My question pertains to a possible inconsistency between the first law of thermodynamics and the general expansion of space itself.

First, the knowns:

  1. Space itself has, and continues to expand - the acceleration aspect is not relevant to the discussion
  2. Empty space in a vacuum has intrinsic energy - some refer to this as dark energy
  3. Energy cannot be created or destroyed as per the first law of thermodynamics

Concisely, what is the source of energy that is imbued into this "new" space?

A few speculations:

  1. The energy for this process is taken from something other source that already exists inside or outside the known universe.
  2. The energy for this process is created from nothing, thus violating the first law.
  3. If space itself is quantized, perhaps the planck length itself is expanding across the universe, giving the appearance that new space is created, but actually it is just the space "particles" themselves that are expanding. At some critical point this expanding space would have observable consequences for our own scale of existence.

These ponderings can also be applied to the big bang theory - either energy was created at some point (from nothing) or existence of anything has been an infinite cycle into the past. Either way we are dealing with infinites. Create something from nothing and you will find infinites cropping into your calculations.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ There is no law of physics that says that energy has to be conserved on the cosmological scale. All current energy conservation laws we have are local. Having said that, cosmological non-conservation of energy may just be a hint that there is a, yet, invisible sector of the universe and energy, as a whole, may very well be conserved. One will have to entertain both possibilities for future model building. Neither is something that one can't handle within the known frameworks. $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Commented Jun 4, 2016 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ see Is Energy Conserved in General Relativity? by Michael Weiss and John Baez $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveB: That's not the same question, though. We simply don't know if GR is even the correct theory. It has so many internal problems that it is hard to believe that it is. $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 2:34

4 Answers 4


Dark energy is a form energy that appears to have a constant density in space even as the universe expands. The simplest model for this is a cosmological constant in the gravitational field equations. This model agrees with observations. What dark energy really is or whether this model is correct is beside the point here. My answer assumes this hypothesis. The question we need to answer is how can we reconcile energy conservation with that model?

As the universe expands the amount of dark energy in an expanding volume increases in proportion to the volume. Meanwhile the amount of energy contained in cold matter remains constant. It sounds like dark energy is therefore being created out of nothing in violation of the law of energy conservation. In fact there is also a negative contribution of energy in the gravitational field due to the dynamic expansion of space itself. As the expansion of the universe accelerates due to dark energy the magnitude of this negative background gravitational energy increases. This matches all other forms of energy so that the total is constantly zero and energy is conserved.

The equation for energy in the standard cosmological models for an expanding universe including radiation and dark energy as well as ordinary matter can be derived from these formulations and is as follows:

$E = Mc^2 + \frac{\Gamma}{a} + \frac{\Lambda c^2}{\kappa}a^3 - \frac{3}{\kappa}\dot{a}^2a - Ka = 0$

$E$ is the total energy in an expanding region of volume $a(t)^3$. This always comes to zero in a perfectly homogeneous cosmology.

$a(t)$ is the universal expansion factor as a function of time normalised to 1 at the current epoch. It started as zero and increases with time as the universe gets bigger.

$\dot{a}$ is the derivative of $a$ with respect to time, in other words it is the rate of expansion of the universe.

$M$ is the total mass of matter in the region

$c$ is the speed of light

$\Gamma$ is the density of cosmic radiation normalised to the current epoch

$\Lambda$ is the cosmological constant also known as dark energy, thought to be positive.

$\kappa$ is the gravitational coupling constant. In terms of Newton's gravitational constant $G$ it is $\kappa = \frac{8\pi G}{c^2}$.

$K$ is a constant that is positive for spherical closed space, negative for hyperbolic space and zero for flat space.

This equation tells us that the positive energy in matter, radiation and dark energy is perfectly balanced by a negative quantity of energy in the gravitational field that depends on the rate of expansion of the universe. As the universe expands the length scale $a(t)$ increases. The amount of energy in ordinary matter $Mc^2$ is constant in an expanding volume. The radiation energy $\frac{\Gamma}{a}$ decreases due to cosmic redshift and the amount of dark energy $\frac{\Lambda c^2}{\kappa}a^3$ increases as the volume expands. The rate of expansion must adjust so that the negative gravitational energy balances the sum of these energies. In particular the dark energy must eventually become the dominant positive term and the expansion of space accelerates to balance the energy equation.

Some people claim incorrectly that energy is not conserved in an expanding universe because space-time is not static. The law of Energy conservation is derived from Noether's theorem when the dynamical equations are unchanged with time. These people confuse the invariance of the equations with the invariance of the solution. Space-time changes but the equations obeyed by the expanding universe do not change. Space-time cannot be treated as a background, its dynamics must be included when deriving the enrgy equations via Noether's theorem. This leads to the equations given above which show that energy is indeed conserved.

  • $\begingroup$ Your "gravitational energy" term is inversely proportional to $G$. How odd. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2019 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ These are terms for gravitational energy due to expansion rate of universe and dark energy. Notice that they do not depend on mass content to they are not comparable to Newtonian gravitational potential energy. It does not really make sense to say that a quantity is inversely proportional to an unvarying constant, but the factors are correct for these terms. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2019 at 6:38
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that they are correct, I'm just saying it's not gravitational energy because it goes to zero in the strong gravity limit. And just because you can move a term from the right-hand-side to the left-hand-side (the curvature term) and make the whole equation zero, doesn't mean that you can interpret this as the total energy and that it is constant. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2019 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ This equation is not derived by just moving terms around, although I don't agree that this would be entirely invalid. Noether's theorem is applied to derive an expression for energy in the general case. This is then applied to the cosmological solution to show that this is the correct expression for energy. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2019 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ In the strong coupling limit the curvature itself would increase and the cosmological constant could do anything so I don't think it is correct to say that the terms would go to zero. Also gravity does not seem to be near a strong coupling limit. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2019 at 14:11

Conservation of energy relies on the symmetry of your system under time translation (see Noether Theorem). In a system that is not time translation invariant, eg expanding universe, energy doesn't have to be conserved.

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    $\begingroup$ any choice of time-like vector field will yield a conservation law via Noether's 2nd theorem $\endgroup$
    – Christoph
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 13:15

The claim that energy conservation does not hold in GR is debatable, as any choice of time-like vectorfield will yield such a law via Noether's second theorem (energy conservation in GR was in fact the reason why Noether developed her theorems in the first place). However, these laws are (in Noether's terminology) 'improper', ie given through linear combinations of differential identities given by the 'Lagrangian expressions' and their derivatives (cf Invariant Variational Problems by Emmy Nother).

From the more practical perspective of physics, the issue with these laws is that they contain a delocalized contribution that cannot be associated with an energy density. A classical analogon would be energy conservation in accelerated frames of reference, with the caveat that in contrast to classical mechanics, in GR we cannot just go to an inertial frame to make all 'fictious' forces go away globally.

Now, for your case specifically (for convenience, I'll consider the spatially flat Friedmann model), it turns out that if we choose cosmic time as our parameter field, we'll end up with the first Friedmann equation

$$ \left(\frac {\dot a}a\right)^2 = H^2 = \frac{8\pi}{3} \rho + \frac 13 \Lambda $$

or more suggestively

$$ \rho + \frac 1{8\pi} \Lambda - \frac 3{8\pi} H^2 = 0 $$

with positive contributions by matter and dark energy balanced by a negative contribution that we identify with the gravitational field.

As an aside, we can also rewrite the second Friedmann equation

$$ \frac {\ddot a}a = \dot H + H^2 = -\frac{4\pi}3 (\rho + 3p) + \frac 13 \Lambda $$

in a way that, depending on your point of view, is either eye-opening or misleading.

Compute $\dot H$ by differentiating the first equation and insert it into the second one, substitute $H^2$ as well and you'll arrive at

$$ \dot\rho + 3H(\rho + p) = 0 $$

Now, consider a finite volume $V=(R_0a)^3$. As $H = \dot V / 3V$ multiplying by $V$ yields

$$ \dot\rho V + \rho\dot V + p\dot V = 0 $$

or with $U = \rho V$

$$ \mathrm dU + p \mathrm dV = 0 $$

Note the lack of explicit contributions by either dark energy or gravity, though they implicitly contribute dynamically.


In the question on dark energy I gave an elementary answer that is reduced to Newtonian mechanics. The Hubble frame has a remarkable property that one can look at local cosmology in a Newtonian fashion. The total energy is set to zero. This does give a result that is commensurate with the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker theory of the expanding universe. It even covers the de Sitter spacetime accelerated expansion.

This conservation law is at best local and is a manifestation of our local frame. The spacetime metrics for cosmologies are type O solutions in the Petrov scheme and these have not Killing vectors. In general relativity a Killing vector $\xi_\mu$ must act as an isometry by projecting on a vector, say the momentum vector $P^\mu$ so that $\xi_\mu P^\mu~=~const$. This gives Noether theorem results for conservation laws. Cosmologies lack this property on a global level, which is one reason the little Newtonian model I present above must break down on some level.

  • $\begingroup$ Cosmology has isotropy and homogeneity as Killing symmetries. RW universe's are pretty symmetric. Just not time. $\endgroup$
    – Bob Bee
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 5:24

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