100 million. That "seems like an unacceptable 'fine-tuning' to some people,” says Bull. “Why should we find ourselves so close to the center?"
In addition, astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope recently found evidence against the existence of such a void. After refining their measurements of the rate at which the universe is expanding, they all but ruled out the possibility that the accelerating expansion is an illusion created by a void. In addition, if we are living inside a void, Bull and his colleagues argue, we should see very strong fluctuations of cosmic microwave background radiation reflected off hot gas in the clusters of galaxies surrounding the void. Yet we do not see any reflections that strong. "This was pretty much the final nail in the coffin for void models," Bull says.
To support the existence of dark energy—or vindicate one of these alternatives—we need giant sky surveys which will clock the speeds of even more galaxies, Fairbairn says. The colorful scenarios that theorists are dreaming up "ultimately show what an interesting and weird universe we live in," Carroll says. "It's one where we must keep an open mind as to what the answers may be."
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COSMOS: Doubts Over Dark Energy
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NPR’s 13.7: Dark Energy and the Joy of Being Wrong
In this blog post, Adam Frank recounts the history of the discovery of dark energy.
What is dark matter?
An invisible substance thought to make up a quarter of all the “stuff” in the universe, dark matter leaves its gravitational fingerprints all over the cosmos. But despite decades of trying, scientists have failed to capture a single speck of dark matter, in part because they don't have a clear idea of what it actually is.
But what if the solution to the mystery of dark matter is that dark matter doesn't actually exist? What if this ghostly stuff is just a phantom of astronomers’ imaginations? Could there be another answer to the puzzles dark matter was invoked to solve?
Since the 1930s, astronomers have suspected that galaxies contain more mass that we can account for. That’s because, when astronomers clock the speed of stars circling around the center of the Milky Way and of galaxies moving in distant clusters, they all seem to be going too fast. They are going so fast that they should overtake the force of gravity tugging them inward and fly out into the void beyond. Yet something holds them back.
That “something,” most astronomers believe, is dark matter: matter we can’t see yet which has enough mass to keep those speeding stars in stable galactic orbits. But what is dark matter? Scientists have largely ruled out all known materials. The consensus is that dark matter must be a new species of particle, one that interacts only very weakly with all the known forces of the universe except gravity, with which it interacts as strongly as ordinary matter does. Dark matter is invisible and intangible, its presence detectable only via the gravitational pull it exerts.
But not every astronomer is satisfied with this interpretation. Some, like Stacy McGaugh at the University of Maryland, College Park, believe that the definition of dark matter is so slippery that it is impossible to prove or disprove. Researchers might be able rule out the existence of any specific conjectured form of dark matter particles, but "we cannot falsify the concept, so if one fails, we are free to make up another," says McGaugh. "This cycle can be endless — as long as we're convinced as a community that it has to be dark matter, we won't take alternatives seriously, but we can never be disabused of the concept of dark matter."
Instead of relying on mystery particles, a small community of researchers suggests an intriguing alternative: What if the answer lies in changing what we know about the laws of gravity? The leading alternative to dark matter is known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). The assumption is that at large scales, the laws of gravity are different from Einstein's theory of general relativity. "MOND merely tweaks the way a known force, gravity, works—we don't have to accept that the universe is filled with invisible mass," McGaugh said.
In general, by tweaking Newton's laws of gravity when it comes to orbits at large scales, MOND predicts the velocities of stars within galaxies even better than dark matter does. "It works so well it seems there must be something to it," McGaugh said. MOND works especially well on a class of galaxies known as low surface brightness galaxies, very faint galaxies without bright centers, explains theoretical cosmologist Priyamvada Natarajan at Yale University. "It's better than dark matter at explaining the rotation curves of these galaxies, the speeds at which stars in a galaxy orbit the center."
However, critics point out that dark matter beats out MOND on other astronomical puzzles. "The biggest problem is perhaps clusters of galaxies—though MOND works well in individual galaxies, it doesn't fit clusters terribly well," McGaugh said.
In fact, even with MOND, there is still a need for dark matter. "The need for dark matter in such a theory is horrible," McGaugh said. "On the other hand, it is a fairly limited problem in scope—we believe there is more than enough ordinary matter in the universe that is yet undetected that would easily suffice to make up the difference."
Skeptics of MOND, however, point at the Bullet Cluster, two colliding clusters of galaxies. There is a clear separation of luminous and unseen matter seen there exactly matches what one would expect with the dark matter model—dark matter, being largely intangible even to itself, would "feel" the forces of the collision very differently than ordinary matter. MOND advocates say that although unseen matter could be involved, it might again be unseen forms of ordinary matter.
Maps of the cosmic microwave background—radiation left over from the Big Bang—also provide strong support for dark matter. Temperature aberrations seen in the cosmic microwave background seem to reflect the presence of both ordinary matter, which interacts with both matter and radiation, and dark matter, which influences matter but is essentially invisible to radiation.
So MOND advocates have a difficult task: Their theory must explain all the puzzles that dark matter has already solved, and it must present a new way of accounting for everything Einstein's theory of general relativity currently explains. For instance, general relativity proposes that matter and energy curve spacetime, creating the effect we know of as gravity. Massive bodies curve spacetime enough to visibly bend light, an effect known as gravitational lensing that astronomers have witnessed for decades. "We cannot explain the phenomenon of gravitational lensing without general relativity, and this is where MOND spectacularly fails," Natarajan said.
"It has proven hard to construct a relativistic version of MOND,” acknowledges McGaugh. “If one is going to introduce a new theory, it has to encompass existing, successful theories."
Meanwhile, physicists continue the quest to directly detect dark matter particles. "There are no significant results yet, but I am optimistic," says Natarajan. "In any case, I'm quite comfortable as it is with the evidence for the existence of dark matter."
But until physicists actually “see” a dark matter particle, researchers will continue to investigate alternatives to the dark matter model. "It could be wrong," McGaugh says. "We do not understand all there is to understand yet—there do remain fundamental mysteries to explore."
This is the first part of a two-part series on critics of dark matter and dark energy. Return next week for a look at alternatives to dark energy.
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FQXi: Out of the Darkness
Physicist Glenn Starkman is evaluating alternatives to general relativity.
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In this video, explore the evidence for dark matter.
Scientific American: What if There is no Dark Matter?
Could modifications to the theory of gravity eliminate the need for dark matter?