W. Michael Wood-Vasey talks
with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions
about this month's Fast Breaking Paper in the field of
Article Title: Observational constraints on the
nature of dark energy: First cosmological results from the
ESSENCE supernova survey
Authors: Wood-Vasey, WM, et al.
Journal: ASTROPHYS J
Year: Part 1 SEP 10 2007
* Harvard Smithsonian Ctr Astrophys, 60 Garden St,
Cambridge, MA 02138 USA.
* Harvard Smithsonian Ctr Astrophys, Cambridge, MA 02138
(addresses have been truncated)
Why do you think your paper is highly
Explaining the accelerating expansion of our Universe has become one of the
most fundamental challenges in physics today. The dynamics of the Universe
are intimately connected to its composition and recent results over the
past decade have concluded that 70% of the Universe consists of a
mysterious dark energy that has been accelerating the expansion of our
Universe for the past five billion years.
Our paper presents the latest observational results on the nature of dark
energy and concludes that dark energy appears consistent with an
90-year-old idea of Einstein's, which postulated that space itself had such
repulsive energy suitable for counteracting the attractive force of
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics, Chandra X-Ray
National Optical Astronomy
Our paper presents new data on a subject of great interest to astronomers,
physicists, and the public at large. Whether dark energy is a property of
the vacuum of space-time, a modification of Einstein's theory of general
relativity, or a hint of new fundamental physics, will have repercussions
throughout the next century of scientific exploration.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper in
The Universe has been expanding since the Big Bang. In the past five
billion years, its expansion has been accelerating for entirely mysterious
reasons that point to a gaping hole in our understanding of fundamental
physics. Our research uses observations of a standard type of exploding
star, a supernova, which can be seen across the Universe and confirms that
this accelerated expansion could be due to a surprising basic property of
the repulsive effect of the vacuum.
How did you become involved in this research, and were
there any problems along the way?
I have been working in this field since my first years in graduate school
almost a decade ago. I have always wondered about the fundamental nature of
the Universe, what it's made of, and what its future will be. Astronomy is
currently one of the most exciting avenues for exploration of these
fascinating questions and it has drawn in a sizeable number of particle
physicists and theorists who are hoping to lend their expertise and help
understand their own problems through a combined exploration of the very
large to the very small.
There is currently some cultural tension between the historically
independent astronomers who are used to working on their own and having
great ideas in the middle of the night and the particle physicists who have
been working on huge multi-billion-dollar projects for decades and have a
much more organized and methodical approach to science. Our hope is to take
some of the best elements from each to tackle these exciting problems
during the next decade.
Where do you see your research leading in the
The challenge of dark energy remains one of the most exciting and
fundamental challenges in astronomy and physics today. Continued
observations of supernovae, along with new techniques that measure the
distribution of galaxies in the Universe and the deflection of light due to
the mass of large clusters of galaxies, will provide new insights on this
problem during the coming decade.
I am currently involved in two large astronomical survey projects, the
Panoramic Telescope and Rapid-Response System (Pan-STARRS; currently
finishing commissioning in Hawaii) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
(LSST; scheduled to begin operations in 2014 in Chile) that will explore
all of these astronomical approaches to learning about the basic physics of
Do you foresee any social or political implications for
Whenever I talk to the average person about my research they are always
excited by the frontiers of our basic physical understanding of the nature
of our Universe. It is a question that cuts across the boundaries of
gender, age, and nationality to connect to our wonderment at ourselves, our
world, and the potential for human knowledge and understanding.
Dr. Michael Wood-Vasey
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
1. A two-dimensional illustration of galaxies receding from each other
since the Big Bang with a period of decelerating expansion followed by a
phase of accelerating expansion. (Movie Credit: NASA/STScI/G. Bacon).
Visual Webpage Presentation:
2. The explosion, rise and fall of a Type Ia supernova. (Movie credit:
Peter Nugent, Alex Conley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and N.
Johnston, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center).
Keywords: accelerating expansion of our universe, dynamics of
the universe, mysterious dark energy, the vacuum of space-time,
modification of einstein's theory of general relativity, big bang,
supernova, particle physicists and theorists, historically independent
astronomers, panoramic telescope and rapid-response system, large
synoptic survey telescope.