Is Dark Energy Bad for Astronomy?

NASA / ESA / S. Beckwith / STSci / HUDF Team
In 2007 Simon White (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Germany) wrote a controversial paper (see arxiv.org/abs/0704.2291) titled “Fundamentalist Physics: Why Dark Energy Is Bad for Astronomy.” White argued that the pursuit of dark energy could fail to produce significant progress, while draining precious resources from traditional astronomical research. He also argued that dark energy is really a problem for particle physics, and astronomers and physicists represent two different cultures that use different methodologies to address scientific questions. “By uncritically adopting the values of an alien system,” he wrote, “astronomers risk undermining the foundations of their current success and endangering the future vitality of their field.”

Physicist Rocky Kolb (University of Chicago) countered with a paper (click here to download) arguing that the two disciplines are “bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken,” and that collaborations between astronomers and particle physicists have proved to be mutually beneficial in humanity’s quest to understand the origin and evolution of the universe.

Let us know what you think in the Comments box below.

Also, please check out the podcast interview with Richard Panek, author of "Going Over the Dark Side" in the February 2009 Sky & Telescope.

19 thoughts on “Is Dark Energy Bad for Astronomy?

  1. Vincent Cook

    Dark energy is indeed bad for astronomy, though not exactly for the reasons spelled out by Simon White. The real issue is that the big bang cosmology now has to invoke a number of unfalsifiable hypothetical entities (dark energy, dark matter, inflatons) in order to maintain any consistency with the data, in addition to its traditional affirmation of an inexplicable acausal singularity in spacetime. Neither astronomers nor particle physicists can be reasonably expected to shoulder the burden of finding undetectable forms of matter or energy. One might as well ask them to look for invisible elves.

    There is at least one alternative cosmology, the plasma redshift proposed by Ari Brynjolfsson (http://arxiv.org/astro-ph/0401420), that can account for the redshift/SNe Ia luminosity data (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602500) without any exotic assumptions. In Brynjolfsson’s cosmology, the universe is not expanding, and there is no time dilation affecting supernova light curves.

    The only “new physics” involved with his redshift mechanism is to include an electron-electron collision term in an otherwise standard quantum derivation of photon-electron plasma interaction cross-sections. The excess dimming at high redshifts is simply a consequence of the Compton scattering that accompanies the redshifting mechanism in the hot, sparse electron plasmas that fill intergalactic space.

  2. Michael Teter

    Simon White is worried that dark energy research will not produce significant progress and that it will drain resources from traditional astronomical research. Over 99% of all research in the physical sciences fails to produce
    significant progress. This is one of the reasons that Einstein said that research was “One percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration.” The one percent that does produce
    results keeps the rest going. Any theoretical physicist knows that he gets 100 bad ideas for every good one, but working out the bad ones give clues to the eventual proper solution.
    Working on any problem that MIGHT give clues to the origin and future history of the universe in never a bad idea. Simon reminds me of the old buggy drivers who were fearful of the horseless carriage because if enough people bought them, it would become more and more difficult to purchase horse feed.

  3. Ralph M

    The danger with everyone looking for dark energy is whether the is anyone left to look for other explanations. Those other explanations might turn out to be more accurate than the currently accepted cosmological and quantum models. Although I find this field intensely interesting, I admit I am just a casual observer without any special knowledge of quantum theory and cosmology. As an outside observer it is little unsettling to see such uniformity of thought about particles, engery, and matter that have never been observed and can only be explained with ever increasingly complex interactions with other particles, engery, and matter that have never been observed. If there is no one left to check the assumptions by looking for other explanations we may just miss the truth. And that would be bad for science, not just astonomy.

  4. Ralph M

    The danger with everyone looking for dark energy is whether the is anyone left to look for other explanations. Those other explanations might turn out to be more accurate than the currently accepted cosmological and quantum models. Although I find this field intensely interesting, I admit I am just a casual observer without any special knowledge of quantum theory and cosmology. As an outside observer it is little unsettling to see such uniformity of thought about particles, engery, and matter that have never been observed and can only be explained with ever increasingly complex interactions with other particles, engery, and matter that have never been observed. If there is no one left to check the assumptions by looking for other explanations we may just miss the truth. And that would be bad for science, not just astonomy.

  5. Steven Sherman

    I keep reading that Dark Energy has been found, along with
    Dark Matter. Do you expect to see something beyond what you can see of say the strong force or nuclear force?

  6. J JOHNSON

    There are other serious and thoughtful explanations regarding how our universe works. They may or may not be wrong, in the long run, but no one in the (vested) cosmological and astronomical communities seems willing to be open-minded enough to consider alternate explanations or hypotheses to their current Standard Model. Sky and Telescope should at least point out that there are these other theories, usually by intelligent professionals who are also trying to present falsifiable hypotheses based on observation. As someone interested in the scientific method as a means to better understanding how all this works, I like seeing other ideas, not the same old edifice with weirder and weirder explanations. It IS a difficult subject. There ARE arguably different approaches, some of which may be laughable or easy to disprove, and a few which may have a real handle that would revolutionize astrophysics and physics in general if they were allowed to be vetted at all. In particular my readings in Terry Witt’s “Our Undiscovered Universe”, the plasma cosmology explanations regarding plasmas and electric currents in space, and recent books by Lee Smolin, Peter Woit and other writers with viewpoints and critiques that differ from the Standard Model. I would urge readers to do some independent and critical thinking and reading before swallowing things whole. That includes the different ideas as well as the established ones, of course, to be impartial about it. -But at least broaden your thinking to include alternatives. They aren’t that hard to find, and it is always exciting to think that there might be useful and testable answers in there.

  7. Bill Copeland

    Hubble never interpreted his redshift results as an expanding universe. He reported the facts as a good observational astronomer, but subsequent astronomers could not imagine any other explanation than a redshift caused by distant stars and galaxies moving away from the earth! They proceeded extrapolate the motion back to say that the universe is expanding due to Big Bang. Way too many modifications are required to the basic Cosmic Explosion theory to make it work. They had to invent inflation, dark matter, dark energy, interpretation of CMB an echo of the Big, and mind-twisting mathematical rationalizations. They got lost in the weeds.
    The alternative is to go to the prime vehicle of our information about the universe: re-examine light. What satisfies the criteria for Occam’s Razor? Does light have to do work to penetrate long distances in space? Traveling for light years, is the photon-wave losing energy as it weaves through the complex network of gravitational fields, the random undulations of the quantum cosmic soup, or hot plasma? An idea of the plasma redshift developed initially from the careful observations of Halton Arp, and gained momentum via the work of many scientists and observational astronomers, from Hannes Alfven, to Ari Brynjolfsson, to Paul Marmet. This is a very fertile area of study for young students of astronomy.

  8. Bob Stokesberry

    I don’t disagree with Michael Teter’s comments above – however, the actual quote is “Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration” and it is credited to Edison rather than Einstein.

  9. Ian Fisk

    See this review of “Our Undiscovered Universe” by Terence Witt from a professional physicist (Benjamin Monreal):
    http://web.mit.edu/~bmonreal/www/Null_Physics_Review.html

    Also see my review at http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~fiski/ouu_review.html
    The flaws of this crackpot book are many and include:
    Redefining the concept of infinity as a length with magnitude.
    Defining a line as a series of points written as zeros and separated by plus signs, treating them as numbers so that they add up to zero and then treating the number zero as a point again!
    A really bad atomic model “proving” that a electron orbiting a proton has a ground state that it cannot decay from by creating a new physical law.
    Using the high school description of a neutron as a proton plus an electron and not realizing that this is just his atomic model!
    Postulating that galaxies have “galactic cores” which are super massive objects that are not quite black holes and not realizing that the centre of the Milky Way is well observed. These recycle stars into hydrogen. Oddly enough astronomers have not noticed dozens of stars vanishing from the galactic centre in the many images that they have taken over the last few decades.

    Conclusion: Bad mathematics and even worse physics.

  10. Anonymous

    The poster does not realize that Occams Razor is a way to pick one of 2 theories that predict exactly the same thing. Just because Big Bang theory is complex does not make it wrong by Occams Razor. You need a simpler theory that gives the same predictions to compare the Big Bang with. There is no such theory.

    Also: Dark matter and energy are not “inventions”. They are placeholder terms for physically observed phenomena.

  11. Stanley Martens & Stephen Pink

    If there is a cosmological constant, then there is no “dark energy” problem. One can follow the follow the 1917 Einstein and regard the cosmological constant simply as part of a term which, when added to the field equations, does not destroy general covariance. On this view, the cosmological constant is just a part of how gravity works. It is just a brute fact that gravity has both an attractive aspect and a repulsive aspect; the repulsive aspect only becomes significant at large distances. Spacetime is curved in the absence of any matter or energy. You only have a “dark energy” problem if you absorb the cosmological term into the stress-energy tensor of the field equations, thus resulting in the fiction of some kind of stuff which has constant density over time and constant negative pressure over time.

  12. Michael Gaspar

    It seems that the hypothesis of an accelerating universe, hence the need to invoke dark energy as the driver, rests mainly on observations of Type 1A supernovae. The observations are robust but must be interpreted with reliance on assumptions that are always open to challenge. For instance, what if distance calculations have been confounded by some unknown effect (? photon decay) which diminishes light flux as a function of distance over and above the inverse square law? It seems a stretch but is at least conceivable. My main point is that astronomers must be tasked with pursuing different lines of evidence to support the idea of an accelerating universe lest the particle physicists discover too late that “dark energy” has been bad for their field.

  13. alberto

    Yesterday I read the complete article. I want to congratulate with the author and with the editor, because it explains in simple words a very complex concept. I am not an expert, but I think that all new discoveries are important: few years ago we thought to have understood the universe, now it is clear that either we know only 4% of the universe, or that there was a significant misunderstanding of red shift reading. In both the cases astronomy, the oldest science, will continue to be an open field for other generations of astronomers…

  14. Michael Turner

    Assuming the increase in acceleration of the universe is true and assuming the universe also has a fairly flat appearence. Then the answer is quite simple. Our current assumed understanding of the force and nature of gravitation is incorrect. The logical deduced understanding of gravitation that explains the nature of an increasing and flattening universe is that gravitation is not an attracting force but a synchronizing force from a generated wave, generated from the decay of all magnetic field. It is the essence of time and space and explains relativity and dark matter and inflation too. In summary, all potential energies decay into a monopole wave field and the wave field interactions create relative time, space and gravity.
    Hope you are ready for the understanding of dark energy and it is GOOD!

  15. Michael Turner

    If gravity is an aligning force generated by a decay of magnetic fields of all quanta of matter and energy, then the initial force left over frpm the big bang has no gravitational attraction and is constant as the mass we measure to understand the nature of the universe is decreasing and since Force= Mass x Acceleration and the force is constant as the mass is decreasing then the acceleration is increasing proportionally.

  16. Jim Fraser

    Has anyone ever applied a tool such as the Hughes constant to help determine (or perhaps balance is a better word) the surface area:mass ratio in the universe? This may be important, especially in the zones around objects/systems.

  17. Altair

    Given about 70% of the whole universe’s matter is dark energy, we could describe the universe state with its energy within about 70% certainty.So you assume the universe to be a system of void whose radius is 13.7 billion light year across and whose pressure increases at the rate of the expansion acceralation. Also you assume that its internal energy is equal to that of total dark energy with the present temperature to be 2.3 Kelvin.

  18. Keith

    It was astronomers that first identified the problem or anomaly. I think because of the grand mystery of this problem there shouldn’t be limits place on it. It seems to me that astronomers (or astrophyicists) can take the lead in possibly placing constraints on what dark energy, or’ w’ is.

  19. Phyllis S.

    Dark energy and dark matter are just inventions of the human mind to account for discrepancies in the most prominent cosmological theories. Nobody wants to tear down the most venerable theories of astronomy, so budding scientists have resorted to filling in the gaps with entities that no one can observe or explain – like dark matter and dark energy, cosmological constants and quintessence. They even go so far as to say that such things make up 96% of our universe, and hold fast to quantum field theory even though it predicts a cosmological constant 120 times greater than observed. We don’t live in a science fiction movie. It’s time to stop pretending.

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