Dark Shadows

Change-me Charlie’s still badgering Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt about “Dark Stuff,” though he’s switched his target from dark matter to dark energy. “OK, the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. How does dark energy do that?”

Jim steps up to bat. “At this point dark energy’s just a name. We frankly have no idea what the name represents, although it seems appropriate.”

“Why’s that?”

“Gravity pulls things together, right, and we have evidence that galaxies are flying away from each other. When you pick something up your muscles give it gravitational potential energy that becomes kinetic energy when you let go and it drops. In space, a galaxy moving away from its neighbors gains gravitational potential energy relative to them. If the Energy Conservation Law holds, that energy has to come from somewhere. ‘Dark energy’ is what we call the somewhere, but naming something and understanding it are two different things.”

Newt chips in. “Einstein came at it from a different direction. His General Relativity field equations contained two numbers for observation to fill in — G, Newton’s gravitational constant, and lambda (Λ), which we now call the Cosmological Constant. Lambda measures the energy density of empty space. The equations say the balance between lambda and gravity controls whether the Universe expands, contracts or stays static. Lambda‘s just a little bit positive so the universe is expanding.”

“Same conclusion, different name. Neither one says where the energy comes from.”

That’s my cue. “True, but Einstein’s work goes deeper. Newtonian physics maps the Universe onto a stable grid of straight lines. In General Relativity those lines are deformed and twisted under the influence of massive objects. Vinnie and I talked about how gravity’s a fictitious force arising from that deformation. Like John Wheeler said, ‘Mass tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass how to move.’ Anyway, when you throw dark energy’s lambda into the mix, the grid lines themselves go into motion. Dark energy torques the spacetime fabric that pulls galaxies together.”

“So dark energy pulls things apart by spreading out the grid they’re built on? If that’s so how come I’m still in one piece?”

“Nothing personal, but you’re too small and dense to notice. So am I, so is the Earth.”

“Why should that make a difference?”

“Time for a thought experiment. Think of the Sun. The atoms inside its surface are trying to get out, right? What’s holding them in?”

“The Sun’s gravity.”

“Just like pressure on the skin of a balloon. In either case, as long as things are stable the pressure on an enclosing real or mathematical surface rises and falls with the amount of enclosed energy density and it doesn’t matter which we talk about. Energy density’s easier to think about. With me so far?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s run a few horseback numbers on Old Reliable here. Start with protons and neutrons trying to leave an atomic nucleus. Here’s the total binding energy of an iron-56 nucleus divided by its volume…”

“… so the nuclear particles would fly apart except for the inward pressure exerted by the nuclear forces. Now we’ll go up a level and consider electrons trying to leave a helium atom. They’re held in by the electromagnetic force…”

“Still a lot of inward pressure but less than nuclear by fifty-five powers of ten. Gravity next. That’s what keeps us from flying off into space. I’ll use Earth’s escape velocity to cheat-quantify it…”

“Ten billion times weaker than the electromagnetism that holds our atoms and molecules together. Dark energy’s mass density is estimated to be about 10-27 kilograms per cubic meter. I’ll use that and Einstein’s E=mc2to calculate its pull-us-apart pressure.”

“A quintillion times weaker still.”

“So what you’re saying is, dark energy tries to pull everything apart by stretching out that spacetime grid, but it’s too weak to actually do anything to stuff that’s held together by gravity, electromagnetism or the two nuclear forces.”

“Mostly. Nuclear forces are short-range so distance doesn’t matter. Gravity and electromagnetism get weaker with the square of the distance. Dark energy only gets competitive working on objects that are separated much further than even neighboring galaxies. You’re not gonna get pulled apart.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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