Saul Perlmutter: from light into darkness

27 March 2012

The Nobel laureate on the discovery behind dark energy.


Paradoxically, work on “light candles” led to the discovery that the universe is much darker than anyone thought. Arnaud Marsollier caught up with Saul Perlmutter recently to find out more about this Nobel breakthrough.

Saul Perlmutter admits that measuring an acceleration of the expansion of the universe – work for which he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics together with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess – came as a complete surprise. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite of what Perlmutter’s team was trying to measure: the decelerating expansion of the universe. “My very first reaction was the reaction of any physicist in such a situation: I wondered which part of the chain of the analysis needed a new calibration,” he recalls. After the team had checked and rechecked over several weeks, Perlmutter, who is based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, still wondered what could be wrong: “If we were going to present this, then we would have to make sure that everybody understood each of the checks.” Then, after a few months, the team began to make public its result in the autumn of 1997, inviting scrutiny from the broader cosmology community.

Despite great astonishment, acceptance of the result was swift. “Maybe in science’s history, it’s the fastest acceptance of a big surprise,” says Perlmutter. In a colloquium that he presented in November 1997, he remembers how cosmologist Joel Primack stood up and instead of talking to Perlmutter he addressed the audience, declaring: “You may not realize this, but this is a very big problem. This is an outstanding result you should be worried about.” Of course, some colleagues were sceptical at first. “There must be something wrong, it is just too crazy to have such a small cosmological constant,” said cosmologist Rocky Kolb in a later conference in early 1998.


According to Perlmutter, one of the main reasons for the quick acceptance by the community of the accelerating expansion of the universe is that two teams reported the same result at almost the same time: Perlmutter’s Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-z Supernova Search Team of Schmidt and Riess. Thus, there was no need to wait a long time for confirmation from another team. “It was known that the two teams were furious competitors and that each of them would be very glad to prove the other one wrong,” he adds. By the spring of 1998, a symposium was organized at Fermilab that gathered many cosmologists and particle physicists specifically to look at these results. At the end of the meeting, after subjecting the two teams to hard questioning, some three quarters of the people in the room raised their hands in a vote to say that they believed the results.

What could be responsible for such an acceleration of the expanding universe? Dark energy, a hypothetical “repulsive energy” present throughout the universe, was the prime suspect. The concept of dark energy was also welcomed because it solves some delicate theoretical problems. “There were questions in cosmology that did not work so well, but with a cosmological constant they are solved,” explains Perlmutter. Albert Einstein had at first included a cosmological constant in his equations of general relativity. The aim was to introduce a counterpart to gravity in order to have a model describing a static universe. However, with evidence for the expansion of the universe and the Big Bang theory, the cosmological constant had been abandoned by most cosmologists. According to George Gamow, even Einstein thought that it was his “biggest blunder” (Gamow 1970). Today, with the discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, the cosmological constant “is back”.

Since the discovery, other kinds of measurements – for example on the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), first by the MAXIMA and BOOMERANG balloon experiments, and then by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe satellite – have proved consistent with, and even made stronger, the idea of an accelerating expansion of the universe. However, it all leads to a big question: what could be the nature of dark energy? In the 20th century, physicists were already busy with dark matter, the mysterious invisible matter that can only be inferred through observations of its gravitational effects on other structures in the universe. Although they still do not know what dark matter is, physicists are increasingly confident that they are close to finding out, with many different kinds of experiments that can shed light on it, from telescopes to underground experiments to the LHC. In the case of dark energy, however, the community is far from agreeing on a consistent explanation.

When asked what dark energy could be, Perlmutter’s eyes light up and his broad smile shows how excited he is by this challenging question. “Theorists have been doing a very good job and we have a whole landscape of possibilities. Over the past 12 years there was an average of one paper a day from the theorists. This is remarkable,” he says. Indeed, this question has now become really important as it seems that physicists know about a mere 5% of the whole mass-energy of the universe, the rest being in the form of dark matter or, in the case of more than 70%, the enigmatic, repulsive stuff known as dark energy or a vacuum energy density.

Including a cosmological constant in Einstein’s equations of general relativity is a simple solution to explain the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. However, there are other possibilities. For example, a decaying scalar field of the kind that could have caused the first acceleration at the beginning of the universe or the existence of extra dimensions could save the standard cosmological model. “We might even have to modify Einstein’s general relativity,” Perlmutter says. Indeed, all that is known is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but there is no clue as to why. The ball is in the court of experimentalists, who will have to provide theorists with more data and refined measurements to show precisely how the expansion rate changes over time. New observations by different means will be crucial, as they could show the way forward and decide between the different available theoretical models.

“We have improved the supernova technique and we know what we need to make a measurement that is 20 times more accurate,” he says. There are also two other precision techniques currently being developed to probe dark energy either in space or from the ground. One uses baryon acoustic-oscillations, which can be seen as “standard rulers” in the same way that supernovae are used as standard candles (see box, previous page). These oscillations leave imprints on the structure of the universe at all ages. By studying these imprints relative to the CMB, the earliest “picture of the universe” available, it is possible to measure the rate at which the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The second technique is based on gravitational lensing, a deflection of light by massive structures, which allows cosmologists to study the history of the clumping of matter in the universe, with the attraction of gravity contesting with the accelerating expansion. “We think we can use all of these techniques together,” says Perlmutter. Among the projects he mentions, are the US-led ground-based experiments BigBOSS and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and ESA’s Euclid satellite, all of which are under preparation.

However, the answer to this obscure mystery – or at least part of it – could come from elsewhere. The full results from ESA’s Planck satellite, for instance, are eagerly awaited because they should provide unprecedented precision on measurements of the CMB. “The Planck satellite is an ingredient in all of these analyses,” explains Perlmutter. In addition, cosmology and particle physics are increasingly linked. In particular, the LHC could bring some input into the story quite soon. “It is an exciting time for physics,” he says. “If we just get one of these breakthroughs through the LHC, it would help a lot. We are really hoping that we will see the Higgs and maybe we will see some supersymmetric particles. If we are able to pin down the nature of dark matter, that can help a lot as well.” Not that Perlmutter thinks that the mystery of dark energy is related to dark matter, considering that they are two separate sectors of physics, but as he says, “until you find out, it is still possible”.

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