Grappling with dark energy

9 September 2019

Astrophysicist Adam Riess, who led one of the teams that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe 20 years ago, discusses intriguing discrepancies in the value of the Hubble constant.

Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University

Could you tell us a few words about the discovery that won you a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics?

Back in the 1990s, the assumption was that we live in a dense universe governed by baryonic and dark matter, but astronomers could only account for 30% of matter. We wanted to measure the expected deceleration of the universe at larger scales, in the hope that we would find evidence for some kind of extra matter that theorists predicted could be out there. So, from 1994 we started a campaign to measure the distances and redshifts of type-1a supernovae explosions. The shift in a supernova’s spectrum due to the expansion of space gives its redshift, and the relation between redshift and distance is used to determine the expansion rate of the universe. By comparing the expansion rates at two different epochs of the universe, we can estimate the expansion rate of the universe and how it changes over time. We made this comparison in 1998 and, to our surprise, we found that instead of decreasing, the expansion rate was speeding up. A stronger confirmation came after combining our measurements with those of the High-z Supernova Search Team. The result could be interpreted if the universe instead of decelerating is speeding up its expansion.

What was the reaction from your colleagues when you announced your findings?

That our result was wrong! There were understandably different reactions but the fact that two independent teams were measuring an accelerating expansion rate, plus the independent confirmation from measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), made it clear that the universe is accelerating. We reviewed all possible sources of errors including the presence of some yet unknown astronomical process, but nothing came out. Barring a series of unrelated mistakes, we were looking at a new feature of the universe.

There were other puzzles at that time in cosmology that the idea of an accelerating universe could also solve. The so-called “age crisis” (many stars looked older than the age of the universe) was one of them. This meant that either the stellar ages are too high or that there is something wrong with the age of the universe and its expansion. This discrepancy could be resolved by accounting for an accelerated expansion.

What is driving the accelerated expansion?

One idea is that the cosmological constant, initially introduced by Einstein so that general relativity could accommodate a static universe, is linked to the vacuum energy. Today we know that the vacuum energy can’t be the final answer because summing the contributions from the presumed quantum states in the universe produces an enormous number for the expansion rate that is about 120 orders of magnitude higher than observed. This rate is so high that it would have ripped apart galaxies, stars, planets, before any structure was formed.

The accelerating expansion can be due to what we broadly refer to as dark energy, but its source and its physics remain unknown. It is an ongoing area of research. Today we are making further supernovae observations to measure even more precisely the expansion rate, which will help us to understand the physics behind it.

By which other methods can we determine the source of the acceleration?

Today there is a vast range of approaches, using both space and ground experiments. A lot of work is ongoing on identifying more supernovae and measuring their distances and redshifts with higher precision. Other experiments are also looking to baryonic acoustic oscillations that would provide a standard ruler for measuring cosmological distances in the universe. There are proposals to use weak gravitational lensing, which is extremely sensitive to the parameters describing dark energy as well as the shape and history of the universe. Redshift space distortions due to the peculiar velocities of galaxies can also tell us something. We may be able to learn something from these different types of observations in a few years. The hope is to be able to measure the equation-of-state of dark energy with a 1% precision, and its variation over time with about 10% precision. This will offer a better understanding of whether dark energy is the cosmological constant or perhaps some form of energy temporarily stored in a scalar field that could change over time.

Is this one of the topics that you are currently involved with?

Yes, among other things. I am also working on improving the precision of the measurements of the Hubble constant, Ho, which characterises the present state and expansion rate of our universe. Refined measurements of Ho could point to potential discrepancies in the cosmological model.

What’s wrong with our current determination of the Hubble constant?

The problem is that even when we account for dark energy (factoring in any uncertainties we are aware of) we get a discrepancy of about 9% when comparing the predicted expansion rate based on CMB data using the standard “ΛCDM” cosmological model with the present expansion. The uncertainty in this measurement has now gone below 2%, leading to a significance of more than 5σ while future observations from the SH0ES programme would likely reduce it to 1.5%.

A new feature in the dark sector of the universe appears increasingly necessary to explain the present tension

There is something more profound in the disagreement of these two measurements. One measures how fast the universe is expanding today, while the other is based on the physics of the early universe – taking into account a specific model – and measuring how fast it should have been expanding. If these values don’t agree, there is a very strong likelihood that we are missing something in our cosmological model that connects the two epochs in the history of our universe. A new feature in the dark sector of the universe appears in my view increasingly necessary to explain the present tension.

When did the seriousness of the H0 discrepancy become clear?

It is hard to pinpoint a date, but it was between the publication of first results from Planck in 2013, which predicted the value of H0 based on precise CMB measurements, and the publication of our 2016 paper that confirmed the H0 measurement. Since then, the tension has been growing. Various people were convinced along this way as new data came in, while there are people who are still not convinced. This diversity of opinions is a healthy sign for science: we should take into account alternative viewpoints and continuously reassess the evidence that we have without taking anything for granted.

How can the Hubble discrepancy be interpreted?

The standard cosmological model, which contains just six free parameters, allows us to extrapolate the evolution from the Big Bang to the present cosmos – period of almost 14 billion years. The model is based on certain assumptions: that space in the early universe was flat; that there are three neutrinos; that dark matter is very nonreactive; that dark energy is similar to the cosmological constant; and that there is no more complex physics. So one or perhaps a combination of these can be wrong. Knowing the original content of the universe and the physics, we should be able to measure how the universe was expanding in the past and what should be its present expansion rate. The fact that there is a discrepancy means that we don’t have the right understanding.

We think that the phenomenon that we call inflation is similar to what we call dark energy, and it is possible that there was another expansion episode in the history of the universe just after the recombination period. Certain theories predict a form of “early dark energy” becomes significant giving a boost to the universe that matches our current observations. Another option is the presence of dark radiation: a term that could account for a new type of neutrino or for another relativistic particle present in the early history of the universe. The presence of dark radiation would change the estimate of the expansion rate before the recombination period and gives us a way to address the current Hubble-constant problem. Future measurements could tell us if other predictions of this theory are correct or not.

Does particle physics have a complementary role to play?

Oh definitely. Both collider and astrophysics experiments could potentially reveal either the properties of dark matter or a new relativistic particle or something new that could change the cosmological calculations. There is an overlap concerning the contributions of these fields in understanding the early universe, a lot of cross-talk and blurring of the lines – and in my view, that’s healthy.

What has it been like to win a Nobel prize at the relatively early age of 42?

It has been a great honour. You can choose whether you want to do science or not, as long as this choice is available. So certainly, the Nobel is not a curse. Our team is continually trying to refine the supernovae measurements, while this is a growing community. Hopefully, if you come back in a couple of years, we will have more answers to your questions.

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