Courtesy: National Science Foundation

Shedding Light on Dark Energy

It makes up 70% of the universe, yet we know little about dark energy. Canadian researchers are working to get to the bottom of the mystery.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Dark energy accounts for up to 70% of our Universe, yet, up until about 20 years ago, we didn’t even know it existed.

“The idea that 70% of the universe is something that’s completely foreign to us, that we don’t even understand… that’s amazing to me,” says Keith Vanderlinde, Assistant Professor at the Dunlap Institute and Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

Prof. Vanderlinde studies the Large Scale Structure of the Universe, which includes dark energy, but the field suffers from lack of data.  That’s because the specialized instruments required to study things on such a massive scale have only recently been built.

For most of 2008, Prof. Vanderlinde lived in the Antarctic as a winter-over for the South Pole Telescope (SPT), a new telescope designed to study the Cosmic Microwave background or “the leftover light from the big bang.”  At 10 metres, the SPT is the largest telescope ever deployed at the South Pole and provides a powerful new tool to explore dark energy.

Even more recently, the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory has teamed up with the University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Toronto for the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME).  CHIME is a novel radio telescope whose goal is to map more of the cosmos than ever using massive computational power instead of physically steerable dishes.

With better maps of the cosmos and more information, Prof. Vanderlinde and others can begin to probe the mysteries of dark energy and answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe.

“They are sort of the deepest philosophical questions there are. It’s amazing that we can actually start to tackle them with data,” says Prof. Vanderlinde.

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Professor Keith Vanderlinde is a cosmologist at the University of Toronto, studying the Universe on the largest possible scales: its overall composition, history, behaviour, and eventual fate. He established and leads the Dunlap Institute’s Long Wavelength Lab, where technologies are developed and assembled into highly specialized telescopes targeted at these questions. These instruments require equally specialized operating environments, and Dr. Vanderlinde spent 2008 living at the geographic South Pole, operating the aptly-named South Pole Telescope. Now, aided by developments in communications and computing technologies, Dr. Vanderlinde and colleagues from across Canada are building a massive new radio telescope in Penticton, B.C., which will soon begin mapping a larger volume of space than ever attempted before. He presents frequent public lectures through the GTA, was a 2014 TEDxToronto speaker, and has delivered dozens of academic talks worldwide. Dr. Vanderlinde received his BSc from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2002) and his PhD from the University of Chicago (2008).