Cosmological constant

constant representing stress-energy density of the vacuum in Einstein's equation and accounts for the rate of expansion of the universe

The cosmological constant (, or also indicated by λ) is the value of the energy density of the vacuum of space. It was originally introduced as hypothesis by Albert Einstein in 1917, as an addition to his theory of general relativity to achieve a static universe. Einstein abandoned it in 1931. The cosmological constant is the simplest possible form of dark energy, since it is constant in both space and time. This leads to the current standard model of cosmology known as the Lambda-CDM model parametrization of the Big Bang. The cosmological constant appears in the Einstein field equations in the form of .

Sketch of the timeline of the formation of the Universe in the Lambda-CDM model. The last 5 billion years of accelerated expansion represents the dark energy dominated era, as parametrized by the variable, dimensionless, cosmic scale factor , a key parameter of the Friedmann equations.


  • ... The way in which string theory addresses the cosmological constant problem can be summarized as follows:
    • Fundamentally, space is nine-dimensional. There are many distinct ways (perhaps 10500) of turning nine-dimensional space into three-dimensional space by compactifying six dimensions. ...
    • Distinct compactifications correspond to different three-dimensional metastable vacua with different amounts of vacuum energy. In a small fraction of vacua, the cosmological constant will be accidentally small.
    • All vacua are dynamically produced as large, widely separated regions in space-time.
    • Regions with Λ 1 contain at most a few bits of information and thus no complex structures of any kind. Therefore, observers find themselves in regions with Λ ≪ 1.
  • The theoretical view of the actual universe, if it is in correspondence to our reasoning, is the following. The curvature of space is variable in time and place, according to the distribution of matter, but we may roughly approximate it by means of a spherical space. ...this view is logically consistent, and from the standpoint of the general theory of relativity lies nearest at hand [i.e. is most obvious]; whether, from the standpoint of present astronomical knowledge, it is tenable, will not be discussed here. In order to arrive at this consistent view, we admittedly had to introduce an extension of the field equations of gravitation, which is not justified by our actual knowledge of gravitation. It is to be emphasized, however, that a positive curvature of space is given by our results, even if the supplementary term [cosmological constant] is not introduced. The term is necessary only for the purpose of making possible a quasi-static distribution of matter, as required by the fact of the small velocity of the stars.

  • Much later, when I was discussing cosmological problems with Einstein, he remarked that the introduction of the cosmological term was the biggest blunder he ever made in his life.
    • George Gamow, in his autobiography My World Line: An Informal Autobiography (1970), p. 44. Here the "cosmological term" refers to the cosmological constant in the equations of general relativity, whose value Einstein initially picked to ensure that his model of the universe would neither expand nor contract; if he hadn't done this he might have theoretically predicted the universal expansion that was first observed by Edwin Hubble.
  • After putting the finishing touches on general relativity in 1915, Einstein applied his new equations for gravity to a variety of problems. ... Despite the mounting successes of general relativity, for years after he first applied his theory to the most immense of all challenges—understanding the entire universe—Einstein absolutely refused to accept the answer that emerged from the mathematics. Before the work of Friedmann and Lemaître... Einstein, too, had realized that the equations of general relativity showed that the universe could not be static; the fabric of space could stretch or it could shrink, but it could not maintain a fixed size. This suggested that the universe might have had a definite beginning, when the fabric was maximally compressed, and might even have a definite end. Einstein stubbornly balked at this... because he and everyone else "knew" that the universe was eternal and, on the largest scales, fixed and unchanging. Thus, notwithstanding the beauty and successes of general relativity, Einstein reopened his notebook and sought a modification of the equations... It didn't take him long. In 1917 he achieved the goal by introducing a new term... the cosmological constant.
    • Brian Greene,The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004) pp. 273-274.
  • The miracle of physics that I'm talking about here is something that was actually known since the time of Einstein's general relativity; that gravity is not always attractive. Gravity can act repulsively. Einstein introduced this in 1916... in the form of the cosmological constant, and the original motivation of modifying the equations of general relativity to allow this was because Einstein thought that the universe was static, and he realized that ordinary gravity would cause the universe to collapse if it was static. ...The fact that general relativity can support this gravitational repulsion, still being consistent with all the principles that general relativity incorporates, is the important thing which Einstein himself did discover..
    • Alan Guth, The Early Universe (2012) Lecture 1: Inflationary Cosmology: Is Our Universe Part of a Multiverse? Part I, MITOpenCourseware (OCW) course 8.286 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • In 1917 de Sitter showed that Einstein's field equations could be solved by a model that was completely empty apart from the cosmological constant—i.e. a model with no matter whatsoever, just dark energy. This was the first model of an expanding universe. although this was unclear at the time. The whole principle of general relativity was to write equations for physics that were valid for all observers, independently of the coordinates used. But this means that the same solution can be written in various different ways... Thus de Sitter viewed his solution as static, but with a tendency for the rate of ticking clocks to depend on position. This phenomenon was already familiar in the form of gravitational time dilation... so it is understandable that the de Sitter effect was viewed in the same way. It took a while before it was proved (by Weyl, in 1923) that the prediction was of a redshifting of spectral lines that increased linearly with distance (i.e. Hubble's law). ...
    • Michela Massimi, Philosophy and the Sciences for Everyone (2014)
  • Even today, our picture of a world woven together by a gravitational force, and electromagnetic force, a strong force, and a weak force may be incomplete. Astronomers are gathering evidence that an additional fundamental interaction, a repulsive effect opposite to gravity, may be at work over vast distances and possibly changing with time.
    • Michael Munowitz, Knowing: The Nature of Physical Law (2005) p. 55.
  • In Einstein's scheme there was no end, no outside. Shoot an arrow or a light beam infinitely far in any direction and it would come back and hit you in the butt. ...But there was a problem with the curved-back universe. Such a configuration was unstable, it would fly apart or collapse. Einstein didn't know about galaxies. He thought, and was reassured as much by the best astronomers of the time, that the universe was a static cloud of stars. To explain why his curved universe didn't collapse like a struck tent, therefore, he fudged his equations with a term he called the cosmological constant, which produced a long-range repulsive force to counteract cosmic gravity. It made the equations ugly and he never really liked it. That was in 1917, twelve years before Hubble showed that the universe was full of galaxies rushing away from each other.
  • When the Higgs field froze and symmetry broke, Tye and Guth knew, energy had to be released... Under normal circumstance this energy went into beefing up the masses of particles like the weak force bosons that had been massless before. If the universe supercooled, however, all this energy would remain unreleased... according to Einstein, it was the density of matter and energy in the universe that determined the dynamics of space-time. ...The issue of vacuum energy had been a tricky problem for physics ever since Einstein. According to quantum theory, even the ordinary "true" vacuum should be boiling with energy—infinite energy... due to the the so-called vacuum fluctuations that produced the transient dense dance of virtual particles. This energy... could exert a repulsive force on the cosmos just like the infamous cosmological constant... quantum theories had reinvented it in the form of vacuum fluctuations. The orderly measured pace of the expansion of the universe suggested strongly that the cosmological constant was zero, yet quantum theory suggested it was infinite. Not even Hawking claimed to understand the cosmological constant problem... a trapdoor deep at the heart of physics.
  • [Einstein's cosmological constant] is a name without any meaning. ...We have, in fact, not the slightest inkling of what it's real significance is. It is put in the equations in order to give the greatest possible degree of mathematical generality.
    • Willem de Sitter, Kosmos, A Course of Six Lectures on the Development of Our Insight Into the Structure of the Universe (1932)
  • There is no direct observational evidence for the curvature [of space], the only directly observed data being the mean density and the expansion, which latter proves that the actual universe corresponds to the non-statical case. It is therefore clear that from the direct data of observation we can derive neither the sign nor that value of the curvature, and the question arises whether it is possible to represent the observed facts without introducing the curvature at all. Historically the term containing the 'cosmological constant λ' was introduced into the field equations in order to enable us to account theoretically for the existence of a finite mean density in a static universe. It now appears that in the dynamical case this end can be reached without the introduction of λ.
    • Willem de Sitter, joint memoir with Einstein (1932) as quoted by Gerald James Whitrow, The Structure of the Universe: An Introduction to Cosmology (1949)
  • It was early 1932, when Einstein and I both were at the California Institute of Technology in Pasedena, and we just decided to look for a simple relativistic model that agreed reasonably well with the known observational data, namely, the Hubble recession rate and the mean density of matter in the universe. So we took the space curvature to be zero and also the cosmological constant and the pressure term to be zero, and then it follows straightforwardly that the density is proportional to the square of the Hubble constant. It gives a value for the density that is high, but not impossibly high. That's about all there was to it. It was not an important paper, although Einstein apparently thought that it was. He was pleased to have a simple model with no cosmological constant. That's it.
    • Willem de Sitter, as quoted by Helge Kragh, Masters of the Universe: Conversations with Cosmologists of the Past (2014)
  • String theory seems to be incompatible with a world in which a cosmological constant has a positive sign, which is what the observations indicate.
  • The most far-reaching implication of general relativity... is that the universe is not static, as in the orthodox view, but is dynamic, either contracting or expanding. Einstein, as visionary as he was, balked at the idea... One reason... was that, if the universe is currently expanding, then... it must have started from a single point. All space and time would have to be bound up in that "point," an infinitely dense, infinitely small "singularity." ...this struck Einstein as absurd. He therefore tried to sidestep the logic of his equations, and modified them by adding... a "cosmological constant." The term represented a force, of unknown nature, that would counteract the gravitational attraction of the mass of the universe. That is, the two forces would cancel... it is the kind of rabbit-out-of-the-hat idea that most scientists would label ad-hoc. ...Ironically, Einstein's approach contained a foolishly simple mistake: His universe would not be stable... like a pencil balanced on its point.
  • Our particular laws are not at all unique. ...they could change from place to place and from time to time. The Laws of Physics are much like the weather... controlled by invisible influences in space almost the same way as that temperature, humidity, air pressure, and wind velocity control how rain and snow and hail form. ...The Landscape... is the space of possibilities... all the possible environments permitted by the theory. ...[T]heoretical physicists ...have always believed that the laws of nature are the unique, inevitable consequence of some elegant mathematical principle. ...the empirical evidence points much more convincingly to the opposite conclusion. The universe has more in common with a Rube Goldberg machine than with a unique consequence of mathematical symmetry. ...Two key discoveries are driving the paradigm shift—the success of inflationary cosmology and the existence of a small cosmological constant.
    • Leonard Susskind, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (2005) pp. 12-13.
  • At about the time of Malcadena's discovery, physicists started to become convinced (by cosmologists) that we live in a world with a nonvanishing cosmological constant [footnote: 10-23 in Planck units...[t]he incredible smallness... had fooled almost all physicists into believing that it didn't exist.], smaller by far than any other physical constant... the main determinant of the future history of the universe... also known as dark energy... a thorn in the side of physicists for almost a century. ...If   is positive, the cosomological term creates a repulsive force that increases with distance; if it is negative, the new force is attractive; if   is zero, there is no new force and we can ignore it.
    • Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (2008)
  • The cosmological constant['s]... most important consequence: the repulsive force, acting at cosmological distances, causes space to expand exponentially. There is nothing new about the universe expanding, but without a cosmological constant, the rate of expansion would gradually slow down. Indeed, it could even reverse itself and begin to contract, eventually imploding in a giant cosmic crunch. Instead, as a consequence of the cosmological constant, the universe appears to be doubling in size about every fifteen billion years, and all indications are that it will do so indefinitely.
    • Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (2008)
  • The models of Einstein and de Sitter are static solutions of Einstein's modified gravitational equations for a world-wide homogeneous system. They both involve a positive cosmological constant λ, determining the curvature of space. If this constant is zero, we obtain a third model in classical infinite Euclidean space. This model is empty, the space-time being that of Special Relativity.
    It has been shown that these are the only possible static world models based on Einstein's theory. In 1922, Friedmann... broke new ground by investigating non-static solutions to Einstein's field equations, in which the radius of curvature of space varies with time. This Possibility had already been envisaged, in a general sense, by Clifford in the eighties.
  • It is quite easy to include a weight for empty space in the equations of gravity. Einstein did so in 1917, introducing what came to be known as the cosmological constant into his equations. His motivation was to construct a static model of the universe. To achieve this, he had to introduce a negative mass density for empty space, which just canceled the average positive density due to matter. With zero total density, gravitational forces can be in static equilibrium. Hubble's subsequent discovery of the expansion of the universe, of course, made Einstein's static model universe obsolete. ...The fact is that to this day we do not understand in a deep way why the vacuum doesn't weigh, or (to say the same thing in another way) why the cosmological constant vanishes, or (to say it in yet another way) why Einstein's greatest blunder was a mistake.
  • De Sitter proposed three types of nonstatic universes: the oscillating universes and the expanding universes of the first or second kiind. The main characteristic of the expanding "family" of the first kiind is that the radius is continually increasing from a definite initial time when it had the value zero. The universe becomes infinitely large after an infinite time. In the second kind... the radius possesses at the initial time a definite minimum value... in the Einstein model... the cosmological constant is supposed to be equal to the reciprocal of R2, whereas de Sitter computed for his interpretation the constant to be equal to 3/R2. Whitrow correctly points out the significant fact that in special relativity the cosmological constant is omitted...
    • Wolfgang Yourgrau, "On Some Cosmological Theories and Constants," Cosmology, History, and Theology (2012)

See also

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