Astronomers should feel lucky they have a space full of stars, galaxies and other objects to study after Nobel Prize laureate Brian P. Schmidt suggested that the universe would eventually fade away.
"Human beings will look to an empty universe in 100 billion years, as all the galaxies will fade away except the Milky Way we live in," said Schmidt during the 28th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) held here from Aug. 20 to 31.
Schmidt shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Before their discoveries, it was commonly thought that the expansion of the universe was slowing down.
By monitoring the brightness and measuring the redshift of the supernovae, Schmidt and his partners discovered that billion-year old exploding stars and their galaxies are accelerating away from their reference frame.
Their discoveries led to research on dark energy, a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe. "Unless dark energy suddenly disappears, that will surprise us as we can't really think of a reason why -- the universe will continue to expand more and more quickly and eventually fade away," Schmidt told Xinhua.
Eagerly searching for life signals in the universe, human beings -- if still existing -- will feel lonelier in a dark universe in 100 billion years.
"Our Milky Way will still be here and merge with some nearby galaxies," Schmidt said, "but other things we see today will not be able to reach us in the future. Every galaxy beyond the Milky Way will disappear." At that time, astronomers will all be unemployed because there will be nothing to work at, he said.
When talking about dark energy, Schmidt said: "We don't know how dark energy is generated. It seems to be a part of the fabric of space itself. So dark energy makes more space, and more space makes more dark energy, which then makes more space...The universe runs away because of the stuff (process)."
Matthew Colless, Australian Astronomical Observatory director, was chairing Schmidt's speech on Wednesday, and when Colless put "dark energy" into an online translation tool for a Chinese version, and then translated the Chinese version back into English, it turned out to be "evil energy".
Schmidt said the word "evil" is humorous although not a perfect description. "I don't see it (dark energy) being evil. I see it as very bleak, just like a never-ending winter," said the astrophysicist, who has announced to continue his work on dark energy.
"Anything is possible. Dark energy can become attractive in the future. So we don't really know," he said. Schmidt is also heading a project to build a new telescope called SkyMapper for a southern sky survey.
"The universe does what it does and I'm here to measure, not to judge," he added.