On large scales, the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic. This means that no matter where you are located in the cosmos, give or take the occasional nebula or galactic cluster, the night sky will appear approximately the same. Naturally there is some ‘clumpiness’ in the distribution of the stars and galaxies, but generally the density of any given location will be the same as a location hundreds of light years away. This assumption is known as the Copernican Principle. By invoking the Copernican Principle, astronomers have predicted the existence of the elusive dark energy, accelerating the galaxies away from one another, thus expanding the Universe. But say if this basic assumption is incorrect? What if our region of the Universe is unique in that we are sitting in in a location where the average density is a lot lower than other regions of space? Suddenly our observations of light from Type 1a supernovae are not anomalous and can be explained by the local void. If this were to be the case, dark energy (or any other exotic substance for that matter) wouldn’t be required to explain the nature of our Universe after all…
Dark energy is a hypothetical energy predicted to permeate through the Cosmos, causing the observed expansion of the Universe. This strange energy is believed to account for 73% of the total mass-energy (i.e. E=mc2) of the Universe. But where is the evidence for dark energy? One of the main tools when measuring the accelerated expansion of the Universe is to analyse the red-shift of a distant object with a known brightness. In a Universe filled with stars, what object generates a “standard” brightness?
Type 1a supernovae are known as ‘standard candles’ for this very reason. No matter where they explode in the observable universe, they will always blow with the same amount of energy. So, in the mid-1990’s astronomers observed distant Type 1a’s a little dimmer than expected. With the basic assumption (it may be an accepted view, but it is an assumption all the same) that the Universe obeys the Copernican Principle, this dimming suggested that there was some force in the Universe causing not only an expansion, but an accelerated expansion of the Universe. This mystery force was dubbed dark energy and it is now a commonly held view that the cosmos must be filled with it to explain these observations. (There are many other factors explaining the existence of dark energy, but this is a critical factor.)
According to a new publication headed by Timothy Clifton, from the University of Oxford, UK, the controversial suggestion that the widely accepted Copernican Principle is wrong is investigated. Perhaps we do exist in a unique region of space where the average density is much lower than the rest of the Universe. The observations of distant supernovae suddenly wouldn’t require dark energy to explain the nature of the expanding Universe. No exotic substances, no modifications to gravity and no extra dimensions required.
Clifton explains conditions that could explain supernova observations are that we live in an extremely rarefied region, right near the centre, and this void could be on a scale of the same order of magnitude as the observable Universe. If this were the case, the geometry of space-time would be different, influencing the passage of light in a different way than we’d expect. What’s more, he even goes as far as saying that any given observer has a high probability of finding themselves in such a location. However, in an inflationary Universe such as ours, the likelihood of the generation of such a void is low, but should be considered nonetheless. Finding ourselves in the middle of a unique region of space would out rightly violate the Copernican Principle and would have massive implications on all facets of cosmology. Quite literally, it would be a revolution.
The Copernican Principle is an assumption that forms the bedrock of cosmology. As pointed out by Amanda Gefter at New Scientist, this assumption should be open to scrutiny. After all, good science should not be akin to religion where an assumption (or belief) becomes unquestionable. Although Clifton’s study is speculative for now, it does pose some interesting questions about our understanding of the Universe and whether we are willing to test our fundamental ideas.