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AstrophysicsForPeopleInAHurry

ByNeildeGrasseTyson

W.W.NortonPublishers2017

Sowhatisthestuff?Nobodyknows.Theclosestanybodyhascomeistopresume
darkenergyisaquantumeffectwherethevacuumofspace,insteadofbeingempty,
actuallyseetheswithparticlesandtheirantimattercounterparts.Theypopinandoutof
existenceinpairs,anddontlastlongenoughtobemeasured.Theirtransientexistenceis
capturedintheirmoniker:virtualparticles.Theremarkablelegacyofquantummechanics
thephysicsofthesmalldemandsthatwegivethisideaseriousattention.Eachpairof
virtualparticlesexertsalittlebitofoutwardpressureasiteversobrieyelbowsitsway
intospace.

Unfortunately,whenyouestimatetheamountofrepulsivevacuumpressurethat
arisesfromtheabbreviatedlivesofvirtualparticles,theresultismorethan10120times
biggerthantheexperimentallydeterminedvalueofthecosmologicalconstant.Thisisa
stupidlylargefactoraconsequenceofwhatmaybethemostembarrassingcalculation
evermade,leadingtothebiggestmismatchbetweentheoryandobservationinthehistory
ofscience.

Yes,wereclueless.Butitsnotabjectcluelessness.Darkenergyisnotadrift,
withnaryatheorytocallhome.Itinhabitsoneofthesafesthomeswecanimagine:
Einsteinsequationsofgeneralrelativity.Whateverdarkenergyturnsouttobe,we
alreadyknowhowtomeasureitandhowtocalculateitseffectsonthepast,present,and
futureofthecosmos.

Asaconsequence,anythingnotgravitationallyboundtotheneighborhoodofour
MilkyWaygalaxywillrecedeateverincreasingspeed,aspartoftheaccelerating
expansionofthefabricofspacetime.Distantgalaxiesnowvisibleinthenightskywill
ultimatelydisappearbeyondanunreachablehorizon,recedingfromusfasterthanthe
speedoflight.Afeatallowed,notbecausetheyremovingthroughspaceatsuchspeeds,

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butbecausethefabricoftheuniverseitselfcarriesthematsuchspeeds.Nolawof
physicspreventsthis.

Inatrillionorsoyears,anyonealiveinourowngalaxymayknownothingof
othergalaxies.Ourobservableuniversewillmerelycompriseasystemofnearby,long
livedstarswithintheMilkyWay.Andbeyondthisstarrynightwilllieanendlessvoid
darknessthefaceofthedeep.

Darkenergy,afundamentalpropertyofthecosmos,will,intheend,undermine
theabilityoffuturegenerationstocomprehendtheuniversetheyvebeendealt.Unless
contemporaryastrophysicistsacrossthegalaxykeepremarkablerecordsandburyan
awesome,trillionyeartimecapsule,futurescientistswillknownothingofgalaxiesthe
principalformoforganizationformatterinourcosmosandwillthusbedeniedaccess
tokeypagesfromthecosmicdramathatisouruniverse.

Beholdmyrecurringnightmare:Arewe,too,missingsomebasicpiecesofthe
universethatoncewas?Whatpartofthecosmichistorybookhasbeenmarkedaccess
denied?Whatremainsabsentfromourtheoriesandequationsthatoughttobethere,
leavingusgropingforanswerswemayneverfind?