The cosmological constant has its humble beginnings with Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. In 1915, after a decade of working on some unsolved issues regarding gravity, Einstein completed the theory of general relativity. Today, this is still the best theory we have for describing how gravity works at large scales. Nevertheless, 2 years later (in 1917) Einstein made a small adjustment to the equations of general relativity. He introduced a term called the cosmological constant, which represented a repulsive force to counteract the attractive force of gravity.
Einstein realized that general relativity would require the universe to either be expanding or contracting, however, the belief at the time was that the universe was essentially static and eternal. Because gravity causes large structures to attract each other, logic would deduce that the universe as a whole should be contracting. But this was neither observed nor part of conventional thinking. The cosmological constant, a repulsive force with just the right value, allowed the universe to remain static. Although the cosmological constant was present in all of space, Einstein provided little details concerning what this mysterious force actually was.
Einstein’s Greatest Blunder
In 1929, Edwin Hubble carefully studied light from distant galaxies. He calculated the distance of the galaxies by examining the luminosity of a specific type of star, known as a Cepheid variable. The light from a Cepheid displayed a distinct pulsating pattern, which could be used as a distant indicator.
Hubble expanded on the work of astronomer Vesto Slipher, who was the first to observe the redshift of distant galaxies (although they were called spiral nebula at the time, because it was not yet known that other galaxies existed beyond our Milky Way). The redshift meant that incoming light waves were stretched, indicating that the observed light was moving away. This provided evidence that the galaxies were moving away from the earth. And even more significant, Hubble found that all galaxies were also moving away from each other.
Hubble’s observations confirmed that the universe was expanding. Upon learning the news, Einstein went back to his equations and removed the cosmological constant, as it was no longer needed to maintain the former belief of a static universe. It has been reported that Einstein called the cosmological constant his “greatest blunder.” Despite Einstein’s claim, the cosmological constant would resurface many decades later, but it came as an unexpected turn of events.
The Universe is Accelerating
As of 1998 the expansion rate of the universe over cosmic time was still unknown. Either the universe would continue to expand forever, or the gravitational effects of galaxies would cause the expansion to slow down and perhaps stop. If at some time the expansion did stop, then it would stand to reason that gravity would cause the universe to collapse. This would lead to something like the opposite of a big bang (a big crunch).
The rate of expansion will determine the future fate of the universe. But how can one determine the expansion rates at different time periods? How can we know how the current expansion rate compares with past rates? Fortunately, the universe is extremely large and extremely old. Light from faraway galaxies can take millions and billions of years to reach the earth. This allows astronomers to go back in time and examine galaxies as they were in the past. The light we see now was emitted many years ago; these stars and galaxies appear as they once were.
Two international teams, one lead by Saul Perlmutter, the other by Brian Schmidt, set out to determine the expansion rate over cosmic time. They applied some creative methods based on a specific type of exploding star, called a Type Ia supernova. At the end of their lives these particular stars explode in a consistent pattern, which signal an intrinsic brightness. The astronomers determined a star’s distance from earth using the information from a Type Ia supernova. Then they calculated the redshift of the star’s host galaxy, and made the calculations with a number of galaxies at various times in the past.
The two teams eventually arrived at the same conclusion. The galaxies are currently receding faster than they were in the distant past; the universe is accelerating! This was an unexpected result, as it was mostly assumed that the expansion was slowing down over time (due to the attractive force of gravity).
The Return of the Cosmological Constant
If gravity is an attractive force, then what could be causing the universe to speed up. Enter the cosmological constant or its reincarnation, dark energy. Einstein’s hypothesis of a repulsive force that was counteracting gravity may not have been far off base (though his reason for introducing it was misguided). An unknown form of energy in empty space seems to be responsible for the acceleration of the universe. It has been dubbed dark energy because it does not emit light, but it could also be a term that points to the mysterious nature of this type of energy. Dark energy does, however, make up 70% of the total energy of the universe. Remarkably, this has been calculated and it seems to describe the universe we live in.
One more point of note: Since dark energy/cosmological constant is presumed to occupy all of space, its overall influence increases as space expands. Therefore in the distant past, when the universe was more condensed (relatively speaking) attractive gravity was dominant. The expansion of the universe slowed down at some point. However, as space swelled and galaxies moved farther apart, the dark energy caught up and then surpassed gravity as the dominant force. The tables turned, causing the universe to speed up.
Current evidence supports a cosmic story in which the universe will continue to expand practically forever. Galaxy clusters, like our local group, will still be held together by normal gravity, because they contain enough matter. However, in the far future all evidence from beyond our local group will disappear. The universe will be comprised of a bunch of island universes.
References: Mysteries of a Dark Universe: Uploaded on Oct. 31, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUpWCRadIIA
Brian R. Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).