Title: The Expansion of the Universe is Faster than Expected
Author: Adam Riess
There is a current crisis in the field of cosmology and it may lead to our next breakthrough in understanding the universe. In the late 1990’s measurements of distant supernovae showed that contrary to expectations at the time, the universe’s expansion was accelerating rather than slowing down. This implied the existence of a mysterious “dark energy” throughout the universe, propelling this accelerated expansion. Today, some people once again think that our measurements of the current expansion rate, the Hubble constant, are indicating that there is something about the universe we don’t understand.
The current cosmological standard model, called ΛCDM, is a phenomenological model of describing all contents of the universe. It includes regular visible matter, Cold Dark Matter (CDM), and dark energy. It is an extremely bare-bones model; assuming dark matter interacts only gravitationally and that dark energy is just a simple cosmological constant (Λ) which gives a constant energy density to space itself. For the last 20 years this model has been rigorously tested but new measurements might be beginning to show that it has some holes. Measurements of the early universe based on ΛCDM and extrapolated to today predict a different rate of expansion than what is currently being measured, and cosmologists are taking this war over the Hubble constant very seriously.
On one side of this Hubble controversy are measurements from the early universe. The most important of these is based on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), light directly from the hot plasma of the Big Bang that has been traveling billions of years directly to our telescopes. This light from the early universe is nearly uniform in temperature, but by analyzing the pattern of slightly hotter and colder spots, cosmologists can extract the 6 free parameters of ΛCDM. These parameters encode the relative amount of energy contained in regular matter, dark matter, and dark energy. Then based on these parameters, they can infer what the current expansion rate of the universe should be. The current best measurements of the CMB come from the Planck collaboration which can infer the Hubble constant with a precision of less than 1%.
On the other side of the debate are the late-universe (or local) measurements of the expansion. The most famous of these is based on a ‘distance ladder’, where several stages of measurements are used to calibrate distances of astronomical objects. First, geometric properties are used to calibrate the brightness of pulsating stars (Cepheids). Cepheids are then used to calibrate the absolute brightness of exploding supernovae. The expansion rate of the universe can then be measured by relating the red-shift (the amount the light from these objects has been stretched by the universe’s expansion) and the distance of these supernovae. This is the method that was used to discover dark energy in 1990’s and earned its pioneers a Nobel prize. As they have collected more data and techniques have been refined, the measurement’s precision has improved dramatically.
In the last few years the tension between the two values of the Hubble constant has steadily grown. This had let cosmologists to scrutinize both sets of measurements very closely but so far no flaws have been found. Both of these measurements are incredibly complex, and many cosmologists still assumed that there was some unknown systematic error in one of them that was the culprit. But recently, other measurements both the early and late universe have started to weigh in and they seem to agree with the Planck and distance ladder results. Currently the tension between the early and late measurements of the Hubble constant sits between 4 to 6 sigma, depending on which set of measurements you combine. While there are still many who believe there is something wrong with the measurements, others have started to take seriously that this is pointing to a real issue with ΛCDM, and there is something in the universe we don’t understand. In other words, New Physics!
So what ideas have theorists put forward that can explain the disagreement? In general theorists have actually had a hard time trying to come up with models that can explain this disagreement while not running afoul of the multitude of other cosmological data we have, but some solutions have been found. Two of the most promising approaches involve changing the composition of universe just before the time the CMB was emitted.
The first of these is called Early Dark Energy. It is a phenomenological model that posits the existence of another type of dark energy, that behaves similarly to a cosmological constant early in the universe but then fades away relatively quickly as the universe expands. This model is able to slightly improve Planck’s fit to the CMB data while changing the contents of the early universe enough to alter the predicted Hubble constant to be consistent with the local value. Critics of the model have feel that its parameters had to been finely tuned for the solution to work. However there has been some work in mimicking its success with a particle-physics based model.
The other notable attempt at resolving the tension involves adding additional types of neutrinos and positing that neutrinos interact with each other in a much stronger way than the Standard Model. This similarly changes the interpretation of the CMB measurements to predict a larger expansion rate. The authors also posit that this new physics in the neutrino sector may be related to current anomalies seen in neutrino physics experiments that are also currently lacking an explanation. However follow up work has showed that it is hard to reconcile such strongly self-interacting neutrinos with laboratory experiments and other cosmological probes.
At present the situation remains very unclear. Some cosmologists believe this is the end of ΛCDM, and others still believe there is an issue with one of the measurements. For those who believe new physics is the solution, there is no consensus about what the best model is. However, the next few years should start to clarify things. Other late-universe measurements of the Hubble constant, using gravitational lensing or even gravitational waves, should continue to improve their precision and could give skeptics greater confidence to the distance ladder result. Next generation CMB experiments will eventually come online as well, and will offer greater precision than the Planck measurement. Theorists will probably come up with more possible resolutions, and point out additional measurements to be made that can confirm or refute their models. For those hoping for a breakthrough in our understanding of the universe, this is definitely something to keep an eye on!