Only recently discovered and still under much dispute, dark energy has proven baffling to physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers alike.
In a talk Tuesday evening as a part of a monthly series of introductory astrophysics seminars, Christopher W. Stubbs, a professor of physics and astronomy, provided insight into the nebulous concept dubbed “dark energy,” the cause of the universe’s expansion.
“One of the points I really want to make for you this evening is that you are right now, right this second, living through an intellectual revolution every bit as important as the advent of quantum mechanics,” said Stubbs. “When we finally understand [dark energy], it will completely change the way we think about physics.”
To contextualize the problem, Stubbs explained that the “vacuum of space” where dark energy functions is often mischaracterized as “nothingness.” It is, in fact, “a highly complicated, seething foam of processes.” Dark energy is the force that drives these processes.
Originally, theories miscalculated the “energetic content of the vacuum,” or the energy produced by these processes. The initial estimate, 10 to the 120th power, was, in Stubbs’s words, “the wrongest calculation in all of physics.”
Unsatisfied with this theory, Stubbs and his colleagues decided that the only way to determine the real answer was to directly measure it.
Stubbs came up with what he said seemed like a rather arbitrary number: 0.7. In response to people’s confusion, Stubbs stated, “The fact that this number is not 10 to the 120 power and also not 0...has thrown everyone for a loop.”
Students said they were intrigued by the lecture and its controversial yet captivating content, as well as the chance to discuss such a pivotal discovery with such a preeminent scholar.
“I felt that this talk was a great, intimate event,” said Nina L. Hooper ’16. “It was great being so close to someone who had a significant impact on his field and hearing from him how it all works in fairly basic terms.”
Indeed, Stubbs emphasized his belief that these discoveries should not be limited to technical jargon.
“I think these issues go to the heart of a long standing craving for humans to understand our place in the universe and understand how it’s all going to turn out,” Stubbs said. “We’re just lucky to be the ambassadors who get to go and worry about it full time.”