Src: The Swell Designer
Physicists have spent much brain-power on the question where these numbers come from, whether they could have taken any other values than the ones we observe, and whether their exploring their origin is even in the realm of science.
One of the key questions when it comes to the parameters is whether they are really constant, or whether they are time-dependent. If the vary, then their time-dependence would have to be determined by yet another equation, and that would change the whole story that we currently tell about our universe.
The best known of the fundamental parameters that dictate the universe how to behave is the cosmological constant. It is what causes the universe’s expansion to accelerate. The cosmological constant is usually assume to be, well, constant. If it isn’t, it is more generally referred to as ‘dark energy.’ If our current theories for the cosmos are correct, our universe will expand forever into a cold and dark future.
The value of the cosmological constant is infamously the worst prediction ever made using quantum field theory; the math says it should be 120 orders of magnitude larger than what we observe. But that the cosmological constant has a small non-zero value is extremely well established by measurement, well enough that a Nobel Prize was awarded for its discovery in 2011.
The Nobel Prize winners Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Riess, measured the expansion rate of the universe, encoded in the Hubble parameter, by looking at supernovae distributed over various distances. They concluded that the universe is not only expanding, but is expanding at an increasing rate – a behavior that can only be explained by a nonzero cosmological constant.
It is controversial though exactly how fast the expansion is today, or how large the current value of the Hubble constant, H0, is. There are different ways to measure this constant, and physicists have known for a few years that the different measurements give different results. This tension in the data is difficult to explain, and it has so-far remained unresolved.
One way to determine the Hubble constant is by using the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The small temperature fluctuations in the CMB spectrum encode the distribution of plasma in the early universe and the changes of the radiation since. From fitting the spectrum with the parameters that determine the expansion of the universe, physicists get a value for the Hubble constant. The most accurate of such measurements is currently that from the Planck satellite.
Another way to determine the Hubble constant is to deduce the expansion of the universe from the redshift of the light from distant sources. This is the way the Nobel-Prize winners made their discovery, and the precision of this method has since been improved. These two ways to determine the cosmological constant give results that differ with a statistical significance of 3.4 σ. That’s a probability of less than one in thousand to be due to random data fluctuations.
Various explanations for this have since been proposed. One possibility is that it’s a systematic error in the measurement, most likely in the CMB measurement from the Planck mission. There are reasons to be skeptical because the tension goes away when the finer structures (the large multipole moments) of the data is omitted. For many astrophysicists, this is an indicator that something’s amiss either with the Planck measurement or the data analysis.
Or maybe it’s a real effect. In this case, several modifications of the standard cosmological model have been put forward. They range from additional neutrinos to massive gravitons to changes in the cosmological constant.
That the cosmological constant changes from one place to the next is not an appealing option because this tends to screw up the CMB spectrum too much. But the currently most popular explanation for the data tension seems to be that the cosmological constant changes in time.
A group of researchers from Spain, for example, claims that they have a stunning 4.1 σ preference for a time-dependent cosmological constant over an actually constant one.
This claim seems to have been widely ignored, and indeed one should be cautious. They test for a very specific time-dependence, and their statistical analysis does not account for other parameterization they might have previously tried. (The theoretical physicist’s variant of post-selection bias.)
Moreover, they fit their model not only to the two above mentioned datasets, but to a whole bunch of others at the same time. This makes it hard to tell what is the reason their model seems to work better. A couple of cosmologists who I asked why this group’s remarkable results have been ignored complained that the data analysis is opaque.
Be that as it may, just when I put the Spaniards’ paper away, I saw another paper that supported their claim with an entirely independent study based on weak gravitational lensing.
Weak gravitational lensing happens when a foreground galaxy distorts the images of farther away galaxies. The qualifier ‘weak’ sets this effect apart from strong lensing which is caused by massive nearby objects – such as black holes – and deforms point-like sources to partials rings. Weak gravitational lensing, on the other hand, is not as easily recognizable and must be inferred from the statistical distribution of the shapes of galaxies.
The Kilo Degree Survey (KiDS) has gathered and analyzed weak lensing data from about 15 million distant galaxies. While their measurements are not sensitive to the expansion of the universe, they are sensitive to the density of dark energy, which affects the way light travels from the galaxies towards us. This density is encoded in a cosmological parameter imaginatively named σ8. Their data, too, is in conflict with the CMB data from the Planck satellite.
The members of the KiDs collaboration have tried out which changes to the cosmological standard model work best to ease the tension in the data. Intriguingly, it turns out that ahead of all explanations the one that works best is that the cosmological constant changes with time. The change is such that the effects of accelerated expansion are becoming more pronounced, not less.
In summary, it seems increasingly unlikely the tension in the cosmological data is due to chance. Cosmologists are cautious and most of them bet on a systematic problem with the Planck data. However, if the Planck measurement receives independent confirmation, the next best bet is on time-dependent dark energy. It wouldn’t make our future any brighter though. The universe would still expand forever into cold darkness.
[This article previously appeared on Starts With A Bang.]
Update June 21: Corrected several sentences to address comments below.