Ordinary matter acts to slow down the expansion of the universe. That makes intuitive sense, because the matter is exerting a gravitational force, acting to pull things together. So why does dark energy seem to push things apart?

The usual (wrong) way to explain this is to point out that dark energy has “negative pressure.” The kind of pressure we are most familiar with, in a balloon or an inflated tire, pushing out on the membrane enclosing it. But negative pressure — tension — is more like a stretched string or rubber band, pulling in rather than pushing out. And dark energy has negative pressure, so that makes the universe accelerate.

If the kindly cosmologist is both lazy and fortunate, that little bit of word salad will suffice. But it makes no sense at all, as Peter points out. Why do we go through all the conceptual effort of explaining that negative pressure corresponds to a pull, and then quickly mumble that this accounts for why galaxies are pushed apart?

So the slightly more careful cosmologist has to explain that the *direct* action of this negative pressure is completely impotent, because it’s equal in all directions and cancels out. (That’s a bit of a lie as well, of course; it’s really because you don’t interact directly with the dark energy, so you don’t feel pressure of any sort, but admitting that runs the risk of making it all seem even more confusing.) What matters, according to this line of fast talk, is the gravitational effect of the negative pressure. And in Einstein’s general relativity, unlike Newtonian gravity, both the pressure and the energy contribute to the force of gravity. The negative pressure associated with dark energy is so large that it overcomes the positive (attractive) impulse of the energy itself, so the net effect is a push rather than a pull.

This explanation isn’t wrong; it does track the actual equations. But it’s not the slightest bit of help in bringing people to any real understanding. It simply replaces one question (why does dark energy cause acceleration?) with two facts that need to be taken on faith (dark energy has negative pressure, and gravity is sourced by a sum of energy and pressure). The listener goes away with, at best, the impression that something profound has just happened rather than any actual understanding.

The Right Way

The right way is to not mention pressure at all, positive or negative. For cosmological dynamics, the relevant fact about dark energy isn’t its pressure, it’s that it’s persistent. It doesn’t dilute away as the universe expands. And this is even a fact that can be explained, by saying that dark energy isn’t a collection of particles growing less dense as space expands, but instead is (according to our simplest and best models) a feature of space itself. The amount of dark energy is constant throughout both **space and time**: about one hundred-millionth of an erg per cubic centimeter. It doesn’t dilute away, even as space expands.

Given that, all you need to accept is that Einstein’s formulation of gravity says “the curvature of spacetime is proportional to the amount of stuff within it.” (The technical version of “curvature of spacetime” is the Einstein tensor, and the technical version of “stuff” is the energy-momentum tensor.) In the case of an expanding universe, the manifestation of spacetime curvature is simply the fact that space is expanding. (There can also be spatial curvature, but that seems negligible in the real world, so why complicate things.)