It was January 1998, and Alex Filippenko was stunned.
An understandable reaction given he had just learned that his research might prove Albert Einstein wrong.
“My jaw just dropped,” said Filippenko, an astronomer at the University of California in Berkeley. “I thought some mistake had been made.”
It hadn’t. The expansion of the universe was, in fact, accelerating, counter to expectations based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Filippenko, who will be speaking at the Conference on World Affairs on Tuesday, and his colleagues, including Adam Riess, who first crunched the group’s cosmic data, checked the numbers again, but no one could find a flaw.
“Unless there was some subtle error creeping in, we had stumbled up a mind-blowing discovery that would revolutionize our view of the universe,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be associated with such a discovery.”
Filippenko’s team was not the only group of researchers beginning to realize that gravity wasn’t putting the cosmic brakes on the universe’s expansion the way they thought it would.
In early 1998, competing scientific teams released their conclusions from measuring far-off supernovas, which agreed the universe was accelerating. Together the separate studies gave more weight to the findings and left astronomers with an uncomfortable dilemma: Was Einstein wrong or was there something else out there that can’t be seen, can’t be measured and therefore can’t be accurately plugged into Einstein’s equation?
“Nobody really wants to say Einstein is wrong,” said James Green, an astronomer at the University of Colorado. “It’s scary to say. It’s worked so well for so long under such intense scrutiny.”
And so while there are some who question Einstein’s theories, many more astronomers have embraced the idea that space is filled with a “dark energy” that can overcome gravity, pushing the universe outward at increasing speeds. If they’re right, as much as 70 percent of all “stuff” in the fabric of space may be dark energy.
At Tuesday’s CWA panel “Dark Energy: Cosmic Antigravity,” Filippenko will discuss the curious nature of space with fellow astronomer Michelle Thaller and New York Times writer James Glanz, who also holds a doctorate in astrophysical sciences. Filippenko promises a discussion that the general public can comprehend, even those who never really got Einstein’s theory of relativity to begin with.
“I encourage people to come if they are interested in learning about one of the most fascinating and puzzling discoveries ever,” he said, “in any field of science.”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Â