Article — From the December 2011 issue

The Accidental Universe

Science’s crisis of faith

( 4 of 6 )

The most striking example of fine-tuning, and one that practically demands the multiverse to explain it, is the unexpected detection of what scientists call dark energy. Little more than a decade ago, using robotic telescopes in Arizona, Chile, Hawaii, and outer space that can comb through nearly a million galaxies a night, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. As mentioned previously, it has been known since the late 1920s that the universe is expanding; it’s a central feature of the Big Bang model. Orthodox cosmological thought held that the expansion is slowing down. After all, gravity is an attractive force; it pulls masses closer together. So it was quite a surprise in 1998 when two teams of astronomers announced that some unknown force appears to be jamming its foot down on the cosmic accelerator pedal. The expansion is speeding up. Galaxies are flying away from each other as if repelled by antigravity. Says Robert Kirshner, one of the team members who made the discovery: “This is not your father’s universe.” (In October, members of both teams were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.)

Physicists have named the energy associated with this cosmological force dark energy. No one knows what it is. Not only invisible, dark energy apparently hides out in empty space. Yet, based on our observations of the accelerating rate of expansion, dark energy constitutes a whopping three quarters of the total energy of the universe. It is the invisible elephant in the room of science.

The amount of dark energy, or more precisely the amount of dark energy in every cubic centimeter of space, has been calculated to be about one hundred-millionth (10–8) of an erg per cubic centimeter. (For comparison, a penny dropped from waist-high hits the floor with an energy of about three hundred thousand—that is, 3 × 105—ergs.) This may not seem like much, but it adds up in the vast volumes of outer space. Astronomers were able to determine this number by measuring the rate of expansion of the universe at different epochs—if the universe is accelerating, then its rate of expansion was slower in the past. From the amount of acceleration, astronomers can calculate the amount of dark energy in the universe.

Theoretical physicists have several hypotheses about the identity of dark energy. It may be the energy of ghostly subatomic particles that can briefly appear out of nothing before self­annihilating and slipping back into the vacuum. According to quantum physics, empty space is a pandemonium of subatomic particles rushing about and then vanishing before they can be seen. Dark energy may also be associated with an as-yet-unobserved force field called the Higgs field, which is sometimes invoked to explain why certain kinds of matter have mass. (Theoretical physicists ponder things that other people do not.) And in the models proposed by string theory, dark energy may be associated with the way in which extra dimensions of space—beyond the usual length, width, and breadth—get compressed down to sizes much smaller than atoms, so that we do not notice them.

These various hypotheses give a fantastically large range for the theoretically possible amounts of dark energy in a universe, from something like 10115 ergs per cubic centimeter to –10115 ergs per cubic centimeter. (A negative value for dark energy would mean that it acts to decelerate the universe, in contrast to what is observed.) Thus, in absolute magnitude, the amount of dark energy actually present in our universe is either very, very small or very, very large compared with what it could be. This fact alone is surprising. If the theoretically possible positive values for dark energy were marked out on a ruler stretching from here to the sun, with zero at one end of the ruler and 10115 ergs per cubic centimeter at the other end, the value of dark energy actually found in our universe (10–8 ergs per cubic centimeter) would be closer to the zero end than the width of an atom.

On one thing most physicists agree: If the amount of dark energy in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, then life could never have emerged. A little more and the universe would accelerate so rapidly that the matter in the young cosmos could never pull itself together to form stars and thence form the complex atoms made in stars. And, going into negative values of dark energy, a little less and the universe would decelerate so rapidly that it would recollapse before there was time to form even the simplest atoms.

Here we have a clear example of fine-tuning: out of all the possible amounts of dark energy that our universe might have, the actual amount lies in the tiny sliver of the range that allows life. There is little argument on this point. It does not depend on assumptions about whether we need liquid water for life or oxygen or particular biochemistries. As before, one is compelled to ask the question: Why does such fine-tuning occur? And the answer many physicists now believe: The multiverse. A vast number of universes may exist, with many different values of the amount of dark energy. Our particular universe is one of the universes with a small value, permitting the emergence of life. We are here, so our universe must be such a universe. We are an accident. From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life. But then again, if we had not drawn such a ticket, we would not be here to ponder the odds.

is a physicist and novelist who teaches at MIT. His novel <em>Mr g: A Novel About the Creation</em> was published in January 2012 by Pantheon.

More from Alan Lightman:

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