Ultimate fate of the universe

The ultimate fate of the universe is a topic in physical cosmology, whose theoretical restrictions allow possible scenarios for the evolution and ultimate fate of the universe to be described and evaluated. Based on available observational evidence, deciding the fate and evolution of the universe have now become valid cosmological questions, being beyond the mostly untestable constraints of mythological or theological beliefs. Many possible dark futures have been predicted by rival scientific hypotheses, including that the universe might have existed for a finite and infinite duration, or towards explaining the manner and circumstances of its beginning.

Observations made by Edwin Hubble during the 1920s–1950s found that galaxies appeared to be moving away from each other, leading to the currently accepted Big Bang theory. This suggests that the universe began–very small and very dense–about 13.8 billion years ago, and it has expanded and (on average) become less dense ever since.[1] Confirmation of the Big Bang mostly depends on knowing the rate of expansion, average density of matter, and the physical properties of the mass–energy in the universe.

There is a strong consensus[who?] among cosmologists that the universe is "flat" (see Shape of the universe) and will continue to expand forever.[2][3]

Factors that need to be considered in determining the universe's origin and ultimate fate include: the average motions of galaxies, the shape and structure of the universe, and the amount of dark matter and dark energy that the universe contains.

It is possible that the destruction of the universe may entail the complete cessation of time and reality.

Emerging scientific basis

Theory

The theoretical scientific exploration of the ultimate fate of the universe became possible with Albert Einstein's 1915 theory of general relativity. General relativity can be employed to describe the universe on the largest possible scale. There are many possible solutions to the equations of general relativity, and each solution implies a possible ultimate fate of the universe.

Alexander Friedmann proposed several solutions in 1922, as did Georges Lemaître in 1927.[4] In some of these solutions, the universe has been expanding from an initial singularity which was, essentially, the Big Bang.

Observation

In 1931, Edwin Hubble published his conclusion, based on his observations of Cepheid variable stars in distant galaxies, that the universe was expanding. From then on, the beginning of the universe and its possible end have been the subjects of serious scientific investigation.

Big Bang and Steady State theories

In 1927, Georges Lemaître set out a theory that has since come to be called the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.[4] In 1948, Fred Hoyle set out his opposing Steady State theory in which the universe continually expanded but remained statistically unchanged as new matter is constantly created. These two theories were active contenders until the 1965 discovery, by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a fact that is a straightforward prediction of the Big Bang theory, and one that the original Steady State theory could not account for. As a result, The Big Bang theory quickly became the most widely held view of the origin of the universe.

Cosmological constant

When Einstein formulated general relativity, he and his contemporaries believed in a static universe. When Einstein found that his equations could easily be solved in such a way as to allow the universe to be expanding now, and to contract in the far future, he added to those equations what he called a cosmological constant, essentially a constant energy density unaffected by any expansion or contraction, whose role was to offset the effect of gravity on the universe as a whole in such a way that the universe would remain static. After Hubble announced his conclusion that the universe was expanding, Einstein wrote that his cosmological constant was "the greatest blunder of my life."[5]

Density parameter

An important parameter in fate of the universe theory is the density parameter, omega (), defined as the average matter density of the universe divided by a critical value of that density. This selects one of three possible geometries depending on whether is equal to, less than, or greater than . These are called, respectively, the flat, open and closed universes. These three adjectives refer to the overall geometry of the universe, and not to the local curving of spacetime caused by smaller clumps of mass (for example, galaxies and stars). If the primary content of the universe is inert matter, as in the dust models popular for much of the 20th century, there is a particular fate corresponding to each geometry. Hence cosmologists aimed to determine the fate of the universe by measuring , or equivalently the rate at which the expansion was decelerating.

Repulsive force

Starting in 1998, observations of supernovas in distant galaxies have been interpreted as consistent[6] with a universe whose expansion is accelerating. Subsequent cosmological theorizing has been designed so as to allow for this possible acceleration, nearly always by invoking dark energy, which in its simplest form is just a positive cosmological constant. In general, dark energy is a catch-all term for any hypothesised field with negative pressure, usually with a density that changes as the universe expands.

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