What Is The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation?

What Is The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation?

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is the afterglow of the Big Bang; one of the strongest lines of evidence we have that this event happened. UCLA’s Dr. Ned Wright explains.

“Ok, I’m Ned Wright, and I’m a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, and I work on infrared astronomy and cosmology.”

How useful is the cosmic microwave background radiation?

“Well, the most important information we get is from the cosmic microwave background radiation come from, at the lowest level, is it’s existence. When I started in astronomy, it wasn’t 100 percent certain that the Big Bang model was correct. And so with the prediction of a cosmic microwave background from the Big Bang and the prediction of no cosmic microwave background from the competing theory, the steady state, that was a very important step in our knowledge.”

“And then the second aspect of the cosmic microwave background that is very important, is that it’s spectrum is extremely similar to a black body. And so, by being a black body means that universe relatively smoothly transitioned from being opaque to being transparent, and then we actually see effectively an isothermal cavity when we look out, so it looks very close to a black body.”

“And the fact that we are moving through the universe can be measured very precisely by looking at what is called the dipole anisotropy of the microwave background. So one side of the sky is slightly hotter (about 3 millikelvin hotter) and one side of the sky – the opposite side of the sky – is slightly colder (about 3 millikelvin colder), so that means that we are moving at approximately a tenth of a percent of the speed of light. And in fact we now know very precisely what that value is – it’s about 370 kilometers per second. So that’s our motion, the solar system’s motion, through the universe.”

“An then the final piece of information we’re getting from the microwave background now, in fact the Planck satellite just gave us more information along these lines is measurement of the statistical pattern of the very small what I call anisotropies or little bumps and valleys in the temperature. So in addition to the 3 millikelvin difference, we actually have plus or minus 100 microkelvin difference in the temperature from different spots. And so, when you look at these spots, and look at their detailed pattern, you can actually see a very prominent feature, which is there’s about a one and a half degree preferred scale, and that’s what’s caused by the acoustic
waves that are set up by the density perturbations early in the history of the universe, and how far they could travel before the universe became transparent. And that’s a very strong indicator about the universe.”

What does it tell us about dark energy?

“The cosmic microwave background actually has this pattern on a half degree scale, and that gives you effectively a line of position, as you have with celestial navigation where you get a measurement of one star with a sextant, then you get a line on the map where you are. But you can look at the same pattern – the acoustic wave setup in the universe, and you see that in the galaxy’s distribution a lot more locally. We’re talking about galaxies, so it might be a billion light years away, but to cosmologists, that’s local. And these galaxies also show the same wave-like pattern, and you can measure that angle at scale locally and compare it to what you see in history and that gives you the crossing line of position. And that really tells us where we are in the universe, and how much stuff there is and it tells us that we have this dark energy which nobody really understands what it is, but we know what it’s doing. It’s making the universe accelerate in it’s expansion.”

What is the Boltzmann Constant?

Ludwig Boltzmann

There are actually two Boltzmann constants, the Boltzmann constant and the Stefan-Boltzmann constant; both play key roles in astrophysics … the first bridges the macroscopic and microscopic worlds, and provides the basis for the zero-th law of thermodynamics; the second is in the equation for blackbody radiation.

The zero-th law of thermodynamics is, in essence, what allows us to define temperature; if you could ‘look inside’ an isolated system (in equilibrium), the proportion of constituents making up the system with energy E is a function of E, and the Boltzmann constant (k or kB). Specifically, the probability is proportional to:


where T is the temperature. In SI units, k is 1.38 x 10-23 J/K (that’s joules per Kelvin). How Boltzmann’s constant links the macroscopic and microscopic worlds may perhaps be easiest seen like this: k is the gas constant R (remember the ideal gas law, pV = nRT) divided by Avogadro’s number.

Among the many places k appears in physics is in the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which describes the distribution of speeds of molecules in a gas … and thus why the Earth’s (and Venus’) atmosphere has lost all its hydrogen (and only keeps its helium because what is lost gets replaced by helium from radioactive decay, in rocks), and why the gas giants (and stars) can keep theirs.

The Stefan-Boltzmann constant (?), ties the amount of energy radiated by a black body (per unit of area of its surface) to the blackbody temperature (this is the Stefan-Boltzmann law). ? is made up of other constants: pi, a couple of integers, the speed of light, Planck’s constant, … and the Boltzmann constant! As astronomers rely almost entirely on detection of photons (electromagnetic radiation) to observe the universe, it will surely come as no surprise to learn that astrophysics students become very familiar with the Stefan-Boltzmann law, very early in their studies! After all, absolute luminosity (energy radiated per unit of time) is one of the key things astronomers try to estimate.

Why does the Boltzmann constant pop up so often? Because the large-scale behavior of systems follows from what’s happening to the individual components of those systems, and the study of how to get from the small to the big (in classical physics) is statistical mechanics … which Boltzmann did most of the original heavy lifting in (along with Maxwell, Planck, and others); indeed, it was Planck who gave k its name, after Boltzmann’s death (and Planck who had Boltzmann’s entropy equation – with k – engraved on his tombstone).

Want to learn more? Here are some resources, at different levels: Ideal Gas Law (from Hyperphysics), Radiation Laws (from an introductory astronomy course), and University of Texas (Austin)’s Richard Fitzpatrick’s course (intended for upper level undergrad students) Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics.