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If there really is a fifth element, Leeloo better watch out, because it could crush the universe

By Elizabeth Rayne
Diva Plavalaguna from The Fifth Element

The Diva Plavalaguna (above) would be singing a different tune if she found out the fifth element was nothing like the stone she was guarding. Leeloo wouldn’t be able to use it to save the universe, either.

Whatever the fifth element is, it isn’t some sort of alien crystal with supernatural powers like it is in The Fifth Element. It is thought to be an exotic but intangible substance that fills in all the empty space out there. Cosmologists Yuto Minami and Eiichiro Komatsu now believe the have found evidence of something weird that is twisting light in the universe –and might also be able to why dark energy is making the universe expand so fast. Dark energy itself could even be a quintessence. If it is, it could have possibly reverse expansion and redefine our idea of how the universe will end by crushing everything at once.

“It would be huge deal if the dark energy were quintessence,” theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, who was not involved in the latest study but has conducted previous studies on dark energy, told SYFY WIRE. “That would represent a new dynamical field, a previously undetected ingredient in the fundamental recipe of physics. We could study it in a number of ways—how fast it evolves, whether it's the same in different parts of the universe, how it might interact with other forms of matter and energy.”

The signal that Minami and Komatsu identified in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is basically all the electromagnetic radiation that the Big Bang left in its wake, is a shift in light that seems to be a fingerprint of quintessence. The scientists believed that searching the CMB for signs of polarized light could possibly prove that quintessence exists. Polarization happens to photons, or particles of light, when they scatter because of colliding into the atoms of a medium they are passing through. The interaction of atoms and photons will usually make the atoms vibrate and give off an electromagnetic wave.

cosmic microwave background

“We can look for interactions between the quintessence field and other particles and forces. For example, photons of light may be affected by traveling through evolving quintessence, by having their polarizations slightly rotated as they go,” said Carroll.

Polarized light will move in one particular direction. Because Minami and Komatsu observed the twisting of polarized light in the CMB, it suggested that quintessence was behind this because it supposedly warps the direction that polarized photons travel in. This change in the direction of polarization is what is thought to have revealed the effects of quintessence. Dark energy is often thought to be a cosmological constant, which means the density of that energy would not change in the vacuum of space. If the warping of polarization in the CMB is really the result of dark energy as a quintessence, that means the dark energy would be able to change, as Carroll believes.

“There could be a kind of dark energy that is something dynamical, almost constant but not quite,” he said. “‘Quintessence’ is the most basic form of that idea. If it exists, it would be a field that pervades all of space, filling it with an infinitesimal amount of energy that slowly dilutes away as space expands. Eventually, unlike vacuum energy, the quintessence energy could go away entirely.”

Another thing that could happen if dark energy is a quintessence is the end of all things. Instead of wane, its effect on expansion could reverse and become an attractive force that pulls everything together into an epic crash like no other.

However, even if quintessence did end up dissipating with the expansion of the universe, it would still do so more slowly than matter. Matter is made of particles whose energy is pretty constant. There would be no fewer particles in an expanding universe; energy would just decrease because they would just grow further and further apart. Quintessence (if it really does exist) is not thought to get its energy from particles like matter does. The stuff that fills all the gaps in space would be smooth, and any change in energy would depend on the evolution of the universe, which can be predicted with models but is ultimately unknown because of all the things that could possibly happen in such a dynamic environment.

“The standard way to look for quintessence is just to do the same thing we did to discover the acceleration of the universe — study the expansion of space throughout the history of the universe — but do it to much higher precision,” Carroll said. “There is tentative evidence for it. It's still extremely preliminary, but would be very exciting if it pans out.”

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