24 December, 2008

RIP Universe?

Criminy. It really has been a long time since I've read up on cosmology. No one told me there was another theory about the end of the universe:

A rather harrowing new theory about the death of the universe paints a picture of "phantom energy" ripping apart galaxies, stars, planets and eventually every speck of matter in a fantastical end to time.

Scientifically it is just about the most repulsive notion ever conceived.

The speculative but serious cosmology is described as a "pretty fantastic possibility" even by its lead author, Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth University. It explains one possible outcome for solid astronomical observations made in the late 1990s -- that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing pace, and that something unknown is vacuuming everything outward.

The question Caldwell and his colleagues posed is, what would happen if the rate of acceleration increased?

Their answer is that the eventual, phenomenal pace would overwhelm the normal, trusted effects of gravity right down to the local level. Even the nuclear forces that bind things in the subatomic world will cease to be effective.

"The expansion becomes so fast that it literally rips apart all bound objects," Caldwell explained in a telephone interview. "It rips apart clusters of galaxies. It rips apart stars. It rips apart planets and solar systems. And it eventually rips apart all matter."

He calls it, as you might guess, the Big Rip.

Tip o' the shot glass to my dear local friend, who has not only patiently listened to me bitch about the snow, but came through with a quick link when I emailed to say WTF? I'd stumbled across news of the Big Rip at work, whilst trying to hunt down the source of a rather gorgeous picture posted on a Daily Kos blog. I flipped through about ten thousand NASA Images of the Day, and ran across this:

I've had to come to a sobering realization. Most of my books on cosmology are severely outdated. Science has passed me by. I've been nibbling at cosmology by following a few science blogs, most notably Bad Astronomy, but the stuff on my shelf is from the Clinton era. Methinks it is time to get something a little more recent. Suggestions very welcome.

As for the image that led me to discover just how paltry my current knowledge is, I found it. It's the Bug Nebula. Isn't it spectacular?

I can't wait until the snow has melted and I can go raid the bookstore. I loves me some cosmology, and it looks like there's been some excitement while I've been slacking.

In the meantime, I'm spending Christmas with chaos theory. What's on your holiday reading list?

1 comment:

Blake Stacey said...

As best I understand it, the most recent observations indicate that dark energy isn't quite potent enough to instigate the Big Rip. In technical terms, the equation-of-state parameter w has to be less than -1, but the study by Vikhlinin et al. found that w = -1 (plus or minus maybe 10%). So, while it may not be definitively ruled out, it's looking less likely. The galaxies will get farther and farther apart, eventually disappearing from each other's view, but the expansion won't grow strong enough to overcome the gravitational binding force holding star systems together.

I don't know of any good recent books on cosmology. Then again, I haven't been looking spectacularly hard. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has written some stuff, and based on my personal encounters with the fellow I'd say his books are likely to be good, but I haven't read them myself.

I also don't know what my holiday reading list will be, since I haven't unwrapped my presents yet! (-: