Certain subsectors of the scientifically-oriented blogosphere are abuzz — abuzz, I say! — about this new presentation on Dark Energy at the Hubblesite. It’s slickly done, and worth checking out, although be warned that a deep voice redolent with mystery will commence speaking as soon as you open the page.
But Ryan Michney at Topography of Ignorance puts his finger on the important thing here, the opening teaser text:
Scientists have found an unexplained force that is changing our universe,
forcing galazies farther and farther apart,
stretching the very fabric of space faster and faster.
If unchecked, this mystery force could be the death of the universe,
tearing even its atoms apart.
We call this force dark energy.
Scary! Also, wrong. Not the part about “tearing even its atoms apart,” an allusion to the Big Rip. That’s annoying, because a Big Rip is an extremely unlikely future for a universe even if it is dominated by dark energy, yet people can’t stop putting the idea front and center because it’s provocative. Annoying, but not wrong.
The wrong part is referring to dark energy as a “force,” which it’s not. At least since Isaac Newton, we’ve had a pretty clear idea about the distinction between “stuff” and the forces that act on that stuff. The usual story in physics is that our ideas become increasingly general and sophisticated, and distinctions that were once clear-cut might end up being altered or completely irrelevant. However, the stuff/force distinction has continued to be useful, even as relativity has broadened our definition of “stuff” to include all forms of matter and energy. Indeed, quantum field theory implies that the ingredients of a four-dimensional universe are divided neatly into two types: fermions, which cannot pile on top of each other due to the exclusion principle, and bosons, which can. That’s extremely close to the stuff/force distinction, and indeed we tend to associate the known bosonic fields — gravity, electromagnetism, gluons, and weak vector bosons — with the “forces of nature.” Personally I like to count the Higgs boson as a fifth force rather than a new matter particle, but that’s just because I’m especially fastidious. The well-defined fermion/boson distinction is not precisely equivalent to the more casual stuff/force distinction, because relativity teaches us that the bosonic “force fields” are also sources for the forces themselves. But we think we know the difference between a force and the stuff that is acting as its source.
Anyway, that last paragraph got a bit out of control, but the point remains: you have stuff, and you have forces. And dark energy is definitely “stuff.” It’s not a new force. (There might be a force associated with it, if the dark energy is a light scalar field, but that force is so weak that it’s not been detected, and certainly isn’t responsible for the acceleration of the universe.) In fact, the relevant force is a pretty old one — gravity! Cosmologists consider all kinds of crazy ideas in their efforts to account for dark energy, but in all the sensible theories I’ve heard of, it’s gravity that is the operative force. The dark energy is causing a gravitational field, and an interesting kind of field that causes distant objects to appear to accelerate away from us rather than toward us, but it’s definitely gravity that is doing the forcing here.
Is this a distinction worth making, or just something to kvetch about while we pat ourselves on the back for being smart scientists, misunderstood once again by those hacks in the PR department? I think it is worth making. One of the big obstacles to successfully explaining modern physics to a broad audience is that the English language wasn’t made with physics in mind. How could it have been, when many of the physical concepts weren’t yet invented? Sometimes we invent brand new words to describe new ideas in science, but often we re-purpose existing words to describe concepts for which they originally weren’t intended. It’s understandably confusing, and it’s the least we can do to be careful about how we use the words. One person says “there are four forces of nature…” and another says “we’ve discovered a new force, dark energy…”, and you could hardly blame someone who is paying attention for turning around and asking “Does that mean we have five forces now?” And you’d have to explain “No, we didn’t mean that…” Why not just get it right the first time?
Sometimes the re-purposed meanings are so deeply embedded that we forget they could mean anything different. Anyone who has spoken about “energy” or “dimensions” to a non-specialist audience has come across this language barrier. Just recently it was finally beaten into me how bad “dark” is for describing “dark matter” and “dark energy.” What we mean by “dark” in these cases is “completely transparent to light.” To your average non-physicist, it turns out, “dark” might mean “completely absorbs light.” Which is the opposite! Who knew? That’s why I prefer calling it “smooth tension,” which sounds more Barry White than Public Enemy.
What I would really like to get rid of is any discussion of “negative pressure.” The important thing about dark energy is that it’s persistent — the density (energy per cubic centimeter) remains roughly constant, even as the universe expands. Therefore, according to general relativity, it imparts a perpetual impulse to the expansion of the universe, not one that gradually dilutes away. A constant density leads to a constant expansion rate, which means that the time it takes the universe to double in size is a constant. But if the universe doubles in size every ten billion years or so, what we see is distant galaxies acceleratating away — first they are X parsecs away, then they are 2X parsecs away, then 4X parsecs away, then 8X, etc. The distance grows faster and faster, which we observe as acceleration.
That all makes a sort of sense, and never once did we mention “negative pressure.” But it’s nevertheless true that, in general relativity, there is a relationship between the pressure of a substance and the rate at which its density dilutes away as the universe expands: the more (positive) pressure, the faster it dilutes away. To indulge in a bit of equationry, imagine that the energy density dilutes away as a function of the scale factor as R-n. So for matter, whose density just goes down as the volume goes up, n=3. For a cosmological constant, which doesn’t dilute away at all, n=0. Now let’s call the ratio of the pressure to the density w, so that matter (which has no pressure) has w=0 and the cosmological constant (with pressure equal and opposite to its density) has w=-1. In fact, there is a perfectly lockstep relation between the two quantities:
n = 3(w + 1).
Measuring, or putting limits on, one quantity is precisely equivalent to the other; it’s just a matter of your own preferences how you might want to cast your results.
To me, the parameter n describing how the density evolves is easy to understand and has a straightforward relationship to how the universe expands, which is what we are actually measuring. The parameter w describing the relationship of pressure to energy density is a bit abstract. Certainly, if you haven’t studied general relativity, it’s not at all clear why the pressure should have anything to do with how the universe expands. (Although it does, of course; we’re not debating right and wrong, just how to most clearly translate the physics into English.) But talking about negative pressure is a quick and dirty way to convey the illusion of understanding. The usual legerdemain goes like this: “Gravity feels both energy density and pressure. So negative pressure is kind of like anti-gravity, pushing things apart rather than pulling them together.” Which is completely true, as far as it goes. But if you think about it just a little bit, you start asking what the effect of a “negative pressure” should really be. Doesn’t ordinary positive pressure, after all, tend to push things apart? So shouldn’t negative pressure pull them together? Then you have to apologize and explain that the actual force of this negative pressure can’t be felt at all, since it’s equal in magnitude in every direction, and it’s only the indirect gravitational effect of the negative pressure that is being measured. All true, but not nearly as enlightening as leaving the concept behind altogether.
But I fear we are stuck with it. Cosmologists talk about negative pressure and w all the time, even though it’s confusing and ultimately not what we are measuring anyway. Once I put into motion my nefarious scheme to overthrow the scientific establishment and have myself crowned Emperor of Cosmology, rest assured that instituting a sensible system of nomenclature will be one of my very first acts as sovereign.