Emerging scientific basis
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. In some of these solutions, the universe has been expanding from an initial singularity which was, essentially, the Big Bang.
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. 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.
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."
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.
Starting in 1998, observations of supernovas in distant galaxies have been interpreted as consistent 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.