Stories of Things Unseen

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2014 16 Jun

In 1977 George Lucas struck box-office gold with the epic adventure “Star Wars.” Mystic luminaries, anthropomorphic androids, light sabers, and computerized special effects captured the imaginations of young and old alike. But perhaps the most lasting impression was left by Obi-wan Kenobi’s Delphic disclosure: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. . . . It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."

An invisible source of staggering energy, permeating the cosmos that common folk could summon for noble or ignoble ends, was the perfect hook for audiences brought up in the dawning age of high technology and Western mysticism. At the height of the film’s popularity I was playing on a community soccer team named “The Force”; we co-opted the film tagline, “May the Force be with you,” for our game whoop.

That tagline may have contained more truth than Lucas and Co. realized. 

A startling discovery

Over 20 years after the first “Star Wars” film, the astrophysics community stumbled on an extraordinary revelation.

Although the outward expansion of the universe had been a well-established fact since 1929 when Edwin Hubble detected redshifts in light emitted from distant stars, measurements from supernovae in the late 1990s revealed that galaxies and stars are receding from each other at an ever-increasing rate. In other words, the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating.* Physicists, scrambling to identify the source of this phenomenon, dubbed it “dark energy,” because of its mysterious, hidden nature.

Subsequent measurements revealed that this invisible force, suffusing the cosmos, accounts for an amazing 70 percent of all the stuff in the universe. If you add to that, all of the dark matter in the universe—matter that is not visible—then dark “stuff” makes up 95 percent of the known cosmos.

The unexpected appearance of dark energy, and its implications for understanding the universe, has led prominent physicists to call it the biggest question in all of physics. As University of Chicago physicist Michael Turner put it, “Dark energy holds the key to understanding our destiny . . . [and] could well be the number one problem in all of physics and astronomy.” It is a mystery they are obsessed with unraveling.

As a starting point, I suggest that they ponder an insight from antiquity: “The universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Somehow, I doubt they’ll take me up on that.) Continue reading here.