What is Space?

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The Fabric of the Cosmos  NOVA

The Fabric of the Cosmos

Science often takes the ordinary…and brings out the extraordinary.

Take empty space. It's, well, empty. But as physicist Brian Greene will show tonight in "What is Space," the first episode of a new PBS NOVA series, The Fabric of the Cosmos (check your local listings) empty space is frothing with surprises and possibilities.

For instance, empty space can stretch, and bend, and even now, it is expanding at a rate that's scarcely imaginable. The last – that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate – was discovered by Dr. Saul Perlmutter, at the Office of Science's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab), Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt, for which they recently shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Viewers of "What is Space" will meet Drs. Perlmutter and Riess, and learn how utterly unexpected their discovery was, since the attractive force of gravity was thought to be slowing the expansion of the universe. But even as gravity is trying to pull distant galaxies together, a mysterious force known as dark energy is pushing them away. Since the galaxies are moving apart faster and faster, dark energy seems to be winning the day.

Scientists have since determined that dark energy makes up more than 70 percent of the mass-energy in the universe. But they still don't know what it is. As the Nobel Committee noted, "It is an enigma, perhaps the greatest in physics today."

Researchers at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), another Office of Science facility, are also studying the mysteries of space. Two of them, Craig Hogan, Director of the Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics and Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the lab, will also appear tonight on NOVA. Fermilab scientists are building experiments to learn more about dark energy. They are involved in the Dark Energy Survey, which will start collecting data in 2012 to find out what is causing the expansion of space to speed up with time.

Those who tune in will also see that empty space is full of mystery and possibility at its smallest scales. As Brian Greene will show, the tiniest of tiny spaces, at scales almost too small to imagine, may have the potential to generate entire universes. And space may be even stranger in the darkest spaces of all, the hearts of black holes, where space is utterly twisted and warped.

Future episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos will peer into other places that our perceptions break down, such as time (next Wednesday), the strange realm of quantum physics, and the astonishing possibilities of the multiverse. They'll also introduce viewers to other researchers supported by the Office of Science, who are making our universe a more understandable place.

Worlds of possibility are woven into space, into The Fabric of the Cosmos. That potential animates researchers in the Office of Science and all across the Department of Energy. So tune in tonight and the next three Wednesdays to see how they are taking the seemingly ordinary…and bringing out the simply extraordinary.

Please go to http://www.fnal.gov/ for more information about Fermilab and to http://www.lbl.gov/ for more information about Berkeley Lab. And for more information on DOE's Office of Science, please go to: http://science.energy.gov/.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.