The day the universe froze: New dark energy model includes cosmological phase transition

By | May 9, 2009

The day the universe froze: New dark energy model includes cosmological phase transition

Imagine a time when the entire universe froze. According to a new model for dark energy, that is essentially what happened about 11.5 billion years ago, when the universe was a quarter of the size it is today.

The model, published online May 6 in the journal Physical Review D, was developed by Research Associate Sourish Dutta and Professor of Physics Robert Scherrer at Vanderbilt University, working with Professor of Physics Stephen Hsu and graduate student David Reeb at the University of Oregon.

A cosmological phase transition – similar to freezing – is one of the distinctive aspects of this latest effort to account for dark energy – the mysterious negative force that cosmologists now think makes up more than 70 percent of all the energy and matter in the universe and is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate.

Another feature that distinguishes the new formulation is that it makes a testable prediction regarding the expansion rate of the universe. In addition, the micro-explosions created by the largest particle colliders should excite the dark energy field and these excitations could appear as exotic, never-seen-before sub-atomic particles.

“One of the things that is very unsatisfying about many of the existing explanations for dark energy is that they are difficult to test,” says Scherrer, “We designed a model that can interact with normal matter and so has observable consequences.”

The model associates dark energy with something called vacuum energy. Like a number of existing theories, it proposes that space itself is the source of the repulsive energy that is pushing the universe apart. For many years, scientists thought that the energy of empty space averaged zero. But the discovery of quantum mechanics changed this view. According to quantum theory, empty space is filled with pairs of “virtual” particles that spontaneously pop into and out of existence too quickly to be detected.

This sub-atomic activity is a logical source for dark energy because both are spread uniformly throughout space. This distribution is consistent with evidence that the average density of dark energy has remained constant as the universe has expanded. This characteristic is in direct contrast to ordinary matter and energy, which become increasingly dilute as the universe inflates.

The theory is one of those that attribute dark energy to an entirely new field dubbed quintessence. Quintessence is comparable to other basic fields like gravity and electromagnetism, but has some unique properties. For one thing, it is the same strength throughout the universe. Another important feature is that it acts like an antigravity agent, causing objects to move away from each other instead of pulling them together like gravity. …

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