Thursday, December 18, 2003


Proof that a mysterious force called “dark energy” is pushing the universe to expand endlessly at a faster and faster rate has been selected as the “Breakthrough of the Year” by the editors of Science magazine.

The bizarre idea that some unknown force exists in the universe that is opposing gravity and flinging galaxies away from each other at an accelerating clip was first proposed in 1998. New studies in 2003 proved that the force does exist and this discovery captured the top prize by the editors of Science as the year’s most important scientific development.

“It is one of the ultimate discoveries in basic science,” said Don Kennedy, editor in chief of the journal. “It stirs our imagination even though it challenges our ability to understand.”

“No longer are scientists trying to confirm the existence of dark energy,” the journal reported in today’s issue. “Now they are trying to find out what dark energy is made of, and what it tells us about the birth and evolution of the universe.”

The editors also selected nine other research advances. These included studies of genes and mental disease; evidence of global warming effects; how RNA affects genes within cells; new advances in imaging individual molecules within cells; proof that gamma ray bursts, one of nature’s most powerful explosions, come from supernova eruptions; proof that mouse embryonic stem cells can transform into sperm and egg; exotic materials that bend light in a new way; discovery that the Y chromosome in humans contains duplicate genes, and the first successful test of a new cancer treatment.

All the selections, the journal said in a statement, were chosen “for their profound implications for society and the advancement of science.”

Proof for the existence of the “dark force” came from two studies that probed the very early universe — back to less than 400,000 years after the Big Bang — and confirmed that the universe was expanding.

The Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe telescope analyzed the cosmic microwave radiation background, an echo from the Big Bang, and determined the age and composition of the universe. It confirmed that only 4 percent is ordinary matter, the stuff seen every day, and 23 percent is a cold, dark matter composed of unknown particles. The rest, some 73 percent, of the universe is dark energy.

The study also narrowed the proven age of the universe to 13.7 billion years, plus or minus a few hundred thousand years. Prior estimates had been between 12 billion and 15 billion years.

Another study, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, mapped the distribution of a quarter-million galaxies and confirmed again the domination of dark energy.

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