"Dark energy" dominates the universe

by Sue Knapp Sue.Knapp@dartmouth.edu of Dartmouth College

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HANOVER, NH - A Dartmouth researcher is building a case for a "dark energy"-dominated universe. Dark energy, the mysterious energy with unusual anti-gravitational properties, has been the subject of great debate among cosmologists.

Brian Chaboyer, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, with his collaborator Lawrence Krauss, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, have reported their finding in the January 3, 2003, issue of Science. Combining their calculations of the ages of the oldest stars with measurements of the expansion rate and geometry of the universe lead them to conclude that dark energy dominates the energy density of the universe.

"This finding provides strong support for a universe which is dominated by a kind of energy we've never directly observed," says Chaboyer. "Observations of distant supernova have suggested for a few years that dark energy dominates the universe, and our finding provides independent evidence that the universe is dominated by this type of energy we do not understand."

The researchers came to this conclusion as they were refining their calculations for the age of globular clusters, which are groups of about 100,000 or more stars found in the outskirts of the Milky Way, our galaxy. Because this age (about 12 billion years old) is inconsistent with the expansion age for a flat universe (only about 9 billion years old), Krauss and Chaboyer came to the conclusion that the universe is expanding more quickly now than it did in the past.

The only explanation, according to Chaboyer and Krauss, for an accelerating universe is that the energy content of a vacuum is non-zero with a negative pressure, in other words, dark energy. This negative pressure of the vacuum grows in importance as the universe expands and causes the expansion to accelerate.