Recently two different groups have measured the apparent brightness of
supernovae
with redshifts near z = 1. Based on this data
the old idea of a *cosmological constant* is making a comeback.

Einstein's original cosmological model was a static, homogeneous model
with spherical geometry. The gravitational effect of matter caused an
acceleration in this model which Einstein did not want, since at the time
the Universe was not known to be expanding. Thus Einstein introduced a
*cosmological constant* into his equations for General Relativity.
This term acts to counteract the gravitational pull of matter, and so
it has been described as an *anti-gravity* effect.

Why does the cosmological constant behave this way?

This term acts like a vacuum energy density, an idea which has become quite fashionable in high energy particle physics models since a vacuum energy density of a specific kind is used in the Higgs mechanism for spontaneous symmetry breaking. Indeed, the inflationary scenario for the first picosecond after the Big Bang proposes that a fairly large vacuum energy density existed during the inflationary epoch. The vacuum energy density must be associated with a negative pressure because:

- The vacuum energy density must be constant because there is nothing for it to depend on.
- If a piston capping a cylinder of vacuum is pulled out, producing more vacuum, the vacuum within the cylinder then has more energy which must have been supplied by a force pulling on the piston.
- If the vacuum is trying to pull the piston back into the cylinder, it must have a negative pressure, since a positive pressure would tend to push the piston out.

The animation above shows the piston moving in the cylinder filled with a "vacuum" containing quantum fluctuations, while the region outside the cylinder has "nothing" with zero density and pressure. Of course the politically correct terms are "false vacuum" in the cylinder and "true vacuum" outside, but the physics is the same.

The magnitude of the negative pressure needed for energy conservation is
easily found to be *P = -u = -rho*c ^{2}*
where

But in General Relativity, *pressure has weight*, which means that
the gravitational acceleration at the edge of a uniform density sphere
is not given by

g = GM/Rbut is rather given by^{2}= (4*pi/3)*G*rho*R

g = (4*pi/3)*G*(rho+3P/cNow Einstein wanted a static model, which means that^{2})*R

rho(vacuum) = 0.5*rho(matter)he had a total density of

g = (4*pi/3)*G*(rho(matter)-2*rho(vacuum))*R = 0allowing a static Universe.

However, there is a basic flaw in this Einstein static model: it is unstable - like a pencil balanced on its point. For imagine that the Universe grew slightly: say by 1 part per million in size. Then the vacuum energy density stays the same, but the matter energy density goes down by 3 parts per million. This gives a net negative gravitational acceleration, which makes the Universe grow even more! If instead the Universe shrank slightly, one gets a net positive gravitational acceleration, which makes it shrink more! Any small deviation gets magnified, and the model is fundamentally flawed.

In addition to this flaw of instability, the static model's premise of a static Universe was shown by Hubble to be incorrect. This led Einstein to refer to the cosmological constant as his greatest blunder, and to drop it from his equations. But it still exists as a possibility -- a coefficient that should be determined from observations or fundamental theory.

The equations of quantum field theory describing interacting particles
and anti-particles of mass *M* are very hard to solve exactly.
With a large amount of mathematical work it is possible to prove that the
ground state of this system has an energy that is less than infinity.
But there is no obvious reason why the energy of this ground state should be
zero. One expects roughly one particle in every volume equal to the
Compton wavelength of the particle cubed, which gives a vacuum density of

rho(vacuum) = MFor the highest reasonable elementary particle mass, the Planck mass of 20 micrograms, this density is more than 10^{4}c^{3}/h^{3}= 10^{13}[M/proton mass]^{4}gm/cc

We don't know what this mechanism is, but it seems reasonable that suppression by 122 orders of magnitude, which would make the effect of the vacuum energy density on the Universe negligible, is just as probable as suppression by 120 orders of magnitude. And 124, 126, 128 etc. orders of magnitude should all be just as probable as well, and all give a negligible effect on the Universe. On the other hand suppressions by 118, 116, 114, etc. orders of magnitude are ruled out by the data. Unless there are data to rule out suppression factors of 122, 124, etc. orders of magnitude then the most probable value of the vacuum energy density is zero.

If the supernova data and the CMB data are correct, then the vacuum density
is about 73% of the total density now. But at redshift z=2,
which occurred 10 Gyr ago for this model if H_{o} = 71,
the vacuum energy density was only 9% of the total density. And 10 Gyr in
the future the vacuum density will be 96% of the total density. Why
are we alive coincidentally at the time when the vacuum density is in the
middle of its fairly rapid transition from a negligible fraction to the
dominant fraction of the total density? If, on the other hand, the
vacuum energy density is zero, then it is always 0% of the total density and
the current epoch is not special.

During the inflationary epoch, the vacuum energy density was large:
around 10^{71} gm/cc. So in the inflationary scenario the
vacuum energy density was once large, and then was suppressed by a large
factor. So non-zero vacuum energy densities are certainly possible.

One way to look for a vacuum energy density is to study the orbits of particles moving in the gravitational field of known masses. Since we are looking for a constant density, its effect will be greater in a large volume system. The Solar System is the largest system where we really know what the masses are, and we can check for the presence of a vacuum energy density by a careful test of Kepler's Third Law: that the period squared is proportional to the distance from the Sun cubed. The centripetal acceleration of a particle moving around a circle of radius R with period P is

a = R*(2*pi/P)which has to be equal to the gravitational acceleration worked out above:^{2}

a = R*(2*pi/P)If^{2}= g = GM(Sun)/R^{2}- (8*pi/3)*G*rho(vacuum))*R

(4*piwhich is Kepler's Third Law. But if the vacuum density is not zero, then one gets a fractional change in period of^{2}/GM)*R^{3}= P^{2}

dP/P = (4*pi/3)*Rwhere the average density inside radius R is^{3}*rho(vacuum)/M(sun) = rho(vacuum)/rho(bar)

rho(vacuum) = (5+/-5)*10^{-18}< 2*10^{-17}gm/cc

The cosmological constant will also cause a precession of the perihelion
of a planet.
Cardona and Tejeiro (1998, ApJ, 493, 52) claimed that this
effect could set limits on the vacuum density only ten or so times
higher than the critical density, but their calculation appears to
be off by a
factor of 3 trillion. The correct advance of the perihelion
is *3*rho(vacuum)/rho(bar)* cycles per orbit. Because the
ranging data to the Viking landers on Mars is so precise, a very good
limit on the vacuum density is obtained:

rho(vacuum) < 2*10^{-19}gm/cc

In larger systems we cannot make part per million verifications of the standard model. In the case of the Sun's orbit around the Milky Way, we only say that the vacuum energy density is less than half of the average matter density in a sphere centered at the Galactic Center that extends out to the Sun's distance from the center. If the vacuum energy density were more than this, there would be no centripetal acceleration of the Sun toward the Galactic Center. But we compute the average matter density assuming that the vacuum energy density is zero, so to be conservative I will drop the "half" and just say

rho(vacuum) < (3/(4*pi*G))(v/R)for a circular velocity^{2}= 3*10^{-24}gm/cc

The best limit on the vacuum energy density comes from the largest possible system: the Universe as a whole. The vacuum energy density leads to an accelerating expansion of the Universe. If the vacuum energy density is greater than the critical density, then the Universe will not have gone through a very hot dense phase when the scale factor was zero (the Big Bang). We know the Universe went through a hot dense phase because of the light element abundances and the properties of the cosmic microwave background. These require that the Universe was at least a billion times smaller in the past than it is now, and this limits the vacuum energy density to

rho(vacuum) < rho(critical) = 8*10The recent supernova results suggest that the vacuum energy density is close to this limit:^{-30}gm/cc

The figure above shows the regions in the
*(Ω _{M}, λ)* plane that are suggested by the
data in 1998, where λ is short for Ω

The figure above shows the scale factor as a function of time for
several different models. The colors of the curves are keyed to the
colors of the circular dots in the
*(Ω _{M}, λ)* plane Figure.
The purple curve is for the favored

Because the time to reach a given redshift is larger in the
*Ω _{M} = 0.25*,

The *Ω _{M} = 1* model is on the left, the

Since 1998 both the CMB and the supernova data have improved. The figure
below repeats the diagram above with new error ellipses for the
supernova data and a new CMB allowed region shown.
The 3 year WMAP
"open"-CDM Monte Carlo Markov chain gives the dots, and this chain was
cut off a priori at *λ=0*.

The allowed region consistent with both the CMB and the supernova data
has shrunk dramatically toward a flat but
vacuum energy dominated model. The CMB models also give a Hubble constant,
which is shown by the color coding of the dots.
The flat vacuum dominated model is also consistent with the
HST key project value of
*H _{o} = 72 +/- 8 km/sec/Mpc*.

In the past, we have had only upper limits on the vacuum density and philosophical arguments based on the Dicke coincidence problem and Bayesian statistics that suggested that the most likely value of the vacuum density was zero. Now we have the supernova data that suggests that the vacuum energy density is greater than zero. This result is very important if true. We need to confirm it using other techniques, such as the WMAP satellite which has observed the anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background with angular resolution and sensitivity that are sufficient to measure the vacuum energy density. CMB data combined with the measured Hubble constant do confirm the supernova data: there is a positive but small vacuum energy density.

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© 1998-2012 Edward L. Wright. Last modified 19 May 2012