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Einstein and Beyond
MAY 2005
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Photo captions by Tom O'Neill
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Fast Forward: The Big Rip?
Art by Moonrunner Design

The death of the universe could rival its birth in explosive drama if a puzzling form of energy continues to accelerate the expansion of space-time. Since the 1920s astronomers have thought the expansion was slowing down, but recent observations of distant stars reveal that  the stretching of space is actually speeding up. If it picks up even more, the universe could be headed for a "big rip." An artist's conception of this scenario—one of many possible fates—shows how, some 20 billion years from now, unchecked expansion could tear matter apart, from galaxies all the way down to atoms. The driving force is a mysterious "dark energy" that counteracts gravity's pull and might ultimately defeat all the forces that bind matter. Einstein was the first to introduce the notion of repulsive gravity, but he later disavowed it. Dark energy, says cosmologist Michael S. Turner, who coined the term, "has the destiny of the universe in its hands." Although we live in the best of times, under a sky full of stars, it will grow ever darker and emptier as space-time expands.
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