Hermione Eyre: I have seen the future, and it is dark

It is clearly a very exciting time to be a computational cosmologist ... and that's before Lily Allen pops up
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The Independent Online

"Dark energy" is a mysterious force that makes up 70 per cent of the universe. It was unexpectedly discovered in 1998, though we are still far from clear as to what it is, or what effect it will have on the cosmos, or, for that matter, on house prices. All we know is that it has an anti-gravitational pull that is causing the universe to expand inexorably.

Yesterday, however, our understanding took a leap forward. Computational cosmologist Dr Carlos Frenk of the University of Durham revealed a new computer-simulated map of the dark energy in the universe. This map will help us to measure the properties of dark energy for the first time, and shows how feasible a future satellite fact-finding mission – currently on the European Space Agency's Cosmic Vision Shortlist – could be. It is a very exciting time to be a computational cosmologist, clearly.

But for the rest of us it is all just as confusing as ever. This new map of dark energy was, we were told, so big that a beam of light would take a time equivalent to the age of the Earth to cross from one side to the other. I was a little surprised, then, when said map arrived as an email attachment on a press release from the University of Durham. It didn't even crash my system. The map looked rather beautiful, like a ball of blue merino wool.

Next I settled down to read the new University of Durham findings, presented in a paper entitled The Detectability of Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations in Future Galaxy Surveys. Strangely, I found that before I got to the end of the first page, I was asleep and dreaming of a distant time in the future, about two weeks from now, when the universe had expanded so much because of all the mysterious dark energy, that every so-and-so had an opinion about what it was, especially celebrities.

Pop totty, former footballers and concerned lifestyle gurus were weighing in on the subject with all the authority and scientific acumen we have come to expect from them. Lily Allen was appointed global ambassador for the understanding of dark energy, and caused a panic when in an interview she said it would "turn the planet into spaghetti string". She subsequently complained she was only joking.

Dr Gillian McKeith fronted a TV special. "Dark energy can be extremely nutritious if consumed in calorie-controlled amounts. It's actually a traditional dish and its ancient name is 'Source of Solaris'. Personally I wouldn't want to see anyone eating it more than five times a week, unless they choose my specially designed, nutritionally balanced Solaris Breakfast Lunch and Dinner Bar. It's loaded with cosmic enzymes, and helps deliver really supersonic, star-shaped stools."

Meanwhile, Kerry Katona blamed dark energy for the termination of her contract with Iceland. "It's a really affecting all of us Virgos. We're totally under the thumb of it. I wish it would just go back where it came from and be undiscovered." Next, the mysterious pull of the spheres was a hot topic in the London mayoral elections, too.

Mr Ken Livingstone said: "Dark energy began in the 1980s and in the prevailing atmosphere was 'get your snout in the trough and it doesn't matter a damn about anyone else'. Basically it's the foundations laid by Mrs Thatcher that means our universe is expanding and the only way to counteract it is by voting for me. If you care to look at the figures you'll notice I've already reduced the expansion of the night skies by 6 per cent." Boris Johnson shouted, "Cosmic codswallop!" and spluttered.

Russell Brand riffed on the topic in an off-the-cuff monologue: "What is this bleedin' thing then? It keeps expanding, not unlike me very own periwinkle, but does this represent the finer things in life, the rrr-omance of the galaxy? No, it is the spiritual malaise within all of us, my droogs, writ large across the sky at night!"

Carole Caplin recommended regular lymph massage as a way for women to avoid "cosmic bum and tum syndrome" ("Ladies, we all know what it's like to feel you're expanding!") while Madonna claimed that Kabbalah had found a way of harnessing the power of the universe to cleanse the Chernobyl district. Heather Mills McCartney said drinking too much of it would make children rude. But by now, the tide was turning, and people were saying dark energy was by now far from mysterious. It was overexposed.

I woke up with a start, and had another look at the material in front of me from the University of Durham. It was even more incredible than anything in my dream, and even the most outlandish celebrity waffle. It stated that if dark energy continues to accelerate the expansion of the universe, it will result, in a few billion years' time, in a big freeze that will tear the universe apart, leaving it only a vast and cold expanse of black holes, and dying stars.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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