The Universe Has A Lithium Problem

Over the past decades, scientists have wrestled with a problem involving the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory suggests that there should be three times as much lithium as we can observe. Why is there such a discrepancy between prediction and observation?

To get into that problem, let’s back up a bit.

The Big Bang Theory (BBT) is well-supported by multiple lines of evidence and theory. It’s widely accepted as the explanation for how the Universe started. Three key pieces of evidence support the BBT:

But the BBT still has some niggling questions.

The missing lithium problem is centred around the earliest stages of the Universe: from about 10 seconds to 20 minutes after the Big Bang. The Universe was super hot and it was expanding rapidly. This was the beginning of what’s called the Photon Epoch.

At that time, atomic nuclei formed through nucleosynthesis. But the extreme heat that dominated the Universe prevented the nuclei from combining with electrons to form atoms. The Universe was a plasma of nuclei, electrons, and photons.

Only the lightest nuclei were formed during this time, including most of the helium in the Universe, and small amounts of other light nuclides, like deuterium and our friend lithium. For the most part, heavier elements weren’t formed until stars appeared, and took on the role of nucleosynthesis.

The problem is that our understanding of the Big Bang tells us that there should be three times as much lithium as there is. The BBT gets it right when it comes to other primordial nuclei. Our observations of primordial helium and deuterium match the BBT’s predictions. So far, scientists haven’t been able to resolve this inconsistency.

But a new paper from researchers in China may have solved the puzzle.

One assumption in Big Bang nucleosynthesis is that all of the nuclei are in thermodynamic equilibrium, and that their velocities conform to what’s called the classical Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. But the Maxwell-Boltzmann describes what happens in what is called an ideal gas. Real gases can behave differently, and this is what the researchers propose: that nuclei in the plasma of the early photon period of the Universe behaved slightly differently than thought.

This graphics shows the distribution of early primordial light elements in the Universe by time and temperature. Temperature along the top, time along the bottom, and abundance on the side. Image: Hou et al. 2017

The authors applied what is known as non-extensive statistics to solve the problem. In the graph above, the dotted lines of the author’s model predict a lower abundance of the beryllium isotope. This is key, since beryllium decays into lithium. Also key is that the resulting amount of lithium, and of the other lighter nuclei, now all conform to the amounts predicted by the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. It’s a eureka moment for cosmology aficionados.

The decay chains of primordial light nuclei in the early days of the Universe. Notice the thin red arrows between Beryllium and Lithium at 10-13, the earliest time shown on this chart. Image: Chou et. al.

What this all means is scientists can now accurately predict the abundance in the primordial universe of the three primordial nuclei: helium, deuterium, and lithium. Without any discrepancy, and without any missing lithium.

This is how science grinds away at problems, and if the authors of the paper are correct, then it further validates the Big Bang Theory, and brings us one step closer to understanding how our Universe was formed.


13 Replies to “The Universe Has A Lithium Problem”

  1. Or the alternative is that scientists will always find a way to fit the theory to the empirical evidence.

    1. Would you rather that they act like the Tobacco Institute, and make the evidence fit the theory?

  2. The real problem with BB theory is that the age of the universe is limited to 13.7 billion years, with the current back-calculation. The pair-formation process, though infinitely longer, is a more reasonable matter creation mechanism. Low energy radiation could also be created spontaneously out of matching opposite charges from the vacuum point energy continuum that would originate from smaller scales. Numerous absorption, refraction, interference and gravitational lensing processes could account for the background red shift, with the CMBR being a result of overall optical interference over large areas in the cosmos.

  3. Well I am no where near an expert but don’t the C-N-O cycle and Oddo–Harkins rule explain the lack

  4. Hi Tim,
    For space-time to exist, a universe must have a certain minimum density of matter or its equivalent in energy. This excludes a universe (With our laws of physics) from existing with only a vacuum. (No matter or energy.) This limits, (as far as our current knowledge of physics goes), the possibility of creation to a singularity. (Which we call The Big Bang.)
    Some of the problems with the alternatives are that, we do not know if a universe exists where different laws of physics were created, we could not go there because this universe appears to be closed, and any researchers would be destroyed by any transition to a universe with different laws of physics.
    I am not very hopeful that any physicist will find a solution to these problems in my lifetime.

  5. It has long been trying to warn the scientists that they must get out of the mud and scientific kontaninirane science, which really turned into a fully pogešan time, but for all that relates to ustrojsvo universe. Science is itself stupefy, if the basis of knowledge uzma something no evidence or knowledge. This is the basis of your BIG BANG. The universe is not what your fatamorgana shows those who do not believe in the existence of spiritual entities of the universe (SEU), which is the Creator of everything in the material universe, the energy entity (MEEU). Who does not believe, and who does not feel it all through its existence, this is the very low level of awareness, and it is the power of creating and understanding.
    It would be good that once you agree and that enable me to teach you much that today’s science misunderstood and that you start thinking the way you do it in your consciousness registered that your free will will delete all of it now and compete how you take high tycoon position in science.
    Big Bang, even more nonsense !!
    About the age of the Universe is nonsense to discuss, because they do not know the basics of their existence.
    Here you start off when you easier to understand ”
    Matter and energy are all caused by the ether, the substance that fills the universe is infinite.
    Matter is composed of two basic particles 3kg (three gluons and quarks 3), and in particular gluon (which form the annihilation of electrons and positrons).
    First atom (chemical element), it is formed when at 3kg substituted positron particle, which is obtained as a “vapor state” and to gluons is a proton, and for the energy balance, the electron orbits the proton to form a hydrogen atom. Of 4 atoms of hydrogen and helium formed isotopes of hydrogen and so on form all the chemical elements. Understand that this is the basis for a new award in science, which will be much better than the Nobel Prize.

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