A British theoretical physicist has developed a theory that could solve one of the universe's biggest mysteries: why its rate of expansion is accelerating rather than slowing down, as predicted by the known laws of physics.
The theory, known as "massive gravity," would modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity to account for this rate disparity. And the physicist behind it, Claudia de Rham of Imperial College London, just received a $100,000 award to continue developing it.
Currently, the best explanation scientists have for how our known universe came into being centers on the idea of a Big Bang that sent particles flying out from a single point. Those particles eventually formed atoms, and then molecules, planets, stars, and, well, everything.
Based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the gravitational forces of all these objects should gradually tug at the universe, slowing down its rate of expansion.
But by 1998, scientists realized that not only was the rate of expansion not slowing down, it was actually speeding up. They had no idea why, though, so they attributed the acceleration to an unseen force they dubbed "dark energy."
De Rham's massive gravity theory eliminates the need for dark energy by making a change to Einstein’s theory of general relativity: instead of assuming that gravitons, the hypothetical particles responsible for the force of gravity, are massless, as Einstein did, she suggests that they do have some mass.
As she explained to The Guardian, this would allow gravity itself to fulfill the role currently attributed to dark energy.
De Rham wasn't the first to attempt to create a working model of massive gravity theory. But in 2011, she and her colleagues published a paper on it that has since gained traction, leading to subsequent research and her receipt of the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists last week.
She is now hopeful that advances in gravitational wave astronomy will make it possible to test the predictions of massive gravity theory within the decade.
"It would be amazing if it was shown to be right," De Rham told The Guardian. "That may or may not happen, but what will happen is that we’ll have a much better fundamental understanding of gravity and that’s just something so deep, it’s one of the big questions today."
READ MORE: Has physicist's gravity theory solved 'impossible' dark energy riddle? [The Guardian]
More on dark energy: Scientists Boot up New Device to Map the Universe’s Dark Energy