A Tantalizing ‘Hint’ That Astronomers Got Dark Energy All Wrong

On Thursday, astronomers who are conducting what they describe as the biggest and most precise survey yet of the history of the universe announced that they might have discovered a major flaw in their understanding of dark energy, the mysterious force that is speeding up the expansion of the cosmos.

Dark energy was assumed to be a constant force in the universe, both currently and throughout cosmic history. But the new data suggest that it may be more changeable, growing stronger or weaker over time, reversing or even fading away.

“As Biden would say, it’s a B.F.D.,” said Adam Riess, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with two other astronomers for the discovery of dark energy, but was not involved in this new study. “It may be the first real clue we have gotten about the nature of dark energy in 25 years,” he said.

That conclusion, if confirmed, could liberate astronomers — and the rest of us — from a longstanding, grim prediction about the ultimate fate of the universe. If the work of dark energy were constant over time, it would eventually push all the stars and galaxies so far apart that even atoms would be torn asunder, sapping the universe of all life, light, energy and thought, and condemning it to an everlasting case of the cosmic blahs. Instead, it seems, dark energy is capable of changing course and pointing the cosmos toward a richer future.

The key words are “might” and “could.” The new finding has about a one-in-400 chance of being a statistical fluke, a degree of uncertainty called three sigma, which is far short of the gold standard for a discovery, called five sigma: one chance in 1.7 million. In the history of physics, even five-sigma events have evaporated when more data or better interpretations of the data emerged.

This news comes in the first progress report, published as a series of papers, by a large international collaboration called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, or DESI. The group has just begun a five-year effort to create a three-dimensional map of the positions and velocities of 40 million galaxies across 11 billion years of cosmic time. It’s initial map, based on the first year of observations, includes just six million galaxies. The results were released today at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Sacramento, Calif., and at the Rencontres de Moriond conference in Italy.

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