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See Inside April 2009

Does Dark Energy Really Exist?

Or does Earth occupy a very unusual place in the universe?



DON DIXON

In science, the grandest revolutions are often triggered by the smallest discrepancies. In the 16th century, based on what struck many of his contemporaries as the esoteric minutiae of celestial motions, Copernicus suggested that Earth was not, in fact, at the center of the universe. In our own era, another revolution began to unfold 11 years ago with the discovery of the accelerating universe. A tiny deviation in the brightness of exploding stars led astronomers to conclude that they had no idea what 70 percent of the cosmos consists of. All they could tell was that space is filled with a substance unlike any other one that pushes along the expansion of the universe rather than holding it back. This substance became known as dark energy.

It is now over a decade later, and the existence of dark energy is still so puzzling that some cosmologists are revisiting the fundamental postulates that led them to deduce its existence in the first place. One of these is the product of that earlier revolution: the Copernican principle, that Earth is not in a central or otherwise special position in the universe. If we discard this basic principle, a surprisingly different picture of what could account for the observations emerges.

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