Acceleration in String Theory – Savdeep Sethi

If it is true string theory cannot accommodate stable dark energy, that may be a reason to doubt string theory. But it is a reason to doubt dark energy – that is, dark energy in its most popular form, called a cosmological constant. The idea originated in 1917 with Einstein and was revived in 1998 when astronomers discovered that not only is spacetime expanding – the rate of that expansion is picking up. The cosmological constant would be a form of energy in the vacuum of space that never changes and counteracts the inward pull of gravity. But it is not the only possible explanation for the accelerating universe. An alternative is “quintessence,” a field pervading spacetime that can evolve. According to Cumrun Vafa, Harvard, “Regardless of whether one can realize a stable dark energy in string theory or not, it turns out that the idea of having dark energy changing over time is actually more natural in string theory. If this is the case, then one can measure this sliding of dark energy by astrophysical observations currently taking place.”

So far all astrophysical evidence supports the cosmological constant idea, but there is some wiggle room in the measurements. Upcoming experiments such as Europe’s Euclid space telescope, NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the Simons Observatory being built in Chile’s desert will look for signs dark energy was stronger or weaker in the past than the present. “The interesting thing is that we’re already at a sensitivity level to begin to put pressure on [the cosmological constant theory].” Paul Steinhardt, Princeton University says. “We don’t have to wait for new technology to be in the game. We’re in the game now.” And even skeptics of Vafa’s proposal support the idea of considering alternatives to the cosmological constant. “I actually agree that [a changing dark energy field] is a simplifying method for constructing accelerated expansion,” Eva Silverstein, Stanford University says. “But I don’t think there’s any justification for making observational predictions about the dark energy at this point.”

Quintessence is not the only other option. In the wake of Vafa’s papers, Ulf Danielsson, a physicist at Uppsala University and colleagues proposed another way of fitting dark energy into string theory. In their vision our universe is the three-dimensional surface of a bubble expanding within a larger-dimensional space. “The physics within this surface can mimic the physics of a cosmological constant,” Danielsson says. “This is a different way of realizing dark energy compared to what we’ve been thinking so far.”

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