Newton said it best, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” and, ironically, it is indeed his shoulders upon which we first climb.
In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist ever, established 3 fundamental laws. The first law, translated as literally as possible from its original Latin form, states:
“Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or uniform motion in a straight line, except insofar as that state is compelled to change by forces impressed”.
For well over the next 2 centuries this law would set out the framework governing the motions of all heavenly bodies and provide the foundation for the underlying universal force we know as gravity.
It was not until 1916, when Albert Einstein published his ‘General Theory of Relativity’, that the stability of Newton’s work was shaken to its core. Amongst a number of implications, Einstein’s theory introduced the concept of curved space. Since that time Scientists have been debating as to whether the universe's 'curve' is positive, negative or.... flat.
Then, in 1929, Edwin Hubble captured our imagination when, via observations through the eyepiece of the Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory, he determined the universe was expanding. Galaxies and quasars were all moving at great speeds away from one another. The farther out he looked the faster things appeared to be moving. And we all knew, by intuition, that even though moving apart the speeds were decreasing and would inevitably reverse leading to the Big Crunch.
Imagine the surprise when seventy years later two independent groups consisting of 3 astrophysicists, Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter, and Brian Schmidt shocked the scientific world with their discovery that Hubble’s noted expansion was not slowing down but rather accelerating. Henceforth was born the undetectable but necessary force required to propel matter apart called Dark Energy.
On the 4th of October 2011 the Nobel prize was awarded to Riess, Perimutter and Schmidt for their discovery. Many of those who followed this story, since their 1998 epiphany might condense the trio’s discovery down to those two words. Dark Energy. However, this supposed force of nature has never been measured, let alone detected.
Following their win Riess stated:
“Now, that (the accelerating expansion) seems to be the smoking gun of dark energy, but we still don't understand what dark energy is or even - there's the outside possibility that we don't quite understand the laws of gravity and that there really isn't this dark energy. So the fact that we see the universe accelerating is really the tip-off that something interesting is going on, either on the gravity side or the content side of the universe”.
But why entertain the idea of dark energy if there is an alternative plausible model of our universe. The reason to date: as far distant as we can see, the universe appears to be homogeneous and isotropic, meaning unlike wood, for example, it has no ‘grain’ and unlike a tree, it has no root or crown. Specifically, measurements of the background microwave radiation, an energy remnant from the initial big bang, show a grain-less universe that appears to have no top or bottom.
However, we do know that something very strange is going on. It may be that we just need to step back and rethink both gravity and the framework in which operates. Perhaps things will turn out not to be that strange after all. Perhaps the universe is only homogeneous and isotropic throughout a finite portion, albeit a large portion and one within which we are observably confined. And perhaps, dare it be said, there is no dark energy. Indeed, if we look beyond the horizon... the first decade of the second millennium may well be remembered as the decade for which science reverted, momentarily, to black magic.