The Nobel Laureate Meetings is an annual event held in Lindau Germany, that gathers Nobel Prize winners and more than 500 post-graduate scientists from across the country. It focuses on the three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines: physiology and medicine; physics and chemistry. This year’s meeting featured 39 Nobel Laureates in Physics and 580 young scientists from 89 countries.
About 5% of the universe is made up of known atoms like protons, neutrons and electrons and the rest of it is an unknown, invisible gas substance called “dark matter” and a powerful force that repels gravity, referred to as “dark energy”.
This means that much of the universe has not yet been discovered because the technology to detect dark energy has not been developed.
Professor Brian Schmidt, of the Australian National University, is a Nobel Laureate in Physics who was awarded for his work in determining the implications of dark energy.
“In 1998 myself and two teams measured that the universe is getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster over time. We’ve known for the last 100 years that the universe is expanding but our discovery says something is pushing the universe apart and we think that something is gravity,” he said. “But gravity is working in reverse and it’s working in reverse because everywhere in the universe there is stuff we call dark energy. And dark energy, it turns out, through Einstein’s theory of relativity - the way we understand gravity - tells us that the universe has energy everywhere and that energy will push the universe apart, rather than pull it together.”
To illustrate this, Schmidt drew a stairway-like sketch that is narrow at the top and spreads out wider and wider as it reaches the bottom. The illustration demonstrated that the galaxies were moving further apart at an accelerated, not constant, pace.
What are the implications of stars, classes of planets and galaxies moving further away from each other?
Kimeel Sooknunan, one of the 20 young scientists from South Africa who attend the conference, recently completed his Masters at the University of Cape Town and will be pursuing his PhD in astrophysics at the Imperial College London.
He said the implications of the universe accelerating would be felt in the long term.
“We are not sure if the expansion is time-dependent maybe it will slow down in the end, but let’s say it doesn’t. This would mean there would come a time when all galaxies are alone,” he said. “So there would come a time when as a scientist you would look up in the sky and you would see only your galaxy.”
As an astrophysicist in the making, Sooknunan said it would be much harder to research physics in space and make new observations if the galaxies kept drifting away from each other.
That is why understanding dark energy is probably the next frontier for this generation of astrophysicists.
Goba was in Germany as an intern journalist on a fellowship funded by the Academy of South Africa.