In cosmology, the cosmological constant (usually denoted by the Greek capital letter lambda: Λ) is the value of the energy density of the vacuum of space. It was originally introduced by Albert Einstein in 1917 as an addition to his theory of general relativity to "hold back gravity" and achieve a static universe, which was the accepted view at the time. Einstein abandoned the concept after Hubble's 1929 discovery that all galaxies outside the Local Group (the group that contains the Milky Way Galaxy) are moving away from each other, implying an overall expanding universe. From 1929 until the early 1990s, most cosmology researchers assumed the cosmological constant to be zero.
Since the 1990s, several developments in observational cosmology, especially the discovery of the accelerating universe from distant supernovae in 1998 (in addition to independent evidence from the cosmic microwave background and large galaxy redshift surveys), have shown that around 68% of the mass–energy density of the universe can be attributed to dark energy. While dark energy is poorly understood at a fundamental level, the main required properties of dark energy are that it functions as a type of anti-gravity, it dilutes much more slowly than matter as the universe expands, and it clusters much more weakly than matter, or perhaps not at all. The cosmological constant is the simplest possible form of dark energy since it is constant in both space and time, and this leads to the current standard model of cosmology known as the Lambda-CDM model, which provides a good fit to many cosmological observations.
EquationThe cosmological constant appears in Einstein's field equation in the form
The cosmological constant has the same effect as an intrinsic energy density of the vacuum, ρvac (and an associated pressure). In this context, it is commonly moved onto the right-hand side of the equation, and defined with a proportionality factor of 8π: Λ = 8πρvac, where unit conventions of general relativity are used (otherwise factors of G and c would also appear, i.e. Λ = 8π(G/c2)ρvac = κρvac, where κ is Einstein's constant). It is common to quote values of energy density directly, though still using the name "cosmological constant", with convention 8πG = 1. The true dimension of Λ is a length−2.
Given the Planck (2015) values of ΩΛ = 0.6911±0.0062 and Ho = 67.74±0.46 (km/s)/Mpc = (2.195±0.015)×10−18 s−1, Λ has the value of
A positive vacuum energy density resulting from a cosmological constant implies a negative pressure, and vice versa. If the energy density is positive, the associated negative pressure will drive an accelerated expansion of the universe, as observed. (See dark energy and cosmic inflation for details.)
ΩΛ (Omega Lambda)Instead of the cosmological constant itself, cosmologists often refer to the ratio between the energy density due to the cosmological constant and the critical density of the universe, the tipping point for a sufficient density to stop the universe from expanding forever. This ratio is usually denoted ΩΛ, and is estimated to be 0.6911±0.0062, according to results published by the Planck Collaboration in 2015.
In a flat universe ΩΛ is the fraction of the energy of the universe due to the cosmological constant, i.e., what we would intuitively call the fraction of the universe that is made up of dark energy. Note that this value changes over time: the critical density changes with cosmological time, but the energy density due to the cosmological constant remains unchanged throughout the history of the universe: the amount of dark energy increases as the universe grows, while the amount of matter does not.
Equation of stateAnother ratio that is used by scientists is the equation of state, usually denoted w, which is the ratio of pressure that dark energy puts on the universe to the energy per unit volume. This ratio is w = −1 for a true cosmological constant, and is generally different for alternative time-varying forms of vacuum energy such as quintessence.
HistoryEinstein included the cosmological constant as a term in his field equations for general relativity because he was dissatisfied that otherwise his equations did not allow, apparently, for a static universe: gravity would cause a universe that was initially at dynamic equilibrium to contract. To counteract this possibility, Einstein added the cosmological constant. However, soon after Einstein developed his static theory, observations by Edwin Hubble indicated that the universe appears to be expanding; this was consistent with a cosmological solution to the original general relativity equations that had been found by the mathematician Friedmann, working on the Einstein equations of general relativity. Einstein later reputedly referred to his failure to accept the validation of his equations—when they had predicted the expansion of the universe in theory, before it was demonstrated in observation of the cosmological red shift—as the "biggest blunder" of his life.[dubious ]
In fact, adding the cosmological constant to Einstein's equations does not lead to a static universe at equilibrium because the equilibrium is unstable: if the universe expands slightly, then the expansion releases vacuum energy, which causes yet more expansion. Likewise, a universe that contracts slightly will continue contracting.:59
However, the cosmological constant remained a subject of theoretical and empirical interest. Empirically, the onslaught of cosmological data in the past decades strongly suggests that our universe has a positive cosmological constant. The explanation of this small but positive value is an outstanding theoretical challenge (see the section below).
Some early generalizations of Einstein's gravitational theory, known as classical unified field theories, either introduced a cosmological constant on theoretical grounds or found that it arose naturally from the mathematics. For example, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington claimed that the cosmological constant version of the vacuum field equation expressed the "epistemological" property that the universe is "self-gauging", and Erwin Schrödinger's pure-affine theory using a simple variational principle produced the field equation with a cosmological term.
Positive valueObservations announced in 1998 of distance–redshift relation for Type Ia supernovae indicated that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. When combined with measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation these implied a value of ΩΛ ≈ 0.7, a result which has been supported and refined by more recent measurements. There are other possible causes of an accelerating universe, such as quintessence, but the cosmological constant is in most respects the simplest solution. Thus, the current standard model of cosmology, the Lambda-CDM model, includes the cosmological constant, which is measured to be on the order of 10−52 m−2, in metric units. It is often expressed as 10−35 s−2 or 10−122 in other unit systems. The value is based on recent measurements of vacuum energy density, , or 10−47 GeV4, 10−29 g/cm3 in other unit systems.
As was only recently seen, by works of 't Hooft, Susskind and others, a positive cosmological constant has surprising consequences, such as a finite maximum entropy of the observable universe.
Quantum field theoryA major outstanding problem is that most quantum field theories predict a huge value for the quantum vacuum. A common assumption is that the quantum vacuum is equivalent to the cosmological constant. Although no theory exists that supports this assumption, arguments can be made in its favor.
Such arguments are usually based on dimensional analysis and effective field theory. If the universe is described by an effective local quantum field theory down to the Planck scale, then we would expect a cosmological constant of the order of ( in natural unit or in reduced Planck unit). As noted above, the measured cosmological constant is smaller than this by a factor of ~10−120. This discrepancy has been called "the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics!".
Some supersymmetric theories require a cosmological constant that is exactly zero, which further complicates things. This is the cosmological constant problem, the worst problem of fine-tuning in physics: there is no known natural way to derive the tiny cosmological constant used in cosmology from particle physics.
A possible solution is offered by light front quantization, a rigorous alternative to the usual second quantization method. Vacuum fluctuations do not appear in the Light-Front vacuum state,. This absence means that there is no contribution from QED, Weak interactions and QCD to the cosmological constant which is thus predicted to be zero in a flat space-time. Unlike supersymmetric theories (discussed above), that light front quantization predict Λ=0 within the standard model of particle physics may not be a problem since the small non-zero value of the cosmological constant could originate for example from a slight curvature of the shape of the universe (which is not excluded within 0.4% (as of 2017)) since a curved-space could modify the Higgs field zero-mode, thereby possibly producing a non-zero contribution to the cosmological constant.
Anthropic principleOne possible explanation for the small but non-zero value was noted by Steven Weinberg in 1987 following the anthropic principle. Weinberg explains that if the vacuum energy took different values in different domains of the universe, then observers would necessarily measure values similar to that which is observed: the formation of life-supporting structures would be suppressed in domains where the vacuum energy is much larger. Specifically, if the vacuum energy is negative and its absolute value is substantially larger than it appears to be in the observed universe (say, a factor of 10 larger), holding all other variables (e.g. matter density) constant, that would mean that the universe is closed; furthermore, its lifetime would be shorter than the age of our universe, possibly too short for intelligent life to form. On the other hand, a universe with a large positive cosmological constant would expand too fast, preventing galaxy formation. According to Weinberg, domains where the vacuum energy is compatible with life would be comparatively rare. Using this argument, Weinberg predicted that the cosmological constant would have a value of less than a hundred times the currently accepted value. In 1992, Weinberg refined this prediction of the cosmological constant to 5 to 10 times the matter density.
This argument depends on a lack of a variation of the distribution (spatial or otherwise) in the vacuum energy density, as would be expected if dark energy were the cosmological constant. There is no evidence that the vacuum energy does vary, but it may be the case if, for example, the vacuum energy is (even in part) the potential of a scalar field such as the residual inflaton (also see quintessence). Another theoretical approach that deals with the issue is that of multiverse theories, which predict a large number of "parallel" universes with different laws of physics and/or values of fundamental constants. Again, the anthropic principle states that we can only live in one of the universes that is compatible with some form of intelligent life. Critics claim that these theories, when used as an explanation for fine-tuning, commit the inverse gambler's fallacy.
In 1995, Weinberg's argument was refined by Alexander Vilenkin to predict a value for the cosmological constant that was only ten times the matter density, i.e. about three times the current value since determined.