Cosmology 101: The Present

A map of the CMB as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Credit: WMAP team

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Welcome back! Last time, we discussed the first few controversial and eventful moments following the birth of our cosmos. Looking around us today, we know that in the span of just a few billion years, the universe was transformed from that blistering amalgam of tiny elementary particles into a vast and organized expanse just teeming with large-scale structure. How does something like that happen?

Let’s recap. When we left off, the universe was a chaotic soup of simple matter and radiation. A photon couldn’t travel very far without bumping into and being absorbed by a charged particle, exciting it and later being emitted, just to go through the cycle again. After about three minutes, the ambient temperature had cooled to such an extent that these charged particles (protons and electrons) could begin to come together and form stable nuclei.

But, despite the falling temperature, it was still hot enough for these nuclei to start to combine into heavier elements. For the next few minutes, the universe cooked up various isotopes of hydrogen, helium and lithium nuclei in a process commonly known as big bang nucleosynthesis. As time went on and the universe expanded even further, these nuclei slowly captured surrounding electrons until neutral atoms dominated the landscape. Finally, after about 300,000 years, photons could travel freely across the universe without charged particles getting in their way. The cosmic microwave background radiation that astronomers observe today is actually the relic light from that very moment, stretched over time due to the expansion of the universe.

If you look at a picture of the CMB (above), you will see a pattern of differently colored patches that represent anisotropies in the background temperature of the cosmos. These temperature differences originally stemmed from tiny quantum fluctuations that were dramatically blown up in the very early universe. Over the next few hundred million years, the slightly overdense regions in the spacetime fabric attracted more and more matter (both baryonic – the kind that you and I are made of – and dark) under the influence of gravity. Some small regions eventually became so hot and dense that they were able to begin nuclear fusion in their cores; thus, in a delicate dance between external gravity and internal pressure, the first stars were born. Gravity then continued its pull, dragging clumps of stars into galaxies and later, clumps of galaxies into galaxy clusters. Some massive stars collapsed into black holes. Others grew so heavy and bloated that they exploded, spewing chunks of metal-rich debris in every direction. About 4.7 billion years ago, some of this material found its way into orbit around one unassuming main sequence star, creating planets of all sizes, shapes, and compositions – our Solar System!

Billions of years of geology and evolution later, here we are. And there the rest of the universe is. It’s a pretty striking story. But what’s next? And how do we know that all of this theory is even close to correct? Make sure to come back next time to find out!

Cosmology 101: The Beginning

Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

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Editor’s note: The article “The Universe Could be 250 Times Bigger Than What is Observable” sparked a sizable discussion among our readers, with several suggesting UT should have a series of articles about cosmology — a Cosmology 101, if you will. Our newest writer, Vanessa D’Amico, who wrote the aforementioned article, begins the Cosmology 101 series today, starting at the very beginning.

How did the universe get its start? It’s one of the most pressing questions in cosmology, and likely one that will be around for a while. Here, I’ll begin by explaining what scientists think they know about the first formative seconds of the universe’s life. More than likely, the story isn’t quite what you might think.

In the beginning, there was… well, we don’t really know. One of the most prevalent misconceptions in cosmology is that the universe began as an immensely small, inconceivably dense collection of material that suddenly exploded, giving rise to space as we know it. There are a number of problems with this idea, not least of all the assumption implicit in an event termed the big “bang.” In truth, nothing “banged.” The notion of an explosion brings to mind an expanding tide of material, gradually filling the space around it; however, when our universe was born, there was no space. There was no time either. There was no vacuum. There was literally nothing.

Then the universe was born. Extremely high energies during the first 10-43 seconds of its life make it very difficult for scientists to determine anything conclusive about the origin of the cosmos. Of course, if cosmologists are correct about what they believe may have happened next, it doesn’t much matter. According to the theory of inflation, at about 10-36 seconds, the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion. In a matter of a few thousandths of a second, space inflated by a factor of about 1078, quickly separating what were once adjoining regions by unfathomable distances and blowing up tiny quantum fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime.

Inflation is an appealing theory for a number of reasons. First of all, it explains why we observe the universe to be homogeneous and isotropic on large scales – that is, it looks the same in all directions and to all observers. It also explains why the universe visually appears to be flat, rather than curved. Without inflation, a flat universe requires an extremely fine-tuned set of initial conditions; however, inflation turns this fine-tuning into a trick of scale. A familiar analogy: the ground under our feet appears to be flat (even though we know we live on a spherical planet) because we humans are so much smaller than the Earth. Likewise, the inflated universe is so enormous compared to our local field of view that it appears to be spatially flat.

As the theory goes, the end of inflation gave way to a universe that looked slightly more like the one we observe today. The vacuum energy that drove inflation suddenly transformed into a different kind of energy – the kind that could create elementary particles. At this point (only 10-32 seconds after the birth of the universe), the ambient temperature was still far too hot to build atoms or molecules from these particles; but as the seconds wore on, space expanded and cooled to the point where quarks could come together and form protons and neutrons. High-energy photons continued to dart around, continually striking and exciting charged protons and electrons.

So what happened next? How did this chaotic soup of matter and radiation become the vast expanse of organized structure that we see today? What’s going to happen to the universe in the future? And how do we know that this is the way the story unfolded? Make sure to check out the next few installments of Cosmology 101 for the answers to these questions and more!

Universe Could be 250 Times Bigger Than What is Observable

Cosmic Noise

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Our Universe is an enormous place; that’s no secret. What is up for discussion, however, is just how enormous it is. And new research suggests it’s a whopper – over 250 times the size of our observable universe.

Currently, cosmologists believe the Universe takes one of three possible shapes:

1) It is flat, like a Euclidean plane, and spatially infinite.
2) It is open, or curved like a saddle, and spatially infinite.
3) It is closed, or curved like a sphere, and spatially finite.

While most current data favors a flat universe, cosmologists have yet to come to a consensus. In a paper recently submitted to Arxiv, UK scientists Mihran Vardanyan, Roberto Trotta and Joseph Silk present their fix: a mathematical version of Occam’s Razor called Bayesian model averaging. The principle of Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, a flat universe represents a simpler geometry than a curved universe. Bayesian averaging takes this consideration into account and averages the data accordingly. Unsurprisingly, the team’s results show that the data best fits a flat, infinite universe.

But what if the Universe turns out to be closed, and thus has a finite size after all? Cosmologists often refer to the Hubble volume – a volume of space that is similar to our visible Universe. Light from any object outside of the Hubble volume will never reach us because the space between us and it is expanding too quickly. According to the team’s analysis, a closed universe would encompass at least 251 Hubble volumes.

That’s quite a bit larger than you might think. Primordial light from just after the birth of the Universe started traveling across the cosmos about 13.75 billion years ago. Since special relativity states that nothing can move faster than a photon, many people misinterpret this to mean that the observable Universe must be 13.75 billion light years across. In fact, it is much larger. Not only has space been expanding since the big bang, but the rate of expansion has been steadily increasing due to the influence of dark energy. Since special relativity doesn’t factor in the expansion of space itself, cosmologists estimate that the oldest photons have travelled a distance of 45 billion light years since the big bang. That means that our observable Universe is on the order of 90 billion light years wide.

To top it all off, it turns out that the team’s size limit of 251 Hubble volumes is a conservative estimate, based on a geometric model that includes inflation. If astronomers were to instead base the size of the Universe solely on the age and distribution of the objects they observe today, they would find that a closed universe encompasses at least 398 Hubble volumes. That’s nearly 400 times the size of everything we can ever hope to see in the Universe!

Given the reality of our current capabilities for observation, to us even a finite universe appears to go on forever.