Einstein’s Biggest Blunder and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

Albert Einstein Visits Hopi Image Credit: German Federal Archive

Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G, Riess shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery, in the late 1990s, that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. One possible explanation for this acceleration is the cosmological constant in Einstein’s general relativity theory. Einstein, however, called the cosmological constant his biggest blunder. Was it really a blunder?

Einstein’s General Relativity Theory

Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which is a theory that explains why gravity works, ranks as one of the crowning intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. One implication of general relativity is the expanding universe. Einstein did not believe this implication of his theory. He initially envisioned the universe as eternal and static.

Einstein therefore forced his theory to conform to his preconceived ideas about the universe. To keep general relativity from predicting either an expanding or collapsing universe, Einstein added a cosmological constant to the general relativity equations. There was absolutely no experimental or observational justification for the existence of this cosmological constant. Einstein’s cosmological constant was a blatant fudge to force his theory to conform to his conception of a static universe. The universe is however not static.

Hubble and the Expanding Universe

In 1924 Edwin Hubble proved that spiral galaxies were indeed outside our Milky Way galaxy, when he measured the distance to the Andromeda galaxy. Hubble continued to measure the distances to galaxies, as well as their Doppler redshifts, which tell us the speeds at which the galaxies are receding from us. When Hubble made a graph plotting the recessional speeds of galaxies versus their distances, he noticed something interesting. The more distant galaxies are receding from us more rapidly. Hubble’s interpretation of this result is that the universe is expanding.

Astronomers now call this graph the Hubble plot. The slope of the line on the Hubble plot is the Hubble constant, and the value of the Hubble constant tells astronomers how fast the universe is expanding. A steeper slope, corresponding to a larger value of the Hubble constant, tells astronomers that the universe is expanding more rapidly.

Einstein learned about Hubble’s result, visited Hubble, and was convinced that Hubble’s work was correct. Einstein then did what any good scientist should do when confronted with data that disagree with the theory. Einstein modified general relativity by removing the cosmological constant and returning the equations to their original form. To Einstein’s credit he admitted his error and called the cosmological constant his biggest blunder.

The Accelerating Universe and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

2011 Physics Nobel Laureates also Won the 2006 Shaw Prize Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ever since Hubble’s time astronomers have been refining the value of the Hubble constant with more accurate measurements of distances to distant galaxies. Two independent teams of astronomers, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-z Supernova Search Team, announced the same remarkable discovery in 1998. The rate at which the universe is expanding is accelerating. Perlmutter headed the Supernova Cosmology Project. Schmidt and Riess worked on the High-z Supernova Search Team.

Both teams used type Ia supernovas to measure the distances to very distant galaxies. The name “high-z” in fact refers to the large redshifts and hence large distances of the most distant galaxies. Type Ia supernovas are explosions that occur in white dwarf stars when they become too massive to remain stable white dwarf stars. All type Ia supernovas have very nearly the same luminosity (total energy output) at their maximum brightness.

Their uniform extremely high luminosities make type Ia supernovas ideal for measuring distances to very distant galaxies. How bright a celestial object appears from Earth depends on the object’s luminosity and distance; therefore if astronomers know a celestial object’s luminosity and apparent brightness they can calculate its distance. When these teams of astronomers observed a type Ia supernova in a distant galaxy, they used its apparent brightness and the known luminosity for all type Ia supernovas to calculate the distance to the host galaxy.

After using the type Ia supernova to measure the distance to a galaxy, the astronomers also measured the galaxy’s Doppler redshift, and hence recessional velocity, to add another datum to the Hubble plot. Their work showed that the universe was expanding more slowly in the distant past than it is today. Both teams therefore concluded that the rate at which the universe is expanding is accelerating. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics recognizes their remarkable and totally unexpected discovery.

Einstein’s Cosmological Constant Reconsidered

Spiral galaxy NGC 4921 is estimated to be 320 million light years from Earth. Photo courtesy of NASA

Why is the expansion of the universe accelerating? Both common sense and basic physics suggest the opposite. The net gravitational force from all the mass in the universe should tug galaxies inward and therefore slow the expansion rate of the universe. Astronomers refer to whatever force is causing this acceleration in the expansion of the universe as the dark energy and are puzzled about the nature of the dark energy.

One possible solution is Einstein’s cosmological constant. If cosmologists put the cosmological constant back into Einstein’s general relativity equations, then general relativity equations can predict that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The value of the cosmological constant would have to be different than the value Einstein originally used to force the theory to predict a static universe. The idea basic is however the same.

Was Einstein’s biggest blunder actually a masterstroke?

© Copyright 2011 Paul A. Heckert, Ph.D., All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
  • Rick Ryals

    Paul A. Heckert said:
    “One possible solution is Einstein’s cosmological constant. If cosmologists put the cosmological constant back into Einstein’s general relativity equations, then general relativity equations can predict that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The value of the cosmological constant would have to be different than the value Einstein originally used to force the theory to predict a static universe.”

    Not necessarily, depending on what is causing acceleration, and whether or not accelerated expansion is somehow being counter-balanced by an equal increase in positive gravitational pressure.

    For example, if real, massive particle creation from vacuum energy leaves a hole in the vacuum, then it will expand from the increase in negative pressure that the void produces, but this effect will be offset by the increased positive gravitational effect that the newly created massive particle has on the gravity of the universe, regardless of how fast the process takes place. This is a direct consequence of matter creation from Einstein’s finite, closed universal model.

    In order to get rho>0 out of Einstein’s matter-less model, you have to condense the matter density from the existing structure, and in doing so the pressure of the vacuum necessarily becomes less than zero, P<0.

    The most obvious way to create new matter in Einstein's model, (the most compatible with the spirit of general relativity), also holds it flat and stable even as expansion accelerates.

    Too bad he didn't know about the real, massive particle potential of the quantum vacuum before he abandoned his most natural cosmological extension over a perceived instability problem that it really didn't have, huh

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    Really, Come on guys. Do you really think, that in the infinite expanse of “the void” all the matter that exists will be contained in one nice neat package. That would be like one single raindrop in Guam affecting the whole world. Why don’t you accept that there are multiple big bangs because no phenomena is singular. Put math down and be reasonable. Humanity is not the center of the universe. The void has no end thus your ideology of the only tiny little sand grain at the beach carry’s no weight. how could all the matter in the infinite void locate one another to create this be all end all mass effect, its not possible. I almost forgot to mention that galaxies smash into one another, according to brilliant hypothesis, that’s not supposed to happen. Einstein had it right the first time because he could grasp the depth of how much matter was in the void. He understood that at a certain point gravitation would stop due to mass reaction and would reach density great enough to supernova and I don’t think that would involve all the matter in the entire universe. I could be wrong, What is the formula for maximum mass befor supernova, besides how much matter can a black hole eat before it explodes.

  • P.Rose

    Dear Sirs
    The fact is that general relativity is one of the most fantastic
    achievements, of men, not only by its elegant mathematics, but also
    for the breakthrought it meant for the possible understanding of the
    universe and rational obvious considerations, it altered the notion
    that reigned from antiquaty that time was unform as newton defended,
    we now know that is not, is is kinematical, alterable and geodesic,
    and this was a fantatic victory for men as Professor Doctor Paulo
    Crawford told me in the Lisbon Faculty of sciences-www.fc.ul.pt., we
    know also that time doesn’t flow uniformly as Aristoteles defended and
    that the universe has possible structrures and it is not in principle
    infinite, as elegant geometry equations of relativity demonstrate, we
    know also that time is geodesic within gravitation, so Newton laws
    where overcomed, we need therefore to go further in knowledge and try
    to find out answers in the possible understanding of the universe and
    try to better understand the formalaties of time universe and space,
    is it time perturbed by gravitation?, what is time?, is it space
    finite endless or infinite or several?, is time Geodesic, kinematical,
    uniform or all of this?, a new rational approach has to be created to
    find a solution to this questions-rationaly-phylosoficaly and
    Professor Doctor Paulo Crawford works are strongly recommended and are
    available in its page at google.pt- “pesquisar” or “search” -”Paulo
    P. Rose/M. Lapa

  • http://www.stefanides.gr PANAGIOTIS STEFANIDES

    Dear P.Rose,
    Since you mentioned Aristoteles,please Refer to Plato’s Time:
    ….He planned to make a movable image of Eternity, ….
    ….set in order the Heaven….
    …Time was created along with the Heaven,in order to disolve concurrently with it,IF EVER A DISSOLUTION OF THEM WILL TAKE PLACE [Timaeus 38B]…
    Panagiotis Stefanides

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  • http://www.physicsamerica.com rodney Kawecki

    Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant blunder seems to be the most people talk about. I have studied and restudied relativity modern physics over the past 15 years. I have written three books published starting in 2007 over the journey. I find that if the universes orbit is based on light speed that everything in – it relatively retains a quotable speed value. It may not be a limit for the universe but it surely is there. Reviewing facts about our universe – I refer to believe that Disk Universe Design seems to be the most plausible reference estimating its age at 27 billion and 10 (104) billion miles across asserting both sides of the bangs center. I am researching the reinvention of relativity as a lot of physicists talk about it.
    I am currently researching and writing s new book trying to refine aspects about the 5th element. It seems to me that our universe is not at all infinite = infinitely speaking. The empty terrain might well be but the matter chemistry is not. We talk about multiverse theory, parallel universe theory maintained by Michio Kaku or even many universe theory – it all depends on the authors design of it. But I don’t think we are at all alone here. In my next book I am putting efficient on the values rather then precise facts that can change do to the test. Like I said I don’t think we are alone in our universe. The trouble I have with Einstein’s theories are that he did put a speed limit on this big big universe. My books illustrate faster the light space travel that now I am beginning to disagree with ”time travel theory”. We can research backwards in time to before even Issac Newton and Kepler universe when the earth we believe to be flat and award with the idea that god puts no limits of his creations. I don’t neither but have to ask myself why, how to what means is it possible.
    Even though we can’t yet even detect that existence of mass energy in matter — relativity believes acts as gravitation or as a sensitivity magnetic asserting things to become motioned. Motion can be derived as being activity almost constant – in itself. Planck time and Planck lengths seem to fit in there somewhere but can not be definite. And if that is the case…then gravity is motionless and is a calculable measurement of time and length.

  • Rodney Kawecki

    Fundamental formulae for faster Than Light Space Travel….. m=mo (v2/c2) where mass equals zero….(or where mass of the object equals zero and does not exist) the kinetic mass of the object also equals zero. Relativity asserts this equation in physics implying that an object in space where its physical mass asserts to measure zero there can be no connecting kinetic value in an depressing vacuum of empty space where its physical mass retains a zero value even as it moves in acceleration. The field mass on the vacuum continues to depress instantaneously as the accelerating mass continues to accelerate. See: KAWECKIUNIVERSE