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Modern Physics 34 (2003) 559-577

Studies in History

and Philosophy

of Modern Physics

universe, unimodular gravity, and all that

John Earman*

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA

Abstract

The cosmological constant is back. Several lines of evidence point to the conclusion that

either there is a positive cosmological constant or else the universe is filled with a strange form

of matter ("quintessence") that mimics some of the effects of a positive lambda. This paper

investigates the implications of the former possibility. Two senses in which the cosmological

constant can be a constant are distinguished: the capital A sense in which lambda is a universal

constant on a par with the charge of the electron, and the lower case A sense in which lambda is

a humble constant of integration. The latter interpretation has been touted as the means to a

solution to various problems in physics. These claims are critically examined with an eye to

discerning the implications for philosophy of science and foundations of physics.

2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Einstein (1917) had two motivations for adding the cosmological term to

his gravitational field equations: the first was his desire to harmonize his general

theory of relativity (GTR) with Mach's principle; the second was to make possible

general relativistic cosmological models that are static as well as homogeneous

and isotropic-features which Einstein then thought to describe the large-scale

structure of the actual cosmos. Einstein (1931) officially abandoned the cosmological

constant after Rubble's redshift observations indicated that the universe is in

fact expanding. These observations are accommodated by Friedmann's (1922)

expanding universe solutions of Einstein's field equations without cosmological

constant. Although Einstein came to regard the cosmological constant as his

*This paper was solicited by Rob Clifton while he was Editor. It is dedicated to his memory.

E-mail address: jearman@pitt.edu (1. Earman).

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the age of the universe problem, to help with the structure formation problem, and to

explain the redshifts of QSOs.2 Inationary cosmology invokes an effective

cosmological constant to drive the (hypothesized) exponentially-fast expansion in

the very early universe. The simplest of the many versions of inationary cosmology

also require a genuine cosmological constant to make up for the difference between

the value of the density parameter favored by ination and its value as derived from

estimates of the amount of gravitating matter (including so-called dark matter) in

the universe. More recently, several lines of evidence have been pointing to either a

positive value for the cosmological constant or a stand-in for such a beast.

One line of evidence for this conclusion derives from recent measurements of the

red shifts of Type Ia supernovae indicating that the rate of expansion of the universe

is increasing (see Perlmutter et al., 1999). To t these observations to the preferred

FriedmannRobertsonWalker (FRW) cosmological models requires either a L > 0

or else a surrogate for a positive L in the guise of a strange form of matter. This is

seen to follow from two considerations. First, the symmetries of the FRW model

require that the stress-energy tensor, which serves as the source term in Einsteins

eld equations (EFE), arises from a perfect uid.3 All normally encountered forms of

matter are thought to obey what are called the weak and strong energy conditions,4

which, when applied to the stress-energy tensor for a perfect uid, require

respectively that rX0 and r 3pX0; where r and p are, respectively, the density

and pressure of the uid. Second, the application of the EFE to the FRW models

yields the following equation for scale factor a (a.k.a. the radius of the universe):5

1

1

a. r 3pa La:

6

3

either L > 0 or else r 3po0 (in violation of the strong energy condition). A

number of models with hypothetical forms of abnormal matter satisfying r 3po0

and r > 0 (a.k.a. quintessence6) have been constructed to mimic various effects of

a positive L; making a decision between a genuine cosmological constant and strange

forms of matter difcult to make with present observational technology.

1

This remark is attributed to Einstein by Gamow (1958, pp. 6667; 1970, p. 44).

For a detailed history of the ups and downs of the cosmological constant, see Earman (2001).

3

The stress-energy tensor Tmn for a perfect uid has the form Tmn r pUm Un pgmn ; where U m is the

(normed) four-velocity of the uid, r is the density, and p is the pressure. The signature of the spacetime

metric gmn is taken to be : Greek indices run from 1 to 4, and the summation convention on

repeated indices is in effect.

4

These conditions require, respectively, that for any timelike V m ; Tmn V m V n X0 and Tmn V m V n X 12T

where T : TrTmn : gmn Tmn :

5

The line element for a FRW spacetime has the form ds2 a2 t ds2 dt2 where at is the scale factor

and ds2 is the line element of a Riemann space of constant curvature in one of three forms: k 0 (at

space), k 1 (hyperbolic space), or k 1 (closed space). FRW models are treated in every standard

text on cosmology; see, for example, Roos (1994). In what follows I have suppressed units.

6

Dark energy is the term used in the literature to refer neutrally to either a positive cosmological

constant or quintessence.

2

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561

Given the many entrances and exits of the cosmological constant over the last

century, one might be somewhat skeptical about its present appearance on the

cosmological stage. But there are two things that are different about the present

episode. First, cosmology is no longer a data-starved eld with loose or non-existent

constraints on the basic parameters that characterize cosmological models. Second,

in addition to the supernovae evidence for an increasing rate of expansion of the

universe, there is an independent line of evidence for a positive L; or quintessence,

that comes from combining measurements of the cosmic microwave background

anisotropies and data from surveys of galaxy redshifts (see Efstathiou et al., 2002).

The present paper is dedicated to the proposition that, since it remains a live

possibility that the actual cosmos is characterized by a cosmological constant, it is

worth probing the nature and status of L: One cosmic implication is immediate: if a

positive lambda is the cause of the current accelerating expansion, then our universe,

which began in a big bang, will not end in a big crunch but will expand forever.7 If

that sounds reassuring, think again. A positive cosmological constant implies that

the expansion of our universe will continue to accelerate; and given the current

estimates of L; the horizon distance, which marks the furthermost extent of the

visible universe, will never increase beyond B18 billion light years for an observer

comoving with the expansion. The region within the horizon of any such observer

will eventually become increasingly empty and inhospitable to life as stars and

galaxies are carried across the observers horizon by the outward expansion (see

Krauss & Starkman, 2000). In this scenario, the universe itself is eternal, but our

progenyand the progeny of critters anything remotely like uswill not be able to

partake of this eternity.

In the present paper, I will turn from these cosmic matters to examine the

implications of the nature of the cosmological constant both for methodological

issues in the philosophy of science and for foundations of physics issues.8 The plan of

the paper is as follows. Section 2 distinguishes between two senses in which the

cosmological constant can be a constant: the capital L sense, according to which L is

a universal constant, and the lower case l sense, according to which l is the same

throughout spacetime but can have different values in different universes. Section 3

discusses the importance of this distinction for scientic explanation and for the issue

of the underdetermination of theory by empirical evidence. Section 4 examines the

relevance of the lower case l interpretation for what particle physicists call the

problem of the cosmological constant. Section 5 concerns the derivation of the

lower case l version of gravitation from an action principle. What is revealed is that

the appropriate spacetime setting for such a derivation differs from that of standard

GTR. The implications of this fact for the nature of observables and gauge principles

7

Assuming the validity of the FRW model for the actual universe. This implication is true even if we live

in a k 1 (spatially closed) FRW universe which, absent a positive cosmological constant, would

eventually recollapse to a big crunch.

8

Philosophers of science have been strangely silent about the cosmological constant. A search of

Philosophers Index for the last ten years, during which there have been dramatic observational and

theoretical advances in cosmology, does not reveal any relevant references that discuss the reappearance of

the cosmological constant.

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in general relativistic theories are discussed in Section 6, along with the prospects

that the lower case version of lambda can ameliorate the problem of time in

quantum gravity. Conclusions are presented in Section 7.

The standard EFE with cosmological constant read9

1

Rmn Rgmn Lgmn Tmn :

2

2

It is usually assumed that L is a universal constant, on a par with (say) c or the

charge of an electron. It follows from (2), the Ricci identity rm Rmn 12 Rgmn 0;

and the compatibility of covariant differentiation with the metric rm gmn 0 that

rm Tmn 0;

Although it may seem pedantic at this stage, I will rewrite (2) with a lower case l;

viz.

1

Rmn Rgmn lgmn Tmn ;

4

2

to indicate a weaker sense in which lambda can be a constant: namely, the value of l

can vary from solution to solution (in the philosophers jargon, from physically

possible world to physically possible world) but is the same throughout the

spacetime of any given solution, i.e.

rm l @m l 0:

In which sense is the cosmological constant a constant: the capital lambda sense

or the lower case lambda sense? And does it matter? Full answers to these questions

will take some explaining. But one thing is clear from the outset: the standard

derivation of the EFE (2) from an action principle presupposes the capital lambda

sense. The standard action is

L LG LM ;

Z

p

gR 2L d4 x;

LG

6a

6b

g : detgmn ; and M is the spacetime manifold. If the stress-energy tensor Tmn is

dened as the negative of the variational derivative dLM =dgmn ; variation of (6) with

respect to the metric tensor yields (2). But if L is not a universal constant, it too must

be

R varied;

p 4and the consequence of this variation of (6) is the absurd result that

g d x 0; i.e., the volume of spacetime is zero!

M

9

Rmn is the Ricci curvature tensor and R : TrRmn : gmn Rmn is the Ricci scalar.

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563

How (4) and (5) can be derived from a variational principle will be taken up below

in Section 5. For the present I want to note only that there is an obvious reason for

taking the combination of (3) and (4) seriously. Taking the trace of (4) gives

l R T=4;

where T : TrTmn : Using (7) to eliminate l from (4) produces the trace-free EFE:

1

1

Rmn Rgmn Tmn Tgmn :

8

4

4

The trace-free EFE do not entail local energy-momentum conservation (3). But if (3)

is postulated separately, then (3) and (8) together entail

rm R T 0

R T const:

(Alternatively, (3) need not be postulated separately if it follows from the equations

of motion for the matter-eld which gives rise to Tmn ; see Section 4 below for an

example.) The value of the constant in (9) can be taken, by denition, to be 4l: The

upshot is that if we start, not with the standard EFE (2) and capital lambda, but with

(4) and (5), or alternatively with (8) and (3) (or (8) and (9)), we arrive at a new

perspective on lambda: it is not a new universal constant of nature but rather a

humble constant of integration.

For a matter-eld source whose stress-energy tensor is trace-free, e.g. the

electromagnetic eld, the trace-free EFE (8) reduce to

1

Rmn Rgmn Tmn ;

10

4

which are the eld equations that Einstein considered in his 1919 paper, Do

Gravitational Fields Play an Essential Part in the Structure of Elementary Particles

of Matter? In regions where only gravitational and electromagnetic elds are

present, (7) gives R 4l: In such regions, therefore, R is a constant Ro ; and (4) can

be rewritten in the form

1

1

Rmn Rgmn Ro gmn Tmn :

40

2

4

Moreover, (10) can be rewritten as

1

1

1

100

Rmn Rgmn Ro gmn Tmn gmn R Ro :

2

4

4

The difference between (40 ) and (100 ) lies in the fact that the right hand side of (100 )

contains a term that can be interpreted as an additional stress-energy term that

represents a negative pressure R Ro inside of an electric corpuscle and a zero

pressure outside.10 Einstein suggested that this negative pressure might serve to

maintain the electrodynamic forces of a charged corpuscle in equilibrium. This

suggestion came to naught as the mysteries of the composition of matter have to be

plumbed in the quantum theory.

10

The logic of Einsteins procedure is a bit murky since (10) plus the local energy-momentum

conservation law implies that the Ricci scalar R is constant everywhere.

ARTICLE IN PRESS

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evidence

A positive value for L (or for l) signies that there is a repulsive force that tends

to counterbalance the attractive force of gravity.11 This is most easily seen

by studying the motion of a test body in the gravitational eld of a spherically

symmetric mass distribution, such as our sun. The relevant solution to the standard

EFE (2) is the exterior Schwarzschild solution, generalized to take into account the

cosmological term. In the slow motion, weak eld approximation, a test body

moving in this gravitational eld experiences a Newtonian gravitational potential of

the form

M Lr2

jNew

;

r

6

11

where M is the mass of the central body and r is the Schwarzschild radial coordinate

(see Adler, Bazin, & Schiffer, 1975, Sec. 12.2). Thus, the test body experiences, as

expected, a 1=r2 force directed towards the central body; but it also experiences a

repulsive force proportional to Lr=3: For small L; the repulsive force will have

negligible effect on the motion of planets around the central body, but at

cosmological distances, the repulsive force eventually dominates the attractive force

of the central body.

This interpretation of L is conrmed in the setting of the FRW cosmologies. In

the case of an expanding universe lled with ordinary matter, the rst term on

the right hand side of (1) represents the slowing down of the expansion rate

due to the attractive force of gravity,12 while the second term represents the speeding up of the expansion rate due to the repulsive force associated with a

positive L: For ordinary matter, the explanation of the fact that at

. > 0 traces

to the dominance at t of the repulsive force due to L over the attractive force of

gravity.

A parallel statement holds for l: But the parallel is not complete. On the upper

case interpretation of lambda, L is not a dynamical variable, so that if L > 0 in

our universe, then L > 0 in all physically possible universes, with the upshot

that there is a lawlike tendency for the rate of expansion of an expanding universe to

slow down. On the lower case interpretation of lambda, by contrast, a positive value

for l in our universe does not signify a lawlike tendency for the expansion to

de-accelerate, and as a result, the explanation of accelerating expansion has a rather

different avor. Consider how the explanation emerges from the application of the

trace-free EFE (8) to the FRW models. The application yields but a single

11

Strictly speaking, this way of talking only makes sense in the Newtonian limit. In the setting of GTR,

talk of gravitational force is out of place since test particles free falling in the gravitational eld feel no

force in that their world lines are geodesics.

12

Note that a positive pressure contributes to the de-accelerationthis is a relativistic effect absent in

the Newtonian case.

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J. Earman / Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 34 (2003) 559577

565

a 2

1

a. r pa :

2

a

The supplemental equation (9) gives

2

a.

a 2

6

2 r 3p const:

a a

12

13

Calling the constant of integration in (13) 4l; and combining (12) and (13), gives the

lower case lambda version of (1):

1

1

10

a. r 3pa la:

6

3

If matter is normal, the explanation of a. > 0 now lies in the happenstance that for

our universe the value of the integration constant l is sufciently positive. In some

other physically possible universes, similar to our universe in all other respects, the

value of the integration constant l will be sufciently different that the expansion

rate will eventually fall to zero and then turn negative, with the consequence that

such a universe ends in a big crunch instead of expanding forever.

The lower case and capital lambda interpretations are seemingly empirically

indistinguishable; without the use of a magic metaphysical rocket ship to carry us

from the actual cosmos to other physically possible cosmoi, we have no way of

telling whether the value of lambda measured in our cosmos is shared by the other

possible cosmoi. However, a more detailed examination of the case reveals an

interesting sense in which the theories embodying the capital and lower case versions

of lambda are not empirically equivalent. This is a conrmation of the suspicion

shared by some philosophers of science that genuine scientic examples of

underdetermination of theory by evidence are much rarer than the literature on

scientic realism would lead one to believe.14 Before taking up this matter, I need to

comment on an alleged virtue of the lower case version of lambda.

The lower case interpretation of lambda has been touted as a potential solution to

what particle theorists have dubbed the cosmological constant problem.15 The

problem begins with what looks like a bit of word play on the notion of vacuum

13

The standard EFE (2) yield two independent equations for the scale factor, and when combined these

equations imply (1).

14

It is admittedly not easy to give a characterization of the distinction between what is to be counted as

a genuine example of underdetermination and what is to be counted as a philosophers trick. All I can say

here is that (i) the majority of examples in the philosophical literature strike me as belonging to the latter

category, and (ii) a boundary condition on the genuine examples is that they should not be functionally

equivalent to a brain-in-a-vat or a Cartesian Demon example-otherwise, the issue of scientific realism, as

opposed to the reality of the external world, is not reached.

15

For a critical discussion of the literature on this problem, see Rugh and Zinkernagel (2002).

ARTICLE IN PRESS

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energy density. To begin the explanation, move the cosmological constant term in

L

the standard EFE (2) to the right hand side and label it as Tmn

: Lgmn to give

1

L

M

Rmn Rgmn Tmn

Tmn

;

2

14

where the superscript M has been added to the ordinary stress-energy tensor that

M

arises from matter-elds. In the case of the (classical) vacuum, Tmn

0; (14) can be

read as saying that a positive L represents a positive energy density of the vacuum.

L

More fully, Tmn

has the form of a stress-energy tensor of a perfect uid with mass

density rL L and pressure pL rL :16

Now comes the word play. If instead of energy density of the vacuum one

says vacuum energy density the ears of particle physicists prick up. According

to quantum eld theory, the quantum vacuum, rather than being a state of

nothingness, is seething with activity. That this activity may have cosmological

implications is suggested by the following line of argument. In the case of Minkowski

spacetime, the vacuum state jvacS is picked out by the requirements of Poincare!

Q

invariance and positivity of energy. The expectation value /vacjTmn

jvacS of

the stress-energy tensor associated with quantum elds is necessarily Poincare!

invariant. And as the only symmetric, second rank, Poincare! invariant tensor has

the form const: Zmn (where Zmn is the Minkowski metric), it follows that

Q

/vacjTmn

jvacS must have the form LQ Zmn of a cosmological constant term.

The trouble is that dimensional considerations lead particle theorists to expect that

LQ should have a value many tens of orders of magnitude in excess of what

observational limits would allow. Steven Weinberg (1989), who believes that crises in

physics are fruitful in provoking new physics, has promoted this problem to the level

of a crisis.

The logic of the cosmological constant problem is open to challenge at various

places. In particular, Poincare! invariance is lost in the cosmological context where

the background spacetimes are not at. Even worse, the spacetimes of standard

cosmological models are not stationarytechnically, they do not admit, even locally,

a timelike Killing vector eld17and there seems to be no natural way to single out a

preferred vacuum state when quantum eld theory is formulated on such a

background spacetime (see Wald, 1994). Nevertheless, there is at least one

circumstance in which there does appear to be a genuine problem in the

neighborhood of the cosmological constant problem.

Q

Consider the case where the stress-energy tensor of quantum elds Tmn

arises from

a scalar eld F: The stress-energy tensor of F takes the form

1

F

rm Frn F gmn ra Fra F V F;

Tmn

2

15

16

Hence, the strong energy condition is violated for this uid if L > 0: If Lo0 the weak energy condition

is violated.

17

A Killing vector eld V m is one satisfying rn V m 0: This is the necessary and sufcient condition for

the existence of a local coordinate system in which the components of the metric are independent of the

time coordinate.

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J. Earman / Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 34 (2003) 559577

567

where V F is the potential of the eld. In a regime where the eld is not changing,

(15) reduces to 12 V Fgmn ; which means that (supposing V F > 0) in this regime

LF : V F=2 functions as an effective positive cosmological constant. Thus, the

questionable condition of Poincare! invariance does not have to be invoked for a

surrogate cosmological constant to emerge. The quantum expectation value of LF ;

whether computed from some preferred vacuum state or not, must be consistent with

observational limits on lambda.

The lower case interpretation of lambda has been touted as a way of solving, or

avoiding, the cosmological constant problem (see Van der Bij, Van Dam, & Ng,

1988; Zee, 1985; Weinberg, 1989). The idea is that this reading of lambda leads to the

F

F

trace-free EFE (8), and the trace-free part Tmn

14 T F gmn of Tmn

does not contain

V F: This apparent avoidance of the problem is only partially successful since, by

themselves, the trace-free eld equations do not comprise a complete theory of

gravitation. Also needed is the local law of conservation of energy-momentum. In

the present instance, this law can be obtained as follows. The action for the scalar

eld F is

Z

1 p mn

LF

gg rm Frn F V F
d4 x:

16

2

Variation with respect to the metric yields (15). Variation with respect to F yields the

equation of motion of F:

rb rb F

dV

0;

dF

17

which is the (generalized) KleinGordon equation. Together with the trace-free EFE

and the Bianchi identity, the equation of motion of F gives the conservation law

F

rm Tmn

0: And this conservation law, in combination with the trace-free EFE, gives

the condition (9), which in the present case reads R T F 4l: The upshot is that

the trace term re-enters the picture.

But on the lower case reading of lambda, the trace term reenters in a context where

there is more exibility. Since l is not a universal constant but only a constant of

integration, it can be chosen to be equal to V F=2 for the value of F when the eld

F

is unchanging and when Tmn

gives rise to an effective cosmological constant term. In

this way the effective cosmological constant arising from the eld F is squelched by

the real l: But since l must be the same throughout spacetime, the chosen value of l

F

will manifest itself in regimes when Tmn

does not give rise to an effective cosmological

constant term. Thus, one form of the cosmological constant problem has simply

been traded for another. If there is a real problem to begin with, lower case lambda is

not a panacea.

It has become routine in physics to demand that equations of motion be derivable

from an action principle. This demand surely owes much of its allegiance to the

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desire to keep open the standard route to quantization. Another motivation comes

from the desire to connect symmetries with conservation principles; that connection

is provided by Noethers theorems, but only if an action principle is available and

only if the symmetries are variational symmetries.18 But whatever its motivation, the

derivation from an action principle of the lower case lambda version of general

relativity is the departure point for the discussion of the gauge principle obeyed by

this theory. That discussion will commence in the following section. In the present

section, I will review two approaches to the derivation of lower case lambda from an

action principle. Both approaches reveal the close connection between lower case

lambda and what is called unimodular gravity.

The rst approach aims to modify the standard action (6) in such a way that the

trace-free EFE (8) are the extrema. A crude way to achieve this aim ispto

to

restrict

to limit variations to ones that respect this condition. Since such variations satisfy

gmn dgmn 0; only the traceless part of dLG =dgmn dLM =dgmn need vanish, and the

upshot is the eld equations (8). If one is made nervous about the loss of general

covariance involved in this procedure, one can adopt the stratagem of Unruh (1989)

and Unruh and Wald (1989) for achieving formal general covariance. The idea is to

use a xed background volume element eabgd eabgd and to require that the

unimodular condition is satised when the determinant of the metric is calculated

according to g : gab ggd gmn grs eagmr ebdns ; where eabgd is determined by eabgd eabgd 4!

The local conservation law (3) is not an automatic consequence of this approach, but

typically (3) does follow when the equations of motion for the matter elds are

includedas is illustrated by the case of the scalar eld treated in the preceding

section. And from (8) and (3), Eqs. (4) and (5) can be recovered.

Although formal general covariance is satised in the UnruhWald approach, the

diffeomorphism group of the spacetime manifold M is not a variational symmetry of

the modied action since such a symmetry must preserve the absolute object

eabgd :19 However, on a compact manifold M the UnruhWald approach is equivalent

to an approach which uses an action principle that does admit the full

diffeomorphism group as a variational symmetry. (For a spacetime that is

diffeomorphically S R; for some compact three-manifold S; M can be taken to

be the compact portion of spacetime given by, say, S 0; 1 :) On a compact M the

total four-volume computed from eabgd is well-dened and is, of course, a

diffeomorphic invariant. And, in fact, the four-volume is the only diffeomorphic

invariant of a volume form on a compact manifold (Bombelli, 1991). This suggests

18

And only if the symmetries form a Lie group. Any variational symmetry is necessarily a symmetry of

the equations of motion that follow from the action principle; but the converse does not hold in general.

For a discussion of the connection between the Noether theorems and the issues taken up in this and the

following section, see Brading and Brown (2003) and Earman (2002b, 2003).

19

Philosophers of space and time use the term absolute object in a number of ways. In the present

context the distinction between dynamical objects and absolute objects is drawn in terms of what is

and what is not varied in the action principle.

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looking for an action principle that xes the volume to some constant value K:

A suitable action is

Z

Z

p 4

p 4

0

gR d x 2l

g d x K

LG

18

M

where l is now a single Lagrange multiplier independent of x (see Sorkin, 1987, 1994;

Bombelli, 1991). Variation with respect to l gives

Z

p 4

g d x K:

19

M

R p

R

The unimodular condition implies that M g d4 x M d4 x; and if the latter is

identied with K; (19) is satised.

In effect, the transition has already been made to the second approach which aims

to produce (4) and (5) directly; for variation of L0G LM with respect to gmn gives

(4), and (5) is automatic since l in (18) is not a function of x: However, the approach

using (18) has the drawback of being conned to manifolds of the form S R with

compact S; and for this reason I will ignore it in what follows. For the general case it

appears necessary to introduce some additional object elds in order that the second

approach can succeed. Henneaux and Teitelboim (1989) introduce an additional

dynamical eld in the form of a vector density Jm ; and take the gravitational action

to be

Z

p

L00G

gR 2l 2l@m Jm
d4 x:

20

M

Variation of L00G LM with respect to gmn produces (4), while variation with respect

to Jm gives (5). Finally variation with respect to l gives

p

@m Jm g:

21

The meaning of (21) is illuminated by supposing that the spacetime manifold M is

diffeomorphically S R; with S a compact three-manifold. Then integrating (21)

over the spacetime region VCM between two time slices St1 and St2 gives

Z

Z

p 4

g d x four-volume between St1 and St2 ;

@m Jm d4 x

V

Tt2 Tt1

Z

J4 d3 x:

Tt :

22

St

Kucha$r (1991). Here, four scalar elds X A X a ; X 4 ; A 1; 2; 3; 4 and a 1; 2; 3

(unimodular coordinates) are introduced, subject to the conditions that the

hypersurfaces X 4 const: are spacelike, and the reference lines X a const: are

timelike. The gravitational action is rewritten as

Z

p

* d4 x;

L000

gR 2l 2lX

23

G

M

ARTICLE IN PRESS

570

where X* given by

1

X* : dABCD XaA XbB XgC XdD dabgd ;

4!

XmE : @m X E ;

24

now gives

p

X* g;

25

p

which says that, in coordinates that coincide with the X A ; g 1; justifying the

moniker unimodular coordinates. Kucha$r (1991) shows that X* can be written as

the divergence of a vector density so that the present formalism is intertranslatable

with that of HenneauxTeitelboim.

The exercise of deriving the lower case lambda eld equations from an action

principle turns out to have an important payoff for the interpretation of the resulting

theory of gravity. What is revealedif one believes in the efcacy of action

principlesis that the proper setting for lower case lambda is not a standard general

relativistic spacetime, as characterized exclusively by a four-dimensional manifold M

and a Lorentz signature metric gmn : Rather, the proper setting is revealed to be

a general relativistic spacetime enriched by some additional structure, consisting

either of a xed background volume form eabgd or else by some additional dynamical

elds, Jm or X A : This revelation in turn raises questions about the general

covariance of the lower case version of gravity. The eld equations that are derived

from the Unruh or the HenneauxTeitelboim or the Kucha$r action principles are

all formally generally covariant in the sense that they hold in all coordinate systems.

And yet, intuitively speaking, there is some sense in which the spirit of general

covariance is violated, since the additional object elds have the effect of privileging

unimodular coordinates. Thus, the lower case interpretation of lambda and the

associated unimodular theory of gravity provide an interesting example which needs

to be taken into account in the (seemingly never ending) debate about the meaning

and status of general covariance.20 I will pursue this matter in the following section.

To lay the groundwork, note that what physicists regard as important about general

covariance is not the demand that equations be written in a form valid in

all coordinate systemsa demand that can be achieved even for Newtonian and

special relativistic theoriesbut, rather, the demand that the spacetime diffeomorphism group be the (or a subgroup of the) gauge group of the equations

of motion.21 In the Lagrangian formalism, the demand takes the form of requiring

that the equations of motion be derivable from an action principle that admits the

diffeomorphism group as a variational symmetry. This requirement rules against

formulations of unimodular gravity that use absolute background objects like eabgd

20

For a comprehensive overview of the history of this debate, see Norton (1993).

Philosophers of science are beginning to take a more active interest in gauge principles; see, for

example, the PSA 2000 symposium papers on this topic by Earman (2002a) and Martin (2002), and also

Belot (2003).

21

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J. Earman / Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 34 (2003) 559577

571

and in favor of those that use the dynamical objects Jm or X A : The implications of

diffeomorphism invariance for the ofcial account of gauge symmetries, which is

formulated in terms of the Hamiltonian formalism, will be taken up in the next

section.

When lower case lambda is situated in the enriched spacetime setting suggested

by the action principle derivation, the issue of empirical indistinguishability of

theories has to be revisited. In this new setting, the following dilemma seems to

arise: Either the additional elds needed for the derivation of the lower case version

of lambdaeabgd or Jm or X A are empirically detectable or they are not. If

they are, then theories that embody capital and lower case lambda respectively

are empirically distinguishable. If the additional elds are not detectable, then the

allegedly new spacetime setting for lower case lambda is a sham because it uses

the sleight of hand of introducing ghost variables. The second horn of this

dilemma is much too crude. In general, it is implausible to require of a physical

theory that the quantities it deems to be physically signicant must be connectable,

one by one, to observation or measurement. But even apart from this crudity,

the dilemma misses a point that is crucial in the present context. Let us agree to

use the term observable as a term of art, not to denote a quantity whose values

can be read off by direct observation, but rather to denote a genuine physical

magnitude that is supposed to correspond to a natural feature of reality and

that connects, perhaps quite indirectly, to observation and measurement. Then

it would seem that a necessary condition for a quantity to qualify as an observable

in the intended sense is that the quantity be gauge invariant. And if diffeomorphism invariance of the theory is to be treated as a gauge symmetry, then not

even scalar eldsexcept the trivial ones that are constantwill qualify as

observables.

This naturally raises the question of what the observables of such a theory are.

When the question is pursued within the Dirac formalism for constrained

Hamiltonian systems, it is found that the set of observables recognized by standard

GTR is different from the set of observables recognized by unimodular gravity.22

Moreover, the difference in the two sets of observables is signicant enough that

unimodular gravity was for a time touted as a possible solution to the problem of

time and change in canonical quantum gravity.

gravity

For theories whose equations of motion are derivable from an action principle

(and, thus, are in the form of generalized EulerLagrange equations), the standard

way to get a x on the gauge freedom of the theory is to shift from a Lagrangian to a

Hamiltonian formulation and then to apply Diracs algorithm for constrained

22

Other differences between unimodular gravity and standard GTR with L emerge in the context of

quantum cosmology; see Daughton, Louko, and Sorkin (1998).

ARTICLE IN PRESS

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itself in the Hamiltonian formulation in terms of constraints. First, the denition of

the canonical momenta in terms of derivatives of the Lagrangian density with respect

to the time rate of change of the conguration variables imposes constraints on the

momentathe primary constraints. Next, secondary constraints may emerge when it

is demanded that the primary constraints be preserved by the motion. Then tertiary

constraints may emerge as the price for preserving the secondary constraints, etc.

Eventually, after a nite number of steps, this algorithm terminates. The constraint

surface is then dened as the subspace of the Hamiltonian phase space where all the

constraints are satised. The first class constraints are identied as those that

commute with all the constraints in the sense that the Poisson bracket of any rst

class constraint with any constraint vanishes on the constraint surface (or, in the

jargon, is weakly zero). Finally, points of the constraint surface are counted as

gauge equivalentin the sense that they correspond to the same physical state of

affairsjust in case they are connected by a transformation generated by the rst

class constraints. A dynamical variablea function from the phase space to Ris

deemed to be an observable if and only if it is gauge independent in the sense that

it commutes with the rst class constraints or, equivalently, is constant along the

gauge orbits.24

When applied to standard GTR, with or without L; the Dirac procedure yields the

following verdict. The Hamiltonian phase space for GTR consists of pairs

hab y; pab y where hab is the Riemann three-metric induced on an arbitrary time

slice S by the spacetime metric, pab is the conjugate momentum, and yAS: (For

future reference, note that the spacetime metric gmn is decomposed into hab ; the shift

vector N a [which is tangent to S], and the lapse function N [which measures the

distance along an orthogonal to S] as follows: gab hab ; Na N a hab gb4 ; and

g44 Na N a N 2 :) The rst class constraints are comprised of the super-momenta

and the super-Hamiltonian constraints:

Ha y 0 Hy;

1

H : h1=2 pab pab p2 h1=2 R3 super-Hamiltonian;

2

Ha : 2pbajb super-momenta;

23

26

A key reason for seeing gauge freedom at work is to overcome the apparent failure of determinism

that results from the presence of arbitrary functions of time in solutions to the Hamiltonian equations of

motion. The apparent failure is blamed on the fact that not all the canonical variablesthe qs (the

conguration variables) and ps (the conjugate momenta)are observable ( gauge invariant). As

Henneaux and Teitelboim put it: [A]lthough the physical state is uniquely dened once the set of ps and

qs is given, the converse is not truei.e., there is more than one set of values of the canonical variables

representing a given physical state. To see how this conclusion comes about, we notice that if we give an

initial set of canonical variables at time t1 and thereby completely dene the physical state at that time, we

expect the equations to fully determine the physical state at other times. Thus, by denition any ambiguity

in the value of the canonical variables at t2 at1 should be a physically irrelevant ambiguity (1992,

pp. 1617).

24

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J. Earman / Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 34 (2003) 559577

573

where h : dethab ; R3 is the Ricci curvature scalar of the three-metric hab ; and the

vertical bar indicates covariant differentiation with respect to hab : When the

momentum

functions Ha are smeared with an arbitrary shift vector N a

R a constraint

4

(i.e., N Ha d x) they generate the gauge change in a dynamical variable F hab ; pab

that corresponds to change generated by performing an arbitrary diffeomorphism on

S: And when the Hamiltonian

constraint function H is smeared with an arbitrary

R

lapse function N (i.e., NH d4 x), it generates the gauge change in a dynamical

variable that corresponds to evolving the initial data via the equations of motion a

distance N normal to S:25

The interpretational puzzle raised by this verdict arises from the fact that

dynamical motion in standard GTR is seen as pure gauge. Put in terms of the

concept of an observable, the dynamics appear to be frozen in that a dynamical

variable F hab ; pab is an observable in the ofcial sense only if it is a constant of the

motion. This puzzle becomes a real problem when quantization is attempted along

#a

the Dirac route by promoting the constraint functions Ha and H to operators H

#

and H on a suitable Hilbert space and identifying the physical sector of this space as

the subspace spanned by the state vectors c that are annihilated by the constraints:

# a c 0 Hc:

#

H

27

The second of the equations (27) (called the WheelerDeWitt equation) is a kind of

.

degenerate Schrodinger

equation in which there is no time dependence, a feature that

is thought to pose insuperable technical and interpretational problems for the

quantum formalism (see Kucha$r, 1992).

In the case of unimodular gravity written, say, in the Kucha$r form, the verdict of

the Dirac procedure is interestingly different. The phase space is now enlarged to

X A ; PA ; hab ; pab where the PA are the momenta conjugate to X A : In standard GTR

the X A play no role in the action and are pure gauge, so the conjugate momenta

satisfy PK 0: Unimodular gravity implies the weaker constraints

& 0;

28

Pa : X A PA 0; P4 y lXy

a

where X& : det@b X a : In addition, the constraints (26) of standard GTR are

replaced by

Ha y 0 Hy lh1=2 y:

29

A non-zero value for lower case l unfreezes the dynamics because there are then

dynamical variables that commute with the new constraints (28) and (29) but do not

commute with Hy and, thus, are not constants of the motion. And Dirac

.

constraint quantization of the present formalism leads to a Schrodinger

equation in

which there is a non-trivial time dependence. This last feature led a number of

25

These remarks do not sufce to explain the precise sense in which the spacetime diffeomorphism

invariance of GTR is expressed in the Dirac constraint formalism. Isham and Kuchar (1986a, b) show that

when the Hamiltonian phase space of GTR is enlarged by appropriate embedding variables and their

conjugate momenta, there is a natural homomorphism of the Lie algebra of the diffeomorphism group

into the constraint algebra. This result justies calling the spacetime diffeomorphism group a gauge group

of GTR.

ARTICLE IN PRESS

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authors to think that unimodular gravity offers a possible solution to the problem of

time in canonical quantum gravity (see Unruh, 1989; Unruh & Wald, 1989; Brown &

York, 1989; Bombelli, 1991).

Unfortunately a detailed analysis indicates that the quantization of gravity via

Dirac constraint quantization applied to unimodular gravity is unsatisfactory (see

Kucha$r, 1991). At rst sight, unimodular gravity seems to provide a global measure

t of cosmological timenamely, t is the four-volume between a duciary

hypersurface X 4 x 0 and the embedding X A x: This measure is gauge invariant

since the change generated by (28)(29) does not affect the four-volume. However, a

value of t does not label a particular spacelike hypersurface since a given value of t

may correspond to innitely many hypersurfaces. Nor do hypersurfaces corresponding to different values of t provide a causal ordering since a hypersurface

corresponding to t1 can intersect a hypersurface corresponding to t2 at1 : Thus

t cannot set the conditions for quantum measurements.

Despite its inability to solve the problem of time in quantum gravity, lower case

lambda and unimodular gravity pose interesting issues for philosophers who are

interested in gauge principles. And unimodular gravity appears to serve as a template

for what happens when one tries to nesse the requirement of general covariance.26

Start with a theory that is generally covariant, not only in the sense that its equations

of motion are formally generally covariant, but also in the sense that these equations

are derivable from an action principle that admits the spacetime diffeomorphism

group as a variational symmetry. Add a coordinate condition that breaks general

covariance (the unimodular condition or some other). Then restore formal general

covariance by introducing four scalar elds FA ; A 1; 2; 3; 4; that express the special

covariance-breaking coordinates as functions of arbitrary label coordinates xi :

Restore diffeomorphism invariance by providing a modied action principle that

incorporates the expression of the coordinate condition in terms of the FA and

admits the diffeomorphism group as a variational symmetry. This demand, together

with the requirement that the new action reduces to the original action when the FA

are used as label coordinates, generally uniquely determine the new action (see

Kucha$r, 1991). Then starting from this parameterized action, the Dirac constraint

formalism can be run for the parameterized theory to nd the new rst class

constraints and the new set of Dirac observables. Generally the constraints are

weaker and, thus, the set of observables is larger than for the non-parameterized

theory. At this juncture, it does seem appropriate to ask for an account of how the

dynamical variables that are classied as observables in the parameterized but not in

the non-parameterized theory are connected to observation and measurement. If no

satisfactory account is forthcoming, then the attempted nesse of general covariance

can be dismissed as a mere technical trick. (If this be positivism, lets make the most

of it.)

26

The concern being raised here is related to but not the same as the widely discussed Kretschmann

worry that any theory can be re-engineered so as to satisfy general covariance; see Sorkin (2002) and

Earman (2002b) for a discussion of the latter worry.

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575

What would be perplexing for the status of general covariance is a nding that the

identication of observables given by the parameterized theory incorporating the

elds FA combines with the favored theory of measurement27 of observables to yield

results that are empirically correct. For then there would be an empirically adequate

theory that both giveth and taketh away general covariance: the theory satises the

usual standards for general covariance; and yet the theory entails a condition on the

FA which, when the FApare

used as label coordinates, reduces to a restriction on

coordinate systems (e.g. g 1). One way to resolve the perplexity is to claim that

since, by hypothesis, the theory is empirically adequate, it gives a satisfactory

explanation of why the FA behave in such a way that it is as ifbut only as if

general covariance is broken and, thus, that the spirit as well as the letter of general

covariance is fullled. Those who nd this response unsatisfying are obligated to nd

a better and stronger formal criteria for general covariance that will disbar the

parameterized theory.

7. Conclusion

The shape of spacetime and the fate of the universe literally turn on whether or not

there is a positive cosmological constant, in either the L or the l sense.

Unfortunately, an observational decision on this matter may be far off since the

effects of a positive lambda on the currently observed accelerating expansion of the

universe can be mimicked in models of dark energy that do not imply, as does a

positive lambda, that the expansion of the universe will continue to accelerate ad

infinitum. While waiting for a decision, we can try to understand better the

implications of lambda, especially the lower case sense. In this paper I have

examined claims to the effect that lower case lambda offers solutions to various

problems in physics-in particular, the problem of the stability of matter, the

cosmological constant problem, and the problem of time in quantum gravity. All of

the claims have been found to be wanting. This is a disappointment for physicists,

but not for philosophers of science since understanding why the attempted solutions

fail provides illumination on the foundations of general relativistic theories of

gravity. And the lower case lambda version of GTR serves as a fascinating case study

for probing the concept of observables and the nature and status of the requirement

of general covariance. Nor are these issues merely hypothetical. Although physicists

may have lost interest in unimodular gravity as a solution to various problems, they

will have to face up to a choice between the upper case and lower case versions of

lambda if cosmological observations continue to indicate that a positive

cosmological constant is with us.

27

What complicates the situation is that if the theory we are dealing with aspires to be a fundamental

theory, then it must, as it were, provide its own theory of measurement; that is, measurement instruments

cannot be treated either as primitives or as objects whose behavior is left to be explained by some auxiliary

theory, but must be analyzed within the theory itself. As a rst step, however, it may be permissible to take

the observables of the theory to refer to the deliverances of measurement instruments whose behavior is

antecedently understood.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to John Norton, Rafael Sorkin, and Roberto Torretti for helpful

comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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