The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics last Tuesday to three astronomers from the U.S. and Australia for their work demonstrating that a mysterious force, which physicists have named dark energy, is causing galaxies to speed apart from each other and may eventually destroy the universe.Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, shared the Nobel Prize after leading two teams that independently found that dark energy is propelling the expansion of the universe at ever-increasing speeds.
It was as if, when you tossed your car keys in the air, instead of coming down, they flew faster and faster to the ceiling, a report in The New York Times describing the groups' findings read.
These astronomers began studying the light cast off by exploding stars, or supernovae, in the late 1990s in an attempt to measure the rate at which the universe's expansion was slowing down since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Instead, they discovered that the universe continues to expand exponentially throughout time, a finding that has amazed and baffled many physicists.Subsequent research by scientists has indicated that about 70 percent of the universe is comprised of an anti-gravitational force called dark energy that pushes matter, such as planets, stars and galaxies outward. Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt now hypothesize that galaxies will ultimately become so distant from one another that all energy will disappear from the universe.
Charles Nelson, a professor of applied physics and astronomy at Binghamton University, said dark energy is not well understood by physicists because current satellites and telescopes are inadequate to study it properly. He said that telescopes built within the next decade may begin to provide answers.The universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, but the discovery that it is continuing to increase in size can potentially change how we view things," Nelson said.David Rios, a freshman majoring in bioengineering who is enrolled in "PHYS 131: Gen. Physics I, said he was intrigued to see "how the discipline of physics will progress now due to this finding.
NASA has been working to build its James Webb Space Telescope, which is intended to take the place of the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth. However, the telescope's launch is still years away and plans for its development have become bogged down in political battles related to its budget.The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced it will launch a satellite to study dark energy in 2019.Jenn Serigano, a senior majoring in physics, said that these findings show that physicists' understanding of the universe is always evolving.
"As physicists, we use the speed of light as an important constant in our quantum theories. That aspects of the theory of the speed of light are being put into question is what makes physics so exciting," Serigano said.Research like this is so valuable because it challenges old theories and produces new ideas the universe is always expanding and there is still so much we don't understand yet, but we are learning more all the time. The magnificence of the universe would be sorely underappreciated if it were so easily figured out.