Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Is Dark Energy Bad For Astronomy?

Yesterday I became aware of this article by a cosmologist named Simon White (warning: the article is technical). Simon White is a well-known and well-resepcted astronomer, so many of us are mulling over his assertation that the study of "Dark Energy" could be bad to astronomy science. I have not yet read White's monograph carefully the entire way through, but I can sum up a few points.

"Dark Energy" is a name that has stuck to a phenomenon we observe in the universe -- that, as time goes on, the expansion of the universe seems to be speeding up. This is odd, because all the forces we know about in the Universe (light and gravity, mainly), work to slow down the expanding Universe. Gravity tries to act as a brake, but there seems to be a mysterious force still pushing on the accelerator.

The idea of dark energy has captured the imagination of the public, as well as many astronomers and physicists. But understanding dark energy is going to be hard and likely take decades to make much progress. And any such progress will require large investments of money and giant research collaborations.

White's main concerns are that if astronomers focus too much on exploring dark energy, we will be putting all of our eggs in one basket by requiring most of our monetary and scientific resources to go to one project that, while very interesting, may not have that much of an impact on understanding how stars and galaxies work.

The concensus of people that I've talked to is that while White makes some good points, he misses the mark a bit. First, although many large experiments are being developed to study dark energy, we are also finding new sources of money for these experiments (the Department Of Energy is supporting some research, and private individuals are donating money out of interest in dark energy), so large research projects are not eating into the budget as badly as they might.

Another concern of White's is that large collaborations will devour graduate students and postdocs, who will not get recognition for their work. This has been a concern in other large astronomy projects, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but these young researchers are generally recognized for the science they are doing.

White raises many valid points in his monograph, however. Astronomy has been different from other fields (like particle physics) in many ways, and this cultural difference is, we feel, a positive. It is good for senior and knowledgeable people to point out their concerns so that we remain on our toes and avoid making decisions that might harm the varied and vibrant research of astronomy. But I do not think that the study of Dark Energy is dangerous to the science. The danger would come if the study of Dark Energy were to begin to consume all of our resources. And I just don't see us allowing this to happen in the forseeable future. If anything, studies of Dark Energy allow astronomers to continue to wax poetic on how exotic the universe is, and how much there remains for us humans to understand.

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