We have not created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, but with truth and a real purpose, and for an appointed term; but those who disbelieve turn away from that of which they have been warned. (Al Qur’an 46:4)
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Dark energy was discovered in 1998. The story of physics, astronomy and cosmology is best told by the history of Nobel Prizes in physics.
The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was divided, one half awarded to Saul Perlmutter, the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae, in 1998.”
Some 13.8 billion years ago, our universe was born in the Big Bang, and it’s been expanding ever since.
Until a few decades ago, it looked like that expansion would eventually end. Astronomers’ measurements suggested there was enough matter in the universe to overcome expansion and reverse the process, triggering a so-called Big Crunch. In this scenario, the cosmos would collapse back into an infinitely dense singularity like the one it emerged from. Perhaps this process could even spark another Big Bang, the thinking went.
We’d be gone, but the Big Bang/Big Crunch cycle could infinitely repeat.
In the years since then, the discovery of dark energy has robbed us of a shot at this eternal rebirth. In 1998, two separate teams of astronomers announced that they’d measured special exploding stars in the distant universe, called a type Ia supernova, which serves as “standard candles” for calculating distances. They found that the distant explosions — which should all have the same intrinsic brightness — were dimmer, and therefore farther away, than expected. Some mysterious force was pushing the cosmos apart from within.
Something is driving the acceleration, and that something is usually referred to as ‘dark energy.’ It could be attributed to the cosmological constant, Einstein’s much-regretted fudge factor in his field equations of general relativity, or a scalar field that varies in time and space, such as quintessence. Either way, it is now thought to constitute 73% of the stuff of the Universe, dwarfing the 23% that is dark matter and the 4% that is ordinary matter.
The most important impact of dark energy is that the universe’s expansion will never slow down. It will only accelerate.
Isn’t it annoying when that happens? You set out to prove something and find that, in fact, the opposite is true.
That’s what happened to Adam Riess — who shares this year’s Nobel Prize with Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt — in the autumn of 1997. He was using data collected by the High-z Supernova Search Team, led by Schmidt, to calculate the mass of the Universe and thence determine whether the Universe would expand forever or eventually collapse. Riess assumed, as everyone always had, that the rate of expansion of the matter-dominated Universe must be gradually slowing under the effect of gravity. But his calculations gave the Universe a nonsensical negative mass. Riess and the High-z Supernova Search Team realized that the unexpected dimness of their sample of distant type-Ia supernovae signaled instead that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating — as did Perlmutter’s Supernova Cosmology Project, which had begun its painstaking collection of similar supernova data earlier, in 1988. More recently, data on the cosmic microwave background radiation and baryon acoustic oscillations have given further support to the notion of accelerating expansion.
As the universe carries on expanding, we will no longer be able to observe galaxies outside our local group (100 million years from now). Star formation will then cease in about 1-100 trillion years as the supply of gas needed will be exhausted. While there will be some stars around, these will run out of fuel in some 120 trillion years. All that is left at that point is stellar remnants: black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs being the prime examples. One hundred quintillion (1020) years from now, most of these objects will be swallowed up by the supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies.
In this way, the universe will get darker and quieter until there’s not much going on. What happens next will depend on how fast the matter in the universe decays. It is thought that protons, which make up atoms along with neutrons and electrons, spontaneously decay into subatomic particles if you just wait long enough. The time for all ordinary matter to disappear has been calculated to be 1040 years from now. Beyond this, only black holes will remain. And even they will evaporate away after some 10100 years. At this point, the universe will be nearly a vacuum. Particles that remain, like electrons and light particles (photons), are then very far apart due to the universe’s expansion and rarely – if at all – interact. This is the true death of the universe, dubbed the “heat death.”
This ultimate death of the universe is also called the Big Freeze.
The holy Quran talks on several occasions of eventual death of this universe. An important thing to realize is that it did not have to do that for the first addressees’ of the Quran, the seventh century Arabs, had little concern with this and the prevalent philosophy among the world elite at that time was of an eternal universe. Nevertheless, the Quran talks about death of our solar system or the universe in several verses. These include the verse quoted as epigraph and also 6:2-3, 13:3, 30:9, 31:30, 39:6 and 55:27-29.
To repeat the epigraph, one more time here: “We have not created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, but with truth and a real purpose, and for an appointed term; but those who disbelieve turn away from that of which they have been warned.” (Al Qur’an 46:4)
The holy Quran presents Al Musawir, Al Baare and Al Khaliq or the Creator God of the Abrahamic faiths. Many other attributes of Allah emanate from these attributes. For example, His attributes of Omnipotence or Almighty and Omniscience or All Knowing, as in Surah Hadeed: 57:1-7. And His attribute of Omnipotence in Surah Mulk: 67:1-5. His attribute of Al Samee in Surah Raad: 13:15-17 and also in 16:21-22. In the following verse of Surah Anaam, several attributes are linked to Him being the Creator: “And He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in accordance with the requirements of wisdom; and the day He says, ‘Be!’, it will be. His word is the truth, and His will be the kingdom on the day when the trumpet will be blown. He is the Knower of the unseen and the seen. And He is the Wise, the All-Aware.” (Al Qur’an 6:74) Again we read in Surah Anaam, how several of Allah’s attributes emanate from Him being the Creator: “Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a son when He has no consort, and He has created everything and has full knowledge of all things? That is Allah, your Lord; there is no god but He, the Creator of all things; so worship Him alone. He is Guardian over everything. Eyes cannot reach Him, but He manifests Himself before the eyes. He is the Imperceptible, the All-Aware.” (Al Qur’an 102-104)
The holy Quran says on several occasions that Allah has created this universe with truth and laws of nature and for a purpose, for example: 6:74, 13:3, 14:20,15:86 and 16:4.
And finally Allah offers his creativity as a leap of faith for our accountability, in Afterlife, as in 13:3 and several other verses: Surah Yasin’s Lucid Argument About the Afterlife.