One Number Shows Something Is Fundamentally Wrong with Our Conception of the Universe


An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with a ground-based telescope. The inset image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows a galaxy cluster teeming with variable Cepheids, a class of stars that flicker regularly. Using this pulsation rate, scientists have calculated the universe’s expansion rate, but that number doesn’t match with values derived from other cosmic phenomena, such as the echo of the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.
(Image: © An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with a ground-based telescope. The inset image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows a galaxy cluster teeming with variable Cepheids, a class of stars that flicker regularly. Using this pulsation rate, scientists have calculated the universe’s expansion rate, but that number doesn’t match with values derived from other cosmic phenomena, such as the echo of the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.)

There’s a puzzling mystery going on in the universe. Measurements of the rate of cosmic expansion using different methods keep turning up disagreeing results. The situation has been called a „crisis.“

Adam Mann | SPACE.com

The problem centers on what’s known as the Hubble constant. Named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble, this unit describes how fast the universe is expanding at different distances from Earth. Using data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck satellite, scientists estimate the rate to be 46,200 mph per million light-years (or, using cosmologists‘ units, 67.4 kilometers/second per megaparsec). But calculations using pulsating stars called Cepheids suggest it is 50,400 mph per million light-years (73.4 km/s/Mpc). 

If the first number is right, it means scientists have been measuring distances to faraway objects in the universe wrong for many decades. But if the second is correct, then researchers might have to accept the existence of exotic, new physics. Astronomers, understandably, are pretty worked up about this discrepancy.

What is a layperson supposed to make of this situation? And just how important is this difference, which to outsiders looks minor? In order to get to the bottom of the clash, Live Science called in Barry Madore, an astronomer at the University of Chicago and a member of one of the teams undertaking measurements of the Hubble constant.

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