A lighthearted look at the dark universe

Two astronomers recently came independently to the conclusion that the way to figure out the fate of the universe is to build bigger and better telescopes. Prof. Sarah Tuttle of the University of Washington and Dr. Ethan Siegel of the Starts With a Bang blog and podcast both made informative and entertaining presentations about the dark universe at the most recent gathering of Astronomy on Tap Seattle at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

Sarah Tuttle

UW astronomy Prof. Sarah Tuttle spoke at Astronomy on Tap Seattle May 24, 2017 at Peddler Brewing in Ballard. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

In her talk titled, “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Otters,” Tuttle joked that astronomers are “the universal accountants,” and that right now these bean counters are thinking that 68 percent of the universal energy budget consists of dark energy.

“If I were you, I would be concerned, because I both just told you that most of the universal energy budget is dark energy, and we don’t know what it is,” Tuttle said. “Dark matter we can measure and observe, but we don’t know what that is, either.”

There are a lot of theorized particles that could be in the dark-matter mix, but Tuttle said we don’t really understand them yet.

“We are in the process of measuring them and trying to figure out what it could actually be that is dark matter, how it is interacting with everything around it, because it is the dominant form of matter in our universe,” she said. We’re even more in the dark about dark energy.

“We are able to pin down that dark energy exists, that the universe is expanding and accelerating, and we’re not yet quite sure how to explain that,” Tuttle said.

How do we know?

Three experiments have helped reveal dark energy. Observations of the cosmic microwave background and type 1a supernovae have shown us that the universe is expanding. Tuttle is involved with a project called HETDEX—the Hobby Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment—using a 10-meter telescope in West Texas. HETDEX is taking spectra of faint, young galaxies that are Lyman-alpha emitters to try to detect baryon acoustic oscillations. Huh?

“We’re using the clustering of a particular kind of galaxy to measure the distortion of spacetime,” Tuttle explained. She said it’s like throwing a grid of lights over a three-dimensional object—the lights will reveal the shape of the object.

“We use these galaxies to show us the shape of spacetime underneath to expose how dark energy changes with time,” Tuttle said. Other efforts like EBOSS and the South Pole Telescope are working on the same problem.

“We use a lot of different techniques to try to figure out what we’re doing to expose what dark energy is,” Tuttle said. “It turns out it’s going to take more beer and more time before we can answer that question.”

Our fate is in dark energy’s hands

Ethan Siegel

Dr. Ethan Siegel of the Starts with a Bang blog and podcast spoke at Astronomy on Tap Seattle May 24. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Siegel’s talk was titled “The Fate of the Universe: After 13.8 billion years, where is everything headed?” He noted that it astronomers once saw three possible scenarios for the future of our universe. It could keep on expanding forever, it could eventually collapse back onto itself, or expansion and gravity could balance out just right for a universe that remains about the way it is.

“That’s what we thought for years and years and decades and decades: the fate of the universe is going to be one of these three,” Siegel said. “The whole field of cosmology, which is my field, was the quest to measure what’s it going to be.”

“They’re all wrong,” he said. Dark energy is the wild card. Siegel pointed out that matter dilutes with the expansion of the universe, and radiation gets weaker; it redshifts. Dark energy? We’re not so sure.

“If there’s any type of energy that’s inherent to the fabric of space, then as space grows this energy is just growing,” Siegel explained. “As your universe grows, it’s like you’re just making more and more of this new type of energy if there’s any non-zero energy to space itself.”

A big assumption

Siegel gave a lengthy description of the fate of the universe, from the boiling oceans of Earth to the last black hole standing. It was all based on the assumption that dark energy is constant. But what if it gets stronger over time? Siegel said that would mean that galaxies and solar systems and the Earth would all get torn apart.

“In the fiery final moments, everything, even the atoms that made you up, even the nuclei that made you up, would be ripped apart as well,” he said. “That fate is known as the Big Rip, and it’s possible. I don’t think it’s right, but you can’t be sure unless you measure it.”

Dark energy could get weaker, too, and that could lead to the opposite outcome, a big crunch.

“That’s something we could also measure,” Siegel said. “We haven’t constrained it well enough to know that it won’t rip or that it won’t turn around and crunch again. The way we’re going to find out is through bigger and better telescopes and observatories.”

HETDEX is a big part of that, Siegel noted, and said that the ESA’s Euclid telescope will measure dark energy to better precision than ever before. NASA’s WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope), scheduled to launch in mid-2020, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Chile with hopes of being fully operational by 2022, will also make key contributions to this work.

“If you think that this stuff is fun, I’m telling you it’s going to get even better in the 2020s,” Siegel concluded. Stay tuned.


If you couldn’t attend AOT Seattle, you can watch online! In May they live-streamed the event for the first time.

More reading:

  • Article about BOSS from a 2016 Astronomy on Tap
  • Article about the LSST from a 2016 Astronomy on Tap
  • Siegel’s talk about the expanding universe given to Rose City Astronomers in February
  • Siegel’s talk about the discovery of gravitational waves given to RCA in 2015
  • Siegel’s book, Beyond the Galaxy
Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *