Equally mysterious is the so-called 'dark energy', which is believed to be an exotic fluid that fills empty space and is thought to be driving the recently-discovered accelerating expansion rate of the Universe. What is the physical origin of dark energy and how does it evolve with time? The answer to these questions rule the fate of our Universe.
Liverpool John Moores University’s Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) has been awarded 1.7 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme* to work on finding the answers.
By comparing theory to data, scientists are hoping to crack this mystery.
The new programme, BAHAMAS (BAryons and HAloes of MAssive Systems), will aim to produce large-scale cosmological simulations of the Universe in order to interpret observations and determine the nature of dark matter and dark energy.
Dr Ian McCarthy, theoretical astrophysicist based at the ARI, who will lead the programme, explains:
“It has been known since the 1950s that the Universe is expanding. Until recently, nearly everyone expected the expansion rate to slow with time, as matter in the Universe exerts gravity on all other matter and Einstein's theory tells us that this should slow the expansion rate of the Universe. However, we now have compelling evidence that the expansion rate is actually accelerating.
“What drives the acceleration is what astronomers call 'dark energy', which is hypothesised to act like a form of anti-gravity that pushes matter and space apart. It is actually dark energy that dominates the energy budget of the Universe today. However, very little is known about the mechanism responsible for dark energy or how dark energy should evolve with time. A large part of our BAHAMAS efforts will be to rigorously test models for dark energy.
“The grant will also allow us to purchase the advanced computing facilities required to do this kind of research. Our goal over the coming five years is to redefine the state-of-the-art for theoretical predictions for the evolution of the Universe and to better understand its 'dark' side."
The funding will also allow for the development of this programme and the recruitment of postdoctoral scientific staff and PhD students. They will work alongside the next generation of powerful observational facilities including the LSST and Euclid to make equally powerful and accurate theoretical predictions for what the cosmos should look like given different models for the dark matter and dark energy.
Professor Chris Collins, Head of the ARI, commented: “Through his work on cosmological simulations, Ian McCarthy is setting the international agenda in research to understand the nature of dark matter and dark energy. This ERC award is an outstanding achievement and will fund a new research team within the ARI focussing on two of the most vexing unsolved questions in physics. Ian will be presenting his research as an invited speaker at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science to be held at the ACC Conference Centre on the Waterfront in Liverpool in April 2018. The event is organised by the ARI on behalf of the European Astronomical Society and will be attended by more than 1,200 astronomers and space scientists.”
The President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: "On behalf of the Scientific Council, I'd like to congratulate the new ERC grant winners. I also express my gratitude to the over 3,000 top scientists and scholars for their pain-staking work, evaluating and identifying the most ambitious proposals submitted to the ERC. The funding will encourage these mid-career scientists to explore further the unknown and develop their most daring ideas at their own initiative. By leaving them freedom, the ERC is enabling breakthroughs. This conditions the capacity of Europe to respond to a number of challenges and to improve the lives of its citizens if the appropriate policies are adopted."
*This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme ERC-2017-CoG-769130.
Further information: https://erc.europa.eu/news/erc-2017-consolidator-grants-results