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What Illuminated Dark Energy?

Brian Schmidt

Prof Brian Schmidt’s discovery solved three major problems in astrophysics. Credit: Belinda Pratten

By Tamara Davis

Science rarely overturns existing paradigms, so why was the astonishing announcement that a mysterious “dark energy” was accelerating the expansion of the universe so quickly accepted by cosmologists?

Tamara Davis is a Research Fellow with the University of Queensland’s School of Mathematics and Physics.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Reporting of scientific discoveries usually emphasises the surprises, the awe, the overturning of previous “knowledge”, and the whiz kids showing that commonly held wisdom is wrong. That’s no wonder, because the plodding progress of incremental improvements with frequent missteps but steady growth hardly makes exciting news, even though it’s the more common route to success. In science, just as in music, the “overnight success” of enormous breakthroughs pretty much always rides on the back of years of training and hard work.

That’s certainly true in astrophysics, and certainly true for “dark energy” research, which is my specialty. Dark energy is the name we give to the unknown cause of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. The 1998 discovery that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, when everything we thought we knew about gravity told us that it should be slowing down, was definitely a surprise and rightfully evokes awe. It looks as though dark energy, whatever it is, makes up about 73% of the universe, and discovering that was certainly a shock to the researchers involved.

It seems an outrageous claim, really. We discover an unexpected result, give it a name beginning with “dark”, and claim to have found that most of the energy in the universe comes in that form and has some sort of antigravity. Nuts.

However nuts it may seem...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.