Einstein's Theory of Relativity
Chapter 8 Cosmological Implications

Chapter 8: Cosmological Implications

In the preceding chapters, we have seen how Einstein's general theory of relativity radically altered our conceptions of space, time, and gravity. The theory interprets gravity not as a force, but as a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime, with this curvature being caused by the presence of mass and energy. The Einstein field equations provide a mathematical description of how the geometry of spacetime is determined by the distribution of matter and energy.

While the implications of general relativity have been spectacularly confirmed on solar system scales, some of its most profound consequences emerge when we consider the universe as a whole. In this chapter, we will explore how general relativity, when applied to cosmology, leads to a dramatic new picture of a dynamic, evolving universe. We will see how the observations of Edwin Hubble in the early 20th century provided the first evidence for an expanding universe, and how this idea, combined with general relativity, forms the basis of the Big Bang model of cosmology. We will also encounter one of the greatest mysteries in modern physics - the nature of dark energy, a mysterious form of energy that appears to be causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

The Expanding Universe and Hubble's Law

The story of modern cosmology begins in the early 20th century with the work of the American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Using the 100-inch Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, Hubble made a series of groundbreaking observations that would transform our understanding of the universe.

One of Hubble's key observations concerned the nature of certain fuzzy patches of light in the night sky known as "nebulae." Many astronomers believed that these nebulae were relatively small, gaseous structures within our own Milky Way galaxy. However, Hubble was able to resolve individual stars within some of these nebulae and, by comparing their apparent brightness with the brightness of similar stars in the Milky Way, he could estimate their distance. To his surprise, he found that these nebulae were actually extremely distant, far beyond the bounds of the Milky Way. Hubble had discovered that the universe was vastly larger than previously believed, filled with countless "island universes" - what we now call galaxies.

But Hubble's most profound discovery came when he examined the spectra of light from these distant galaxies. He found that the spectral lines of known elements were systematically shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, a phenomenon known as redshift. The degree of this shift increased with the distance to the galaxy. This redshift is interpreted as a Doppler shift, caused by the galaxy moving away from us. The greater the redshift, the faster the galaxy is receding.

Hubble's observations led him to a remarkable conclusion: the universe is expanding. The galaxies are not static, but are moving away from each other like raisins in a rising loaf of bread. Moreover, the speed of a galaxy's recession is proportional to its distance from us. This relationship is known as Hubble's law:

$$v = H_0 d$$

Here, $v$ is the recession velocity of a galaxy, $d$ is its distance from us, and $H_0$ is a constant of proportionality known as the Hubble constant. The value of the Hubble constant is a measure of the current expansion rate of the universe.

Hubble's discovery of the expanding universe was a revelation. It overturned the long-held belief in a static, unchanging cosmos and introduced the idea that the universe has a history - it has evolved over time. This realization marked the birth of modern cosmology.

The Big Bang Model

The discovery of the expanding universe immediately suggests a profound question: if the galaxies are moving apart now, were they closer together in the past? Extrapolating backwards in time, it seems that at some point in the distant past, all the matter in the universe would have been concentrated into an infinitely dense point - a singularity. This idea forms the basis of the Big Bang model of cosmology.

According to the Big Bang model, the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago in an extremely hot, dense state. At this initial moment, the universe was infinitely dense and infinitely hot. It then expanded and cooled rapidly. As it did so, it underwent a series of phase transitions, rather like water turning to steam when it's heated or to ice when it's cooled. These transitions led to the formation of the fundamental particles and forces as we know them.

In the earliest stages of the Big Bang, the universe was a seething cauldron of energy. As it expanded and cooled, this energy began to condense into matter - first quarks and electrons, then, as the universe cooled further, these quarks combined to form protons and neutrons. About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled sufficiently for these protons and electrons to combine to form atoms, primarily hydrogen and helium. This period, known as recombination, marked the decoupling of matter and radiation. Before this point, photons were constantly interacting with charged particles, making the universe opaque. After recombination, photons could travel freely, and the universe became transparent.

The afterglow of these primordial photons is still observable today as the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. First detected in 1965 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, the CMB is a nearly uniform background of microwave radiation that fills the sky. It has a thermal black body spectrum corresponding to a temperature of about 2.7 Kelvin, and is a striking confirmation of the Big Bang model. The slight irregularities in the CMB, first mapped in detail by the COBE satellite in the 1990s, provide a snapshot of the universe at the time of recombination and are the seeds from which all future cosmic structures - galaxies, stars, and planets - would grow through the action of gravity.

The Big Bang model, based on the observation of an expanding universe and the existence of the CMB, provides a remarkably successful description of the universe's history. It explains the origin of the light elements in the early universe through the process of Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and it provides a framework for understanding the formation of cosmic structures.

However, the model is not without its problems. The standard Big Bang model relies on several highly specific initial conditions - the early universe needs to be extremely uniform, with matter distributed evenly to a high degree of precision, and it needs to have a very specific rate of expansion. Deviations from these conditions would lead to a universe very different from the one we observe. This problem of initial conditions is known as the flatness problem and the horizon problem.

Moreover, the standard Big Bang model predicts the existence of certain exotic particles, such as magnetic monopoles, which have never been observed. This is known as the monopole problem.

These issues were addressed in the 1980s by the theory of cosmic inflation. According to inflation theory, in the very early universe, there was a period of extremely rapid exponential expansion driven by a hypothetical field called the inflaton. This rapid expansion smoothed out any initial irregularities, driving the universe to a flat, homogeneous state. It also diluted any exotic particles to unobservable levels. Inflation provides an elegant solution to the problems of the standard Big Bang model and has become an integral part of modern cosmology, although the physical nature of the inflaton field remains a mystery.

Dark Energy and the Accelerating Universe

In the late 1990s, the study of distant supernovae led to a surprising discovery that would once again revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos. Supernovae, the explosive deaths of massive stars, are extremely bright and can be seen across vast cosmic distances. A particular type of supernova, known as Type Ia, is especially useful for cosmology. These supernovae occur when a white dwarf star in a binary system accretes matter from its companion, eventually triggering a thermonuclear explosion. Because the conditions for this explosion are always similar, Type Ia supernovae have very consistent intrinsic brightness. By comparing this intrinsic brightness with their apparent brightness, astronomers can determine their distance. They serve as "standard candles" for measuring the scale of the universe.

In 1998, two independent teams of astronomers, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search Team, used Type Ia supernovae to measure the expansion history of the universe. They expected to find that the expansion of the universe was slowing down due to the gravitational attraction of matter. Instead, they found the opposite: the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

This result was shocking and unexpected. In the standard cosmological models, the universe could expand forever at a decreasing rate, or it could eventually collapse back in on itself in a "Big Crunch," but an accelerating expansion was not considered. The only way to explain this acceleration within the framework of general relativity was to introduce a new component to the universe: dark energy.

Dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and has negative pressure. According to the equations of general relativity, the pressure of matter and energy contributes to the gravitational effect. Normal matter has positive pressure, which causes it to clump together gravitationally. Dark energy, with its negative pressure, has the opposite effect: it causes the universe to expand faster.

The simplest model for dark energy is the cosmological constant, denoted by the Greek letter $\Lambda$. The cosmological constant was originally introduced by Einstein as a modification to his equations to allow for a static universe. He later discarded it after Hubble's discovery of the expanding universe, calling it his "greatest blunder." However, in the context of dark energy, the cosmological constant has made a remarkable comeback. It can be interpreted as the intrinsic energy density of the vacuum.

The current standard model of cosmology, known as the $\Lambda$CDM model (Cold Dark Matter with a cosmological constant), includes both dark energy in the form of $\Lambda$ and dark matter, an invisible form of matter that interacts only through gravity, to explain the observed structure and evolution of the universe. In this model, dark energy makes up about 68% of the total energy density of the universe, while dark matter accounts for about 27%. Ordinary matter, everything we can see and touch, makes up less than 5% of the universe.

While the $\Lambda$CDM model has been remarkably successful in explaining a wide range of cosmological observations, the physical nature of dark energy remains one of the deepest mysteries in physics. The observed value of the cosmological constant is many orders of magnitude smaller than the value predicted by quantum field theory, a discrepancy known as the cosmological constant problem. Alternative models of dark energy, such as quintessence, which proposes a dynamic, evolving dark energy field, have been proposed, but distinguishing between these models observationally is challenging.

The discovery of dark energy has profound implications for the ultimate fate of the universe. In a universe dominated by matter, the expansion would eventually slow down and reverse, leading to a Big Crunch. In a universe with a cosmological constant, however, the expansion will continue to accelerate, leading to a "Big Freeze." In this scenario, galaxies will eventually recede from each other so quickly that light from one will no longer reach the other. The universe will become cold, dark, and empty.


The application of general relativity to cosmology has led to a profound transformation in our understanding of the universe. The static, eternal cosmos of Newton has been replaced by a dynamic, evolving universe that began in a hot Big Bang and has been expanding and cooling ever since. The discovery of the expanding universe, the cosmic microwave background, and dark energy has painted a picture of a universe that is stranger and more wonderful than we could have imagined.

However, this picture is far from complete. The nature of dark matter and dark energy, which together make up 95% of the universe, remains unknown. The physics of the very early universe, where quantum effects become important, is still poorly understood. And the ultimate fate of the universe, whether it will expand forever or eventually collapse back in on itself, is still an open question.

Answering these questions will require new observations and new theoretical insights. Upcoming cosmological surveys, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Euclid satellite, will map the structure of the universe with unprecedented precision, providing new tests of general relativity and new constraints on the nature of dark energy. Gravitational wave observatories, such as LIGO and Virgo, will open a new window on the early universe and the physics of black holes. And theoretical developments, such as string theory and loop quantum gravity, may provide a framework for unifying general relativity with quantum mechanics, a key step towards a complete theory of quantum gravity.

A century after Einstein's revolutionary theory, the study of the universe continues to be one of the most exciting and dynamic fields in all of science. As we continue to explore the implications of general relativity for cosmology, we can expect many more surprises and revelations in the years to come. The story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the distant future, is still being written.