Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered to yourself, “What’s out there?” The mysteries of space can be the most puzzling, yet exciting phenomena of science today. To Andreas Albrecht, this phenomena is simply enthralling. Albrecht is a professor of physics at UC Davis and studies dark matter, dark energy, cosmic inflation and – when he’s not wrapping his mind around the universe – the delicate art of Pretty Pretty Princess.
What do you teach at UC Davis?
This academic year I teach Physics 10 (topic: cosmology), Physics 262 (grad level cosmology) in the winter, and Physics 115A (upper division quantum mechanics) in the spring.
Where did you go to school?
From kindergarten to 12th grade I went to Ithaca City Schools, for college I went to Cornell and for grad school I went to University of Pennsylvania.
What has been your most interesting research finding?
I am one of the inventors of a theory called “cosmic inflation.“ It was invented in the ‘80s and is still a subject of research today. Cosmic inflation is widely accepted today as an explanation for how the big bang got started and what seeded the formation of galaxies and other structures in the universe, but very interesting open questions remain, which I continue to research. My new research on “the clock ambiguity” (to do with how we formulate fundamental physical theories) may end up being even more interesting. It is too early to tell.
What is dark matter? And why does it matter?
Some mysterious force is required to hold together the galaxies and other objects in the universe. The force of gravity from the visible matter is simply not strong enough. The most popular resolution of this puzzle is to postulate sufficient additional matter (the dark matter) so that the combined gravitational force is strong enough. Research shows that dark matter must be different from any type of matter observed so far in the laboratory, but dark matter particles appear fairly naturally in many proposed theories of elementary particles. A lot of these theories predict that new experiments should be able to see the dark matter particle sometime in the next several years. These theories will soon be tested, and perhaps the dark matter particle will soon be discovered!
Dark matter matters because we are curious about what the universe is made of. Observations of the universe tell us there must be at least four times more dark matter than the ordinary matter we see in labs, yet we don’t yet know what the dark matter is.
And what is dark energy? And why does it matter?
The universe is expanding, yet despite the force of gravity – which pulls everything together and should slow the expansion – the expansion rate is observed to be speeding up! We simply do not have a good theory for why this acceleration is happening, so for now we simply attribute it to a mysterious “dark energy.“ Most experts believe that nothing short of a revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics will be required to achieve a full understanding of the cosmic acceleration. Interest in the dark energy is a major driver of new science projects including the “LSST” telescope whose director, Professor Tony Tyson, is here at UC Davis.
Dark energy matters because it is likely to completely change our fundamental understanding of physics. Observations tell us it comprises around 70 percent of the universe, yet we have absolutely no idea what the dark energy is.
When did you know you wanted to be a physicist and cosmologist?
I was inspired by my high school physics class, and also by conversations with my dad – who was a physical chemist – to aspire to be a physicist. But for a long time I was wary of cosmology, which had a reputation for asking big questions but not coming up with many answers. My thesis adviser, Paul Steinhardt, persuaded me that times were changing. And indeed, thanks to many remarkable advances over the last three decades many regard the current era as a “golden age of cosmology.“
What is the most radical theory of the universe you’ve ever heard?
There are a huge number of radical ideas out there. A common thread among many of them is that what we observe is just an impossibly tiny fraction of the entire universe. The rest may include regions that look very different from the universe we know, perhaps even with different laws of physics. This is radical because our research keeps pulling us in that direction, even though most physicists like to think of ourselves as very practical people who only work on things we can see and test in labs or observatories. Remarkably, there may even be ways we can test some of these radical theories of the universe.
What’s your favorite planet and why?
Earth. What an amazing place to live!
Do you believe there is life on other planets?
Who is the most interesting scientist you’ve ever met?
It’s really tough to choose only one. A great choice though is John Wheeler. He is famous for many fundamental contributions to nuclear physics, particle physics and general relativity (and he invented the name “black hole“). But along with his many very practical contributions, he also was an incredibly adventurous thinker and could surprise all colleagues with totally wild-sounding ideas – many of which did not sound quite so wild if you caught a glimpse of how he got there. Wheeler was also a superb teacher. He loved teaching undergraduates at all levels, and many of his Ph.D. students became great scientists (including the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman).
What scientific phenomenon most boggles your mind the most?
That science works at all: Everyday life seems pretty chaotic, yet underneath it all we’ve uncovered simple fundamental laws of nature that have been successfully tested from the tiniest subatomic scales to beyond the most distant galaxies.
What is something your students may not know about you?
My wife – the musician – will say that my first career idea was to be a concert violinist. My kids will say that I play a wicked game of Pretty Pretty Princess and that I love the movie Zoolander.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.