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What is Quintessence?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Quintessence, a term borrowed from the Greeks who identified it as a mysterious fifth element, is a term used to describe a theoretical form of dark energy that could describe why the universe is accelerating its expansion. If it exists, quintessence could be responsible for pushing particles away from each other.

Quintessence is a way of explaining a peculiarity in cosmology that no scientist expected. The standard prevailing theory, in the 1980s, was that the universe was expanding. However, at some point, scientists thought it would end. There was so much gravity-generating matter out there that it would eventually take over and bring the universe back to together.

However, given the rate at which the universe is expanding, many scientists are now questioning whether the expansion will stop at all. In other words, the forces at work to expand the universe more than counteract the forces working to bring it all together -- and by a wide margin. This is at the heart of what quintessence may be all about.

The existence of quintessence may be further bolstered by exploding stars, events known as supernovas. Based on the constants that scientists know exist in the universe, they have been able to conclude that supernovas farther away are moving away from us as a much faster rate than closer supernovas. If that is true, that means the outer edges of the universe are expanding faster than the interior.

Still, quintessence has yet to receive broad acceptance. Some say the evidence for a rapidly-expanding universe is weak. They argue the observations of the supernovas are so distant that many other things could be affecting what scientists are seeing, including minute particulate matter, or space dust.

If quintessence does exist, its presence could provide a number of benefits. It may help us better understand not only the nature of the universe, but also how it came into existence. In addition, if quintessence is truly a form of dark energy, there is a chance that it could be harnessed and used as a virtually inexhaustible supply of energy. However, this is still highly theoretical and may be decades, if not centuries, away from having a practical application.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Dec 02, 2013

@Fa5t3r - Bear in mind that there is no reason they won't be able to prove or disprove this at some point. The Higgs-Boson was predicted in the 60's and it wasn't officially proved until 2012, but they were able to prove it in the end.

I'm sure at some point someone will come up with some way that they can prove, or disprove the existence of quintessence.

It would be really amazing if they did prove that it existed, because it could serve as an amazing power source for the world. I have to admit that I hope that something of that kind will be discovered during my lifetime. If we had some kind of unlimited, cheap and clean power source the world would be a much better place to live in.

By Fa5t3r — On Dec 01, 2013

@KoiwiGal - To some extent, it is a lot of guesswork, but it is guesswork by people who have studied these phenomenon all their lives. And you've got to remember that they probably have a lot of mathematics and science backing up what they are guessing, but there's no point in putting that into popular science articles because the average person wouldn't understand it.

It always sounds a bit strange because it's something fairly complex that has been overly simplified for the general public to understand.

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 30, 2013

It always kind of surprises me that this sort of science seems to be just a lot of guesswork and estimation. I mean, there's no real way at the moment for them to be sure one way or another whether they are right in their guesses and all they can do is work out the mathematics and see whether it's possible, but some of the theories just seem to be the kind of thing that kids would come up with.

Quintessence, for example, just sounds like they decided there must be another factor, came up with a cool name for it and are now trying to work out what it might actually be and how it would work if it exists.

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