From “The Big Think” : “3 new studies indicate a conflict at the heart of cosmology” 

From “The Big Think”

Don Lincoln

The Universe isn’t as “clumpy” as we think it should be.

Credit: NASA.

Key Takeaways

Telescopes are essentially time machines. As we examine galaxies that are at greater and greater distances from the Earth, we are looking further and further back in time. A new series of studies that examine the “clumpiness” of the Universe indicates that there might be a conflict at the heart of cosmology. The Big Bang theory is still sound, but it may need to be tweaked.

A series of three scientific papers describing the expansion history of the Universe is telling a confusing tale, with predictions and measurements slightly disagreeing.

While this disagreement isn’t considered a fatal disproof of modern cosmology, it could be a hint that our theories need to be revised.

PRD “Joint analysis of DES Year 3 data and CMB lensing from SPT and Planck I: Construction of CMB Lensing Maps and Modeling Choices”
PRD “Joint analysis of DES Year 3 data and CMB lensing from SPT and Planck II: Cross-correlation measurements and cosmological constraints”
PRD “Joint analysis of DES Year 3 data and CMB lensing from SPT and Planck III: Combined cosmological constraints”

Creation stories, both ancient and modern

Understanding exactly how the world around us came into existence is a question that has bothered humanity for millennia. All around the world, people have devised stories — from the ancient Greek legend of the creation of the Earth and other primordial entities from Chaos (as first written down by Hesiod) to the Hopi creation myth (which describes a series of different kinds of creatures being created, eventually ending up as humans).

In modern times, there are still competing creation stories, but there is one that is grounded in empiricism and the scientific method: the idea that about 13.8 billion years ago, the Universe began in a much smaller and hotter compressed state, and it has been expanding ever since then. This idea is colloquially called the “Big Bang,” although different writers use the term to mean slightly different things. Some use it to refer to the exact moment at which the Universe came into existence and began to expand, while others use it to refer to all moments after the beginning. For those writers, the Big Bang is still ongoing, as the expansion of the Universe continues.

The beauty of this scientific explanation is that it can be tested. Astronomers rely on the fact that light has a finite speed, which means that it takes time for light to cross the cosmos. For example, the light we see as the Sun shining was emitted eight minutes before we see it. Light from the nearest star took about four years to get to Earth, and light from elsewhere in the cosmos can take billions of years to arrive.

The telescope as a time machine

Effectively, this means that telescopes are time machines. By looking at more and more distant galaxies, astronomers are able to see what the Universe looked like in the distant past. By stitching together observations of galaxies at different distances from the Earth, astronomers can unravel the evolution of the cosmos.

The recent measurements use two different telescopes to study the structure of the Universe at different cosmic epochs. One facility, called the South Pole Telescope (SPT), looks at the earliest possible light, emitted a mere 380,000 years after the Universe began.

At that time, the Universe was 0.003% its current age. If we consider the current cosmos to be equivalent to a 50-year-old person, the SPT looks at the Universe when it was a mere 12 hours old.

The second facility is called the Dark Energy Survey (DES).
The Dark Energy Survey

Dark Energy Camera [DECam] built at The DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

NOIRLab National Optical Astronomy Observatory Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CL) Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the Dark-Energy-Camera – DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile at an altitude of 7200 feet.

NOIRLabNSF NOIRLab NOAO Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory(CL) approximately 80 km to the East of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 2200 meters.

The Dark Energy Survey is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. The Dark Energy Survey began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

According to Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up.

Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011 Expansion of the Universe

4 October 2011

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011

with one half to

Saul Perlmutter
The Supernova Cosmology Project
The DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and The University of California-Berkeley,

and the other half jointly to

Brian P. Schmidt
The High-z Supernova Search Team,
The Australian National University, Weston Creek, Australia.


Adam G. Riess
The High-z Supernova Search Team,The Johns Hopkins University and
The Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD.
Written in the stars

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” *

What will be the final destiny of the Universe? Probably it will end in ice, if we are to believe this year’s Nobel Laureates in Physics. They have studied several dozen exploding stars, called supernovae, and discovered that the Universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate. The discovery came as a complete surprise even to the Laureates themselves.

In 1998, cosmology was shaken at its foundations as two research teams presented their findings. Headed by Saul Perlmutter, one of the teams had set to work in 1988. Brian Schmidt headed another team, launched at the end of 1994, where Adam Riess was to play a crucial role.

The research teams raced to map the Universe by locating the most distant supernovae. More sophisticated telescopes on the ground and in space, as well as more powerful computers and new digital imaging sensors (CCD, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009), opened the possibility in the 1990s to add more pieces to the cosmological puzzle.

The teams used a particular kind of supernova, called Type 1a supernova. It is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. A single such supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy. All in all, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected – this was a sign that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. The potential pitfalls had been numerous, and the scientists found reassurance in the fact that both groups had reached the same astonishing conclusion.

For almost a century, the Universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However, the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the Universe will end in ice.

The acceleration is thought to be driven by dark energy, but what that dark energy is remains an enigma – perhaps the greatest in physics today. What is known is that dark energy constitutes about three quarters of the Universe. Therefore the findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science. And everything is possible again.

*Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, 1920
To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called Dark Energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

The Dark Energy Survey is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of Dark Energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

Over six years (2013-2019), the Dark Energy Survey collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.
This is a very powerful telescope located on a mountain top in Chile. Over the years, it has surveyed about 1/8 of the sky and photographed over 300 million galaxies, many of which are so dim, they are about one-millionth as bright as the dimmest stars visible to the human eye. This telescope can image galaxies from the current day to as far back as eight billion years ago. Continuing with the analogy of a 50-year-old individual, DES can take pictures of the Universe starting when it was 21 years old up until the present. (Full disclosure: Researchers at Fermilab, where I also work, carried out this study — but I did not participate in this research.)

As light from distant galaxies travels to Earth, it can be distorted by galaxies that are closer to us. By using these tiny distortions, astronomers have developed a very precise map of the distribution of matter in the cosmos. This map includes both ordinary matter, of which stars and galaxies are the most familiar examples, and dark matter, which is a hypothesized form of matter that neither absorbs nor emits light. Dark matter is only observed through its gravitational effect on other objects and is thought to be five times more prevalent than ordinary matter.
Dark Matter Background
Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter in the 1930s when observing the movement of the Coma Cluster., and Vera Rubin a Woman in STEM, denied the Nobel, some 30 years later, did most of the work on Dark Matter.

Fritz Zwicky.

Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble, the original example of Dark Matter discovered during observations by Fritz Zwicky and confirmed 30 years later by Vera Rubin.

In modern times, it was astronomer Fritz Zwicky, in the 1930s, who made the first observations of what we now call dark matter. His 1933 observations of the Coma Cluster of galaxies seemed to indicated it has a mass 500 times more than that previously calculated by Edwin Hubble. Furthermore, this extra mass seemed to be completely invisible. Although Zwicky’s observations were initially met with much skepticism, they were later confirmed by other groups of astronomers.

Thirty years later, astronomer Vera Rubin provided a huge piece of evidence for the existence of dark matter. She discovered that the centers of galaxies rotate at the same speed as their extremities, whereas, of course, they should rotate faster. Think of a vinyl LP on a record deck: its center rotates faster than its edge. That’s what logic dictates we should see in galaxies too. But we do not. The only way to explain this is if the whole galaxy is only the center of some much larger structure, as if it is only the label on the LP so to speak, causing the galaxy to have a consistent rotation speed from center to edge.

Vera Rubin, following Zwicky, postulated that the missing structure in galaxies is dark matter. Her ideas were met with much resistance from the astronomical community, but her observations have been confirmed and are seen today as pivotal proof of the existence of dark matter.

Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965, worked on Dark Matter (The Carnegie Institution for Science).

Vera Rubin, with Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) image tube spectrograph attached to the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope, 1970.

Vera Rubin measuring spectra, worked on Dark Matter(Emilio Segre Visual Archives AIP SPL).

Dark Matter Research

Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search from DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University at SNOLAB (Vale Inco Mine, Sudbury, Canada).

LBNL LZ Dark Matter Experiment xenon detector at Sanford Underground Research Facility Credit: Matt Kapust.

DAMA at Gran Sasso uses sodium iodide housed in copper to hunt for dark matter LNGS-INFN.

Yale HAYSTAC axion dark matter experiment at Yale’s Wright Lab.

DEAP Dark Matter detector, The DEAP-3600, suspended in the SNOLAB (CA) deep in Sudbury’s Creighton Mine.

The LBNL LZ Dark Matter Experiment Dark Matter project at SURF, Lead, SD.

DAMA-LIBRA Dark Matter experiment at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics’ (INFN’s) Gran Sasso National Laboratories (LNGS) located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.

DARWIN Dark Matter experiment. A design study for a next-generation, multi-ton dark matter detector in Europe at The University of Zurich [Universität Zürich](CH).

PandaX II Dark Matter experiment at Jin-ping Underground Laboratory (CJPL) in Sichuan, China.

Inside the Axion Dark Matter eXperiment U Washington. Credit: Mark Stone U. of Washington. Axion Dark Matter Experiment.

The University of Western Australia ORGAN Experiment’s main detector. A small copper cylinder called a “resonant cavity” traps photons generated during dark matter conversion. The cylinder is bolted to a “dilution refrigerator” which cools the experiment to very low temperatures.

Is the Big Bang incomplete?

In order to test the Big Bang, astronomers can use measurements taken by the South Pole Telescope and use the theory to project forward to the present day. They can then take measurements from the Dark Energy Survey and compare them. If the measurements are accurate and the theory describes the cosmos, they should agree.

And, by and large, they do — but not completely. When astronomers look at how “clumpy” the matter of the current Universe should be, purely from SPT measurements and extrapolations of theory, they find that the predictions are “clumpier” than current measurements by DES.

This disagreement is potentially significant and could signal that the theory of the Big Bang is incomplete. Furthermore, this isn’t the first discrepancy that astronomers have encountered when they project measurements of the same primordial light imaged by the SPT to the modern day. Different research groups, using different telescopes, have found that the current Universe is expanding faster than expected from observations of the ancient light seen by the SPT, combined with Big Bang theory. This other discrepancy is called the Hubble Tension, named after American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who first realized that the Universe was expanding.


Edwin Hubble



Have astronomers disproved the Big Bang?

While the new discrepancy in predictions and measurements of the clumpiness of the Universe are preliminary, it could be that both this measurement and the Hubble Tension imply that the Big Bang theory might need some tweaking. Mind you, the discrepancies do not rise to the level of scrapping the theory entirely; however, it is the nature of the scientific method to adjust theories to account for new observations.

See the full article here.

Comments are invited and will be appreciated, especially if the reader finds any errors which I can correct. Use “Reply”.


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition