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.


Weekly Space Hangout – February 17, 2017: Samuel Mason, Director of the Tesla Science Foundation

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Samuel Mason is the Director of the Tesla Science Foundation, NJ Chapter. The mission of the Tesla Science Foundation is to establish and promote the recognition and awareness of Nikola Tesla’s inventions, patents, theories, philosophies, lectures, and innovations.

Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg)
Kimberly Cartier ( / @AstroKimCartier )

Their stories this week:

Expert panel tells Congress NASA is underfunded for human space flight

Will NASA put a crew on the first SLS flight?

Fixing the Big Bang’s lithium problem

Home-grown organic materials found on Ceres

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Elemental Mystery: Lithium Is Also Rare Outside Of The Milky Way

This new picture of M54 — a part of a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way called the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy — is part of a “test case” astronomers have to figure out a mystery of missing lithium.

For decades, astronomers have been aware of a dearth of lithium in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. This image from the Very Large Telescope’s Survey Telescope represents the first effort to probe for the element outside of our galaxy.

“Most of the light chemical element lithium now present in the Universe was produced during the Big Bang, along with hydrogen and helium, but in much smaller quantities,” the European Southern Observatory stated.

“Astronomers can calculate quite accurately how much lithium they expect to find in the early Universe, and from this work out how much they should see in old stars. But the numbers don’t match — there is about three times less lithium in stars than expected. This mystery remains, despite several decades of work.”

In any case, observations of M54 show that the amount of lithium there is similar to the Milky Way — meaning that the lithium problem is not confined to our own galaxy. A paper based on the research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The research was led by Alessio Mucciarelli at the University of Bologna in Italy.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Double Vision: Scientists Spot An Elder ‘Twin’ To the Sun

If you want a picture of how you’ll look in 30 years, youngsters are told, look at your parents. The same principle is true of astronomy, where scientists compare similar stars in different age groups to see how they progress.

We have a special interest in learning how the Sun will look in a few billion years because, you know, it’s the main source of energy and life on Earth. Newly discovered HIP 102152 could give us some clues. The star is four billion years older than the sun, but so close in composition that researchers consider it almost like a twin.

Telescopes have only been around for a few centuries, making it hard to project what happens during the billions upon billions of years for a star’s lifetime. We have about 400 years of observations on the sun, for example, which is a minute fraction of its 4.6 billion-year-old lifespan so far.

The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
Today, we take telescopic observations of the Sun for granted, but the technology only became available about 400 years ago. This picture shows the Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack

“It is very hard to study the history and future evolution of our star, but we can do this by hunting for rare stars that are almost exactly like our own, but at different stages of their lives,” stated the European Southern Observatory.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope — guided by a team led by the University of Sao Paulo’s Jorge Melendez — examined HIP 102152 with a spectrograph that broke up the light into various colors, revealing properties such as chemical composition. Around the same time, they scrutinized 18 Scorpii, also considered to be a twin but one that is younger than the sun (2.9 billion years old)

So what can we predict about the Sun’s future? One thing puzzling scientists has been the amount of lithium in our closest stellar companion. Although the Big Bang (the beginning of the universe) created hydrogen, helium and lithium, only the first two elements are abundant in the Sun.

Periodic Table of Elements
Periodic Table of Elements

HIP 102152, it turns out, also has low levels of lithium. Why isn’t clear yet, ESO notes, although “several processes have been proposed to transport lithium from the surface of a star into its deeper layers, where it is then destroyed.” Previous observations of young Sun-like stars also show higher levels of lithium, implying something changes between youth and middle age.

The elder twin to our Sun may host another discovery: there could be Earth-sized planets circling the star. Chemical properties of HIP 102152 show that it has few elements that you see in meteorites and rocky planets, implying the elements are “locked up” in bodies close to the star. “This is a strong hint that HIP 102152 may host terrestrial rocky planets,” ESO stated.

Better yet, separate observations showed that there are no giant planets close to the star — leaving room for Earth-sized planets to flourish.

The research is available in a recent edition of Astrophysical Letters.

Source: European Southern Observatory

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