Oddly enough, dark energy — for all the surprise around its discovery — is not an entirely new concept in physics. There is historical background for this idea, and it comes from the preeminent astronomer of the 20th century, Albert Einstein.
In 1917, Einstein was applying his new theory of general relativity to the structure of space and time. General relativity says that mass affects the shape of space and the flow of time. Gravity results because space is warped by mass. The greater the mass, the greater the warp.
But Einstein, like all scientists at that time, did not know that the universe was expanding. He found that his equations didn't quite work for a static universe, so he threw in a hypothetical repulsive force that would fix the problem by balancing things out, an extra part that he called the "cosmological constant."
Then, in the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble, using a type of star called a Cepheid variable as a "standard candle" to measure distances to other galaxies, discovered that the universe was expanding. The idea of the expanding universe revolutionized astronomy. If the universe was expanding, it must at one time have been smaller. That concept led to the Big Bang theory, that the universe began as a tiny point that suddenly and swiftly expanded to create everything we know today.
Once Einstein knew the universe was expanding, he discarded the cosmological constant as an unnecessary fudge factor. He later called it the "biggest blunder of his life," according to his fellow physicist George Gamow.
Today astronomers refer to one theory of dark energy as Einstein's cosmological constant. The theory says that dark energy has been steady and constant throughout time and will remain that way.
A second theory, called quintessence, says that dark energy is a new force and will eventually fade away just as it arose.
If the cosmological constant is correct, Einstein will once again have been proven right — about something even he thought was a mistake.
Explore More Index
- What Is Dark Energy?
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- Fate of the Universe
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- Type Ia Supernovae
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- Out of Space, Back in Time
How can we see what happened in the early universe?
- Did Einstein Predict Dark Energy?
He called it his "biggest blunder." But was it?
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