Kapow! Keck Confirms Puzzling Element of Big Bang Theory

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

Observations of the kaboom that built our universe — known as the Big Bang — is better matching up with theory thanks to new work released from one of the twin 33-foot (10-meter) W.M. Keck Observatory telescopes in Hawaii.

For two decades, scientists were puzzled at a lithium isotope discrepancy observed in the oldest stars in our universe, which formed close to the Big Bang’s occurrence about 13.8 billion years ago. Li-6 was about 200 times more than predicted, and there was 3-5 times less Li-7 — if you go by astronomical theory of the Big Bang.

The fresh work, however, showed that these past observations came up with the strange numbers due to lower-quality data that, in its simplifications, created more lithium isotopes detections than are actually present. Keck’s observations found no discrepancy.

Artist's conception of a metal-poor star. Astronomers modelled a portion of its surface to figure out its abundance of lithium-6, an element that was previously in discrepancy between Big Bang theory and observations of old stars. Credit: Karin Lind, Davide De Martin.
Artist’s conception of a metal-poor star. Astronomers modelled a portion of its surface to figure out its abundance of lithium-6, an element that was previously in discrepancy between Big Bang theory and observations of old stars. Credit: Karin Lind, Davide De Martin.

“Understanding the birth of our universe is pivotal for the understanding of the later formation of all its constituents, ourselves included,” stated lead researcher Karin Lind, who was with the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Munich when the work was performed.

“The Big Bang model sets the initial conditions for structure formation and explains our presence in an expanding universe dominated by dark matter and energy,” added Lind, who is now with the University of Cambridge.

To be sure, it is difficult to measure lithium-6 and lithium-7 because their spectroscopic “signatures” are pretty hard to see. It takes a large telescope to be able to do it. Also, modelling the data can lead to accidental detections of lithium because some of the processes within these old stars appear similar to a lithium signature.

Keck used a high-resolution spectrometer to get the images and gazed at each star for several hours to ensure astronomers got all the photons it needed to do analysis. Modelling the data took several more weeks of work on a supercomputer.

The research appeared in the June 2013 edition of Astronomy & Astrophysics. You can check out the entire paper here.

Source: Keck Observatory

Abuse From Other Universes – A Second Opinion

Concentric circles interpreted as bruises from collisions with alternate universes. Image Credit: Feeney et al.


At the end of last year, there was a flurry of activity from astronomers Gurzadyan and Penrose that considered the evidence of alternate universes or the existence of a universe prior to the Big Bang and suggested that such evidence may be imprinted on the cosmic microwave background as bruises of concentric circles. Quickly, this was followed by an announcement claiming to find just such circles. Of course, with an announcement this big, the statistical significance would need to be confirmed. A recent paper in the October issue of the Astrophysical Journal provides a second opinion.

The review was conducted by Amir Hajian at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. To conduct the study, Hajian selected a large number of circles, similar to the ones reported in the previous studies and asked what the probability was that, randomly, the “edge” of the circles would contain hot-spots, similar to the ones predicted. These were then compared to the bruises reported by the other teams by examining their “variance” which is how much the points on the perimeter were spread around the average temperature.

Hajian notes that, with the resolution considered it would be possible to consider some 5 million circles. The results of his comparison demonstrated that it would be expected that some 0.3% of those should have features similar to the ones reported previously. With so many possibilities, this would imply that some 15,000 potential circles could be flagged as candidates for these cosmic bruises. Even the “best” candidate proposed in the Gurzadyan and Penrose study should still exist statistically.

As such, Hajian concludes that the features Gurzadyan and Penrose reported were not statistically anomalous. Hajian does not comment directly on Feeney et al.’s detection, but given theirs were constructed in a similar manner, it should be expected that they are similarly statistically insignificant. It would appear that if the fingerprints of other universes are embedded in the sky, they have been lost in the noise.

Cosmological Constant

The cosmological constant, symbol Λ (Greek capital lambda), was ‘invented’ by Einstein, not long after he published his theory of general relativity (GR). It appears on the left-hand side of the Einstein field equations.

Einstein added this term because he – along with all other astronomers and physicists of the time – thought the universe was static (the cosmological constant can make a universe filled with mass-energy static, neither expanding nor contracting). However, he very quickly realized that this wouldn’t work, because such a universe would be unstable … and quickly turn into one either expanding or contracting! Not long afterwards, Hubble (actually Vesto Slipher) discovered that the universe is, in fact, expanding, so the need for a cosmological constant went away.

Until 1998.

In that year, two teams of astronomers independently announced that distant Type Ia supernovae did not have the apparent luminosity they should, in a universe composed almost entirely of mass-energy in the form of baryons (ordinary matter) and cold dark matter.

Dark Energy had been discovered: dark energy is a form of mass-energy that has a constant density throughout the universe, and perhaps throughout time as well; counter-intuitively, it causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate (i.e. it acts kinda like anti-gravity). The most natural form of dark energy is the cosmological constant.

A great deal of research has gone into trying to discover if dark energy is, in fact, just the cosmological constant, or if it is quintessence, or something else. So far, results from observations of the CMB (by WMAP, mainly), of BAO (baryon acoustic oscillations, by extensive surveys of galaxies), and of high-redshift supernovae (by many teams) are consistent with dark energy being the cosmological constant.

So if the cosmological constant is (a) mass-energy (density), it can be expressed as kilograms (per cubic meter), can’t it? Yes, and the best estimate today is 7.3 x 10-27 kg m 3.

Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial (UCLA) and Sean Carroll’s Cosmology Primer (California Institute of Technology) between them cover not only the cosmological constant, but also cosmology! NASA’s What Is A Cosmological Constant? is a great one-page intro.

Universe Today has many, many stories featuring the cosmological constant! Here are a few to whet your appetite: Universe to WMAP: LCDM Rules, OK?, Einstein’s Cosmological Constant Predicts Dark Energy, and No “Big Rip” in our Future: Chandra Provides Insights Into Dark Energy.

There are many Astronomy Cast episodes which include discussion of the cosmological constant … these are among the best: The Big Bang and Cosmic Microwave Background, The Important Numbers in the Universe, and the March 18th, 2009 Questions Show.


Universe to WMAP: ΛCDM Rules, OK?

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) science team has finished analyzing seven full years’ of data from the little probe that could, and once again it seems we can sum up the universe in six parameters and a model.

Using the seven-year WMAP data, together with recent results on the large-scale distribution of galaxies, and an updated estimate of the Hubble constant, the present-day age of the universe is 13.75 (plus-or-minus 0.11) billion years, dark energy comprises 72.8% (+/- 1.5%) of the universe’s mass-energy, baryons 4.56% (+/- 0.16%), non-baryonic matter (CDM) 22.7% (+/- 1.4%), and the redshift of reionization is 10.4 (+/- 1.2).

In addition, the team report several new cosmological constraints – primordial abundance of helium (this rules out various alternative, ‘cold big bang’ models), and an estimate of a parameter which describes a feature of density fluctuations in the very early universe sufficiently precisely to rule out a whole class of inflation models (the Harrison-Zel’dovich-Peebles spectrum), to take just two – as well as tighter limits on many others (number of neutrino species, mass of the neutrino, parity violations, axion dark matter, …).

The best eye-candy from the team’s six papers are the stacked temperature and polarization maps for hot and cold spots; if these spots are due to sound waves in matter frozen in when radiation (photons) and baryons parted company – the cosmic microwave background (CMB) encodes all the details of this separation – then there should be nicely circular rings, of rather exact sizes, around the spots. Further, the polarization directions should switch from radial to tangential, from the center out (for cold spots; vice versa for hot spots).

And that’s just what the team found!

Concerning Dark Energy. Since the Five-Year WMAP results were published, several independent studies with direct relevance to cosmology have been published. The WMAP team took those from observations of the baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO) in the distribution of galaxies; of Cepheids, supernovae, and a water maser in local galaxies; of time-delay in a lensed quasar system; and of high redshift supernovae, and combined them to reduce the nooks and crannies in parameter space in which non-cosmological constant varieties of dark energy could be hiding. At least some alternative kinds of dark energy may still be possible, but for now Λ, the cosmological constant, rules.

Concerning Inflation. Very, very, very early in the life of the universe – so the theory of cosmic inflation goes – there was a period of dramatic expansion, and the tiny quantum fluctuations before inflation became the giant cosmic structures we see today. “Inflation predicts that the statistical distribution of primordial fluctuations is nearly a Gaussian distribution with random phases. Measuring deviations from a Gaussian distribution,” the team reports, “is a powerful test of inflation, as how precisely the distribution is (non-) Gaussian depends on the detailed physics of inflation.” While the limits on non-Gaussianity (as it is called), from analysis of the WMAP data, only weakly constrain various models of inflation, they do leave almost nowhere for cosmological models without inflation to hide.

Concerning ‘cosmic shadows’ (the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich (SZ) effect). While many researchers have looked for cosmic shadows in WMAP data before – perhaps the best known to the general public is the 2006 Lieu, Mittaz, and Zhang paper (the SZ effect: hot electrons in the plasma which pervades rich clusters of galaxies interact with CMB photons, via inverse Compton scattering) – the WMAP team’s recent analysis is their first to investigate this effect. They detect the SZ effect directly in the nearest rich cluster (Coma; Virgo is behind the Milky Way foreground), and also statistically by correlation with the location of some 700 relatively nearby rich clusters. While the WMAP team’s finding is consistent with data from x-ray observations, it is inconsistent with theoretical models. Back to the drawing board for astrophysicists studying galaxy clusters.

Seven Year Microwave Sky (Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

I’ll wrap up by quoting Komatsu et al. “The standard ΛCDM cosmological model continues to be an exquisite fit to the existing data.”

Primary source: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Cosmological Interpretation (arXiv:1001.4738). The five other Seven-Year WMAP papers are: Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Are There Cosmic Microwave Background Anomalies? (arXiv:1001.4758), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Planets and Celestial Calibration Sources (arXiv:1001.4731), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Sky Maps, Systematic Errors, and Basic Results (arXiv:1001.4744), Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Power Spectra and WMAP-Derived Parameters (arXiv:1001.4635), and Seven-Year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Galactic Foreground Emission (arXiv:1001.4555). Also check out the official WMAP website.


‘Nucleo-‘ means ‘to do with nuclei’; ‘synthesis’ means ‘to make’, so nucleosynthesis is the creation of (new) atomic nuclei.

In astronomy – and astrophysics and cosmology – there are two main kinds of nucleosynthesis, Big Bang nucleosynthesis (BBN), and stellar nucleosynthesis.

In the amazingly successful set of theories which are popularly called the Big Bang theory, the early universe was very dense, and very hot. As it expanded, it cooled, and the quark-gluon plasma ‘froze’ into neutrons and protons (and other hadrons, but their role in BBN was marginal), which interacted furiously … lots and lots of nuclear reactions. The universe continued to cool, and soon became too cold for any further nuclear reactions … the unstable isotopes left then decayed, as did the neutrons not already in some nucleus or other. Most matter was then hydrogen (actually just protons; the electrons were not captured to form atoms until much later), and helium-4 (alpha particles) … with a sprinkling of deuterium, a dash of helium-3, and a trace of lithium-7.

That’s BBN.

The atoms in your body – apart from the hydrogen – were all made in stars … by stellar nucleosynthesis.

Stars on the main sequence get the energy they shine by from nuclear reactions in their cores; off the main sequence, the energy comes from nuclear reactions in a shell (or more than one shell) around the core. There are several different nuclear reaction cycles, or processes (e.g. triple alpha, s process, proton-proton chain, CNO cycle), but the end result is the fusion of hydrogen (and helium) to produce carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, … and the iron group (iron, cobalt, nickel). In the red giant phase of a star’s life, much of this matter ends up in the interstellar medium … and one day in your body.

There are other ways new nuclei can be created, in the universe (other than BBN and stellar nucleosynthesis); for example, when a high energy particle (a cosmic ray) collides with a nucleus in the interstellar medium (or the Earth’s atmosphere), it breaks it into two or more pieces (this process is called cosmic ray spallation). This produces most of the lithium (apart from the BBN 7Li), beryllium, and boron.

And one more: in a supernova, especially a core collapse supernova, huge quantities of new nuclei are synthesized, very quickly, in the nuclear reactions triggered by the flood of neutrons. This ‘r process’, as it is called (actually there’s more than one) produces most of the elements heavier than the iron group (copper to uranium), directly or by radioactive decay of unstable isotopes produced directly.

Like to learn more? Here are a few links that might interest you: Nucleosynthesis (NASA’s Cosmicopia), Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (Martin White, University of California, Berkeley), and Stellar Nucleosynthesis (Ohio University).

Plenty of Universe Today stories on this topic too; for example Stars at Milky Way Core ‘Exhale’ Carbon, Oxygen, Astronomers Simulate the First Stars Formed After the Big Bang, and Neutron Stars Have Crusts of Super-Steel.

Check out this Astronomy Cast episode, tailor-made for this Guide to Space article: Nucleosynthesis: Elements from Stars.


Big Bang Timeline

A fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe underwent inflation - but what does that mean? credit: NASA/WMAP

The Big Bang timeline is basically just a list of relative times at which the major events in the history of the universe occurred, per the collection of theories, models, and hypotheses which together form what is called the Big Bang theory.

The start – when time began, when t = 0 – is not actually part of the Big Bang timeline (!), contrary to popular belief. That’s because the two theories of physics which are at the heart of the Big Bang theory – General Relativity (GR) and the Standard Model (of particle physics; SM for short) – are mutually incompatible, and that incompatibility becomes so intolerable that saying anything about what happened in the first Planck second (approx 10-43 second) is meaningless.

In fact, the closer to the Planck regime – when GR and the SM are utterly incompatible – the less reliable are our descriptions … but the relative times are nonetheless pretty good.

Actually, that’s not quite true … what is relatively certain are temperatures; forces, matter, and radiation interact in very distinct ways, depending on the temperature (and pressure, or density), but converting from temperature back to time depends on various parameters which are not so well pinned down. However, once the average mass-energy density of the universe, today, is estimated, the clock can be wound back with some confidence (it’s ~six hydrogen atoms per cubic meter, or about 7 x 10-27 kg/m3).

Around 10-35 seconds leptons and baryons were created (the strong force became a distinct force), and inflation caused the universe to expand so much that the part which later became our observable universe was both flat (no curvature, in the GR sense) and incredibly smooth (with only tiny variations in density due to quantum effects).

At around 10-11 seconds the electromagnetic and weak force became distinct.

And by about a microsecond the universe underwent another phase change … it was no longer a quark-gluon plasma, but hadrons formed (protons and neutrons).

When t = 1 second (more or less), nuclear reactions produced light nuclides, such as deuterium and helium-3 (before this time the universe was too hot for them to form) – Big Bang nucleosynthesis.

The earliest part of the universe we can still see, directly, happened when the electrons and protons (and other nuclei) combined to form hydrogen atoms; this is the recombination era, and we see it today as the cosmic microwave background … and gravity took over as the dominant force (before this it was electromagnetism – the universe was ‘radiation dominated’ – and before that, at the time of nucleosynthesis, the strong and weak forces ruled).

The rest, as they say, is history … the Dark Ages (during which the first stars were formed), the era of recombination (when stars and quasars ionized the diffuse hydrogen), galaxy formation, … and then about 13.4 billion years later we observed the skies and worked out the timeline!

There’s a lot of good material on the web on the Big Bang timeline; here are some: John Baez (who’s always worth reading) has a brief timeline, in terms of temperature; there’s a more extensive one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and perhaps the best, A Brief History of the Universe (University of Cambridge).

Want to explore more? Here are some of the many Universe Today articles on the Big Bang timeline: Cosmologists Look Back to Cosmic Dawn, A Star as Old as the Universe, and Book Review: The Mystery of the Mission Antimatter.

Astronomy Cast has several episodes for you to explore, to learn more about the Big Bang timeline; here are a few: The Big Bang and Cosmic Microwave Background, Inflation, and this 2009 Questions Show.