What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?

For thousands of years, human being have been contemplating the Universe and seeking to determine its true extent. And whereas ancient philosophers believed that the world consisted of a disk, a ziggurat or a cube surrounded by celestial oceans or some kind of ether, the development of modern astronomy opened their eyes to new frontiers. By the 20th century, scientists began to understand just how vast (and maybe even unending) the Universe really is.

And in the course of looking farther out into space, and deeper back in time, cosmologists have discovered some truly amazing things. For example, during the 1960s, astronomers became aware of microwave background radiation that was detectable in all directions. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the existence of this radiation has helped to inform our understanding of how the Universe began. Continue reading “What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?”

How Do We Know the Universe is Flat? Discovering the Topology of the Universe

Does This Look Flat?


Whenever we talk about the expanding Universe, everyone wants to know how this is going to end. Sure, they say, the fact that most of the galaxies we can see are speeding away from us in all directions is really interesting. Sure, they say, the Big Bang makes sense, in that everything was closer together billions of years ago.

But how does it end? Does this go on forever? Do galaxies eventually slow down, come to a stop, and then hurtle back together in a Big Crunch? Will we get a non-stop cycle of Big Bangs, forever and ever?

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit: grandunificationtheory.com

We’ve done a bunch of articles on many different aspects of this question, and the current conclusion astronomers have reached is that because the Universe is flat, it’s never going to collapse in on itself and start another Big Bang.

But wait, what does it mean to say that the Universe is “flat”? Why is that important, and how do we even know?

Before we can get started talking about the flatness of the Universe, we need to talk about flatness in general. What does it mean to say that something is flat?

If you’re in a square room and walk around the corners, you’ll return to your starting point having made 4 90-degree turns. You can say that your room is flat. This is Euclidian geometry.

Earth, seen from space, above the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

But if you make the same journey on the surface of the Earth. Start at the equator, make a 90-degree turn, walk up to the North Pole, make another 90-degree turn, return to the equator, another 90-degree turn and return to your starting point.

In one situation, you made 4 turns to return to your starting point, in another situation it only took 3. That’s because the topology of the surface you were walking on decided what happens when you take a 90-degree turn.

You can imagine an even more extreme example, where you’re walking around inside a crater, and it takes more than 4 turns to return to your starting point.

Another analogy, of course, is the idea of parallel lines. If you fire off two parallel lines at the North pole, they move away from each other, following the topology of the Earth and then come back together.

Got that? Great.

Omega Centauri. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Now, what about the Universe itself? You can imagine that same analogy. Imaging flying out into space on a rocket for billions of light-years, performing 90-degree maneuvers and returning to your starting point.

You can’t do it in 3, or 5, you need 4, which means that the topology of the Universe is flat. Which is totally intuitive, right? I mean, that would be your assumption.

But astronomers were skeptical and needed to know for certain, and so, they set out to test this assumption.

In order to prove the flatness of the Universe, you would need to travel a long way. And astronomers use the largest possible observation they can make. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang, visible in all directions as a red-shifted, fading moment when the Universe became transparent about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Image credit: NASA
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Image credit: NASA

When this radiation was released, the entire Universe was approximately 2,700 C. This was the moment when it was cool enough for photons were finally free to roam across the Universe. The expansion of the Universe stretched these photons out over their 13.8 billion year journey, shifting them down into the microwave spectrum, just 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

With the most sensitive space-based telescopes they have available, astronomers are able to detect tiny variations in the temperature of this background radiation.

And here’s the part that blows my mind every time I think about it. These tiny temperature variations correspond to the largest scale structures of the observable Universe. A region that was a fraction of a degree warmer become a vast galaxy cluster, hundreds of millions of light-years across.

Having a non-flat universe would cause distortions between what we saw in the CMBR compared to the current universe. Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation just gives and gives, and when it comes to figuring out the topology of the Universe, it has the answer we need. If the Universe was curved in any way, these temperature variations would appear distorted compared to the actual size that we see these structures today.

But they’re not. To best of its ability, ESA’s Planck space telescope, can’t detect any distortion at all. The Universe is flat.

Illustration of the ESA Planck Telescope in Earth orbit (Credit: ESA)

Well, that’s not exactly true. According to the best measurements astronomers have ever been able to make, the curvature of the Universe falls within a range of error bars that indicates it’s flat. Future observations by some super Planck telescope could show a slight curvature, but for now, the best measurements out there say… flat.

We say that the Universe is flat, and this means that parallel lines will always remain parallel. 90-degree turns behave as true 90-degree turns, and everything makes sense.

But what are the implications for the entire Universe? What does this tell us?

Unfortunately, the biggest thing is what it doesn’t tell us. We still don’t know if the Universe is finite or infinite. If we could measure its curvature, we could know that we’re in a finite Universe, and get a sense of what its actual true size is, out beyond the observable Universe we can measure.

The observable – or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.

We know that the volume of the Universe is at least 100 times more than we can observe. At least. If the flatness error bars get brought down, the minimum size of the Universe goes up.

And remember, an infinite Universe is still on the table.

Another thing this does, is that it actually causes a problem for the original Big Bang theory, requiring the development of a theory like inflation.

Since the Universe is flat now, it must have been flat in the past, when the Universe was an incredibly dense singularity. And for it to maintain this level of flatness over 13.8 billion years of expansion, in kind of amazing.

In fact, astronomers estimate that the Universe must have been flat to 1 part within 1×10^57 parts.

Which seems like an insane coincidence. The development of inflation, however, solves this, by expanding the Universe an incomprehensible amount moments after the Big Bang. Pre and post inflation Universes can have vastly different levels of curvature.

In the olden days, cosmologists used to say that the flatness of the Universe had implications for its future. If the Universe was curved where you could complete a full journey with less than 4 turns, that meant it was closed and destined to collapse in on itself.

And it was more than 4 turns, it was open and destined to expand forever.

New results from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer and the Anglo-Australian Telescope atop Siding Spring Mountain in Australia confirm that dark energy (represented by purple grid) is a smooth, uniform force that now dominates over the effects of gravity (green grid). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Well, that doesn’t really matter any more. In 1998, the astronomers discovered dark energy, which is this mysterious force accelerating the expansion of the Universe. Whether the Universe is open, closed or flat, it’s going to keep on expanding. In fact, that expansion is going to accelerate, forever.

I hope this gives you a little more understanding of what cosmologists mean when they say that the Universe is flat. And how do we know it’s flat? Very precise measurements in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.

Is there anything that all pervasive relic of the early Universe can’t do?

What Was Cosmic Inflation? The Quest to Understand the Earliest Universe

Cosmic Inflation?


The Big Bang. The discovery that the Universe has been expanding for billions of years is one of the biggest revelations in the history of science. In a single moment, the entire Universe popped into existence, and has been expanding ever since.

We know this because of multiple lines of evidence: the cosmic microwave background radiation, the ratio of elements in the Universe, etc. But the most compelling one is just the simple fact that everything is expanding away from everything else. Which means, that if you run the clock backwards, the Universe was once an extremely hot dense region

A billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Felid (STScI)).

Let’s go backwards in time, billions of years. The closer you get to the Big Bang, the closer everything was, and the hotter it was. When you reach about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the entire Universe was so hot that all matter was ionized, with atomic nuclei and electrons buzzing around each other.

Keep going backwards, and the entire Universe was the temperature and density of a star, which fused together the primordial helium and other elements that we see to this day.

Continue to the beginning of time, and there was a point where everything was so hot that atoms themselves couldn’t hold together, breaking into their constituent protons and neutrons. Further back still and even atoms break apart into quarks. And before that, it’s just a big question mark. An infinitely dense Universe cosmologists called the singularity.

When you look out into the Universe in all directions, you see the cosmic microwave background radiation. That’s that point when the Universe cooled down so that light could travel freely through space.

And the temperature of this radiation is almost exactly the same in all directions that you look. There are tiny tiny variations, detectable only by the most sensitive instruments.

Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck. Credit: ESA

When two things are the same temperature, like a spoon in your coffee, it means that those two things have had an opportunity to interact. The coffee transferred heat to the spoon, and now their temperatures have equalized.

When we see this in opposite sides of the Universe, that means that at some point, in the ancient past, those two regions were touching. That spot where the light left 13.8 billion years ago on your left, was once directly touching that spot on your right that also emitted its light 13.8 billion years ago.

This is a great theory, but there’s a problem: The Universe never had time for those opposite regions to touch. For the Universe to have the uniform temperature we see today, it would have needed to spend enough time mixing together. But it didn’t have enough time, in fact, the Universe didn’t have any time to exchange temperature.

Imagine you dipped that spoon into the coffee and then pulled it out moments later before the heat could transfer, and yet the coffee and spoon are exactly the same temperature. What’s going on?

Alan H. Guth
Alan H. Guth. Credit: Betsy Devine (CC BY-SA 3.0)

To address this problem, the cosmologist Alan Guth proposed the idea of cosmic inflation in 1980. That moments after the Big Bang, the entire Universe expanded dramatically.

And by “moments”, I mean that the inflationary period started when the Universe was only 10^-36 seconds old, and ended when the Universe was 10^-32 seconds old.

And by “expanded dramatically”, I mean that it got 10^26 times larger. That’s a 1 followed by 26 zeroes.

Before inflation, the observable Universe was smaller than an atom. After inflation, it was about 0.88 millimeters. Today, those regions have been stretched 93 billion light-years apart.

This concept of inflation was further developed by cosmologists Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, Andy Albrecht and others.

Inflation resolved some of the shortcomings of the Big Bang Theory.

The first is known as the flatness problem. The most sensitive satellites we have today measure the Universe as flat. Not like a piece-of-paper-flat, but flat in the sense that parallel lines will remain parallel forever as they travel through the Universe. Under the original Big Bang cosmology, you would expect the curvature of the Universe to grow with time.

The horizon problem in Big Bang cosmology. How is it that distant parts of the universe possess such similar physical properties? Credit: Addison Wesley.

The second is the horizon problem. And this is the problem I mentioned above, that two regions of the Universe shouldn’t have been able to see each other and interact long enough to be the same temperature.

The third is the monopole problem. According to the original Big Bang theory, there should be a vast number of heavy, stable “monopoles”, or a magnetic particle with only a single pole. Inflation diluted the number of monopoles in the Universe so don’t detect them today.

Although the cosmic microwave background radiation appears mostly even across the sky, there could still be evidence of that inflationary period baked into it.

The Big Bang and primordial gravitational waves. Credit: bicepkeck.org

In order to do this, astronomers have been focusing on searching for primordial gravitational waves. These are different from the gravitational waves generated through the collision of massive objects. Primordial gravitational waves are the echoes from that inflationary period which should be theoretically detectable through the polarization, or orientation, of light in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

A collaboration of scientists used an instrument known as the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (or BICEP2) to search for this polarization, and in 2014, they announced that maybe, just maybe, they had detected it, proving the theory of cosmic inflation was correct.

Unfortunately, another team working with the space-based Planck telescope posted evidence that the fluctuations they saw could be fully explained by intervening dust in the Milky Way.

Planck’s view of its nine frequencies. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

The problem is that BICEP2 and Planck are designed to search for different frequencies. In order to really get to the bottom of this question, more searches need to be done, scanning a series of overlapping frequencies. And that’s in the works now.

BICEP2 and Planck and the newly developed South Pole Telescope as well as some observatories in Chile are all scanning the skies at different frequencies at the same time. Distortion from various types of foreground objects, like dust or radiation should be brighter or dimmer in the different frequencies, while the light from the cosmic microwave background radiation should remain constant throughout.

There are more telescopes, searching more wavelengths of light, searching more of the sky. We could know the answer to this question with more certainty shortly.

One of the most interesting implications of cosmic inflation, if proven, is that our Universe is actually just one in a vast multiverse. While the Universe was undergoing that dramatic expansion, it could have created bubbles of spacetime that spawned other universes, with different laws of physics.

Multiverse Theory
Artist concept of the multiverse. Credit: Florida State University

In fact, the father of inflation, Alan Guth, said, “It’s hard to build models of inflation that don’t lead to a multiverse.”

And so, if inflation does eventually get confirmed, then we’ll have a whole multiverse to search for in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The Big Bang was one of the greatest theories in the history of science. Although it did have a few problems, cosmic inflation was developed to address them. Although there have been a few false starts, astronomers are now performing a sensitive enough search that they might find evidence of this amazing inflationary period. And then it’ll be Nobel Prizes all around.

How We’ve ‘Morphed’ From “Starry Night” to Planck’s View of the BICEP2 Field

From the vantage point of a window in an insane asylum, Vincent van Gogh painted one of the most noted and valued artistic works in human history. It was the summer of 1889. With his post-impressionist paint strokes, Starry Night depicts a night sky before sunrise that undulates, flows and is never settled. Scientific discoveries are revealing a Cosmos with such characteristics.

Since Vincent’s time, artists and scientists have taken their respective paths to convey and understand the natural world. The latest released images taken by the European Planck Space Telescope reveals new exquisite details of our Universe that begin to touch upon the paint strokes of the great master and at the same time looks back nearly to the beginning of time. Since Van Gogh – the passage of 125 years – scientists have constructed a progressively intricate and incredible description of the Universe.

New images returned by the Planck telescope (right) begin to rival the complexity and beauty of a great artists imagination - Starry Night.A visulization of the Planck data represents the interaction of interstellar dust with the galactic magnetic field. Color defines the intensity of dust emisions and the measurements of polarized light reveals the direction of the magnetic field lines. (Credits: Vincent Van Gogh, ESA)
New images returned by the Planck telescope (right) begin to rival the complexity and beauty of a great artists imagination – Starry Night.A visulization of the Planck data represents the interaction of interstellar dust with the galactic magnetic field. Color defines the intensity of dust emisions and the measurements of polarized light reveals the direction of the magnetic field lines. (Credits: Vincent Van Gogh, ESA)

The path from Van Gogh to the Planck Telescope imagery is indirect, an abstraction akin to the impressionism of van Gogh’s era. Impressionists in the 1800s showed us that the human mind could interpret and imagine the world beyond the limitations of our five senses. Furthermore, optics since the time of Galileo had begun to extend the capability of our senses.

A photograph of James Clerk Maxwell and a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Maxwell's equations and impressionism in the fine arts in the 19th Century sparked an enhanced perception, expression and abstraction of the World and began a trek of knowledge and technology into the modern era. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)
A photograph of James Clerk Maxwell and a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Maxwell’s equations and impressionism in the fine arts in the 19th Century sparked an enhanced perception, expression and abstraction of the World and began a trek of knowledge and technology into the modern era. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

Mathematics is perhaps the greatest form of abstraction of our vision of the World, the Cosmos. The path of science from the era of van Gogh began with his contemporary, James Clerk Maxwell who owes inspiration from the experimentalist Michael Faraday. The Maxwell equations mathematically define the nature of electricity and magnetism. Since Maxwell, electricity, magnetism and light have been intertwined. His equations are now a derivative of a more universal equation – the Standard Model of the Universe. The accompanying Universe Today article by Ramin Skibba describes in more detail the new findings by Planck Mission scientists and its impact on the Standard Model.

The work of Maxwell and experimentalists such as Faraday, Michelson and Morley built an overwhelming body of knowledge upon which Albert Einstein was able to write his papers of 1905, his miracle year (Annus mirabilis). His theories of the Universe have been interpreted, verified time and again and lead directly to the Universe studied by scientists employing the Planck Telescope.

The first Solvay Conference in 1911 was organized by Max Planck and Hendrik Lorentz. Planck is standing, second from left. The first Solvay, by invitation only, included most of the greatest scientists of the early 20th Century. While Planck is known for his work on quanta, the groundwork for quantum theory - the Universe in minutiae , the Planck telescope is surveying the Universe in the large. Physicists are closer to unifying the nature of the two extremes. Insets - Planck (1933, 1901).
The first Solvay Conference in 1911 was organized by Max Planck and Hendrik Lorentz. Planck is standing, second from left. The first Solvay, by invitation only, included most of the greatest scientists of the early 20th Century. While Planck is known for his work on quanta, the groundwork for quantum theory – the Universe in minutiae , the Planck telescope is surveying the Universe in the large. Physicists are closer to unifying the nature of the two extremes. Insets – Planck (1933, 1901).

In 1908, the German physicist Max Planck, for whom the ESA telescope is named, recognized the importance of Einstein’s work and finally invited him to Berlin and away from the obscurity of a patent office in Bern, Switzerland.

As Einstein spent a decade to complete his greatest work, the General Theory of Relativity, astronomers began to apply more powerful tools to their trade. Edwin Hubble, born in the year van Gogh painted Starry Night, began to observe the night sky with the most powerful telescope in the World, the Mt Wilson 100 inch Hooker Telescope. In the 1920s, Hubble discovered that the Milky Way was not the whole Universe but rather an island universe, one amongst billions of galaxies. His observations revealed that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy of a form similar to neighboring galaxies, for example, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were human wrecking balls in their respective professions. What began with Faraday and Maxwell, van Gogh and Gaugin were taken to new heights. We are encapsulated in the technology derived from these masters but are able to break free of the confinement technology can impose through the expression and art of Picasso and his contemporaries.
Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were human wrecking balls in their respective professions. What began with Faraday and Maxwell, van Gogh and Gaugin were taken to new heights. We are encapsulated in the technology derived from these masters but are able to break free of the confinement technology can impose through the expression and art of Picasso and his contemporaries.

Einstein’s equations and Picasso’s abstraction created another rush of discovery and expressionism that propel us for another 50 years. Their influence continues to impact our lives today.

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, several times the angular size of the Moon. First photographed by Isaac Roberts, 1899 (inset), spirals are a function of gravity and the propagation of shock waves, across the expanses of such galaxies are electromagnetic fields such as reported by Planck mission scientists.
The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, several times the angular size of the Moon. First photographed by Isaac Roberts, 1899 (inset), spirals are a function of gravity and the propagation of shock waves, across the expanses of such galaxies are electromagnetic fields such as reported by Planck mission scientists.

Telescopes of Hubble’s era reached their peak with the Palomar 200 inch telescope, four times the light gathering power of Mount Wilson’s. Astronomy had to await the development of modern electronics. Improvements in photographic techniques would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The development of electronics was accelerated by the pressures placed upon opposing forces during World War II. Karl Jansky developed radio astronomy in the 1930s which benefited from research that followed during the war years. Jansky detected the radio signature of the Milky Way. As Maxwell and others imagined, astronomy began to expand beyond just visible light – into the infrared and radio waves. Discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson is arguably the greatest discovery  from observations in the radio wave (and microwave) region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

From 1937 to the present day, radio astronomy has been an ever refining merger of electronics and optics. Karl Jansky's first radio telescope, 1937 (inset) and the great ALMA array now in operation studying the Universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credits: ESO)
From 1937 to the present day, radio astronomy has been an ever refining merger of electronics and optics. Karl Jansky’s first radio telescope, 1937 (inset) and the great ALMA array now in operation studying the Universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credits: ESO)

Analog electronics could augment photographic studies. Vacuum tubes led to photo-multiplier tubes that could count photons and measure more accurately the dynamics of stars and the spectral imagery of planets, nebulas and whole galaxies. Then in the 1947, three physicists at Bell Labs , John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley created the transistor that continues to transform the World today.

For astronomy and our image of the Universe, it meant more acute imagery of the Universe and imagery spanning across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared Astronomy developed slowly beginning in the 1800s but it was solid state electronics in the 1960s when it came of age. Microwave or Millimeter Radio Astronomy required a marriage of radio astronomy and solid state electronics. The first practical millimeter wave telescope began operations in 1980 at Kitt Peak Observatory.

A early work of Picasso (center), the work at Bell Labs of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley and the mobile art of Alexander Calder. As artists attempt to balance color and shape, the Bell Lab engineers balanced electrons essentially on the head of a pin, across junctions to achieve success and create the first transistor.
An early work of Picasso (center), the work at Bell Labs of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley and the mobile art of Alexander Calder. As artists attempt to balance color and shape, the Bell Lab engineers balanced electrons essentially on the head of a pin, across junctions to create the first transistor.

With further improvements in solid state electronics and development of extremely accurate timing devices and development of low-temperature solid state electronics, astronomy has reached the present day. With modern rocketry, sensitive devices such as the Hubble and Planck Space Telescopes have been lofted into orbit and above the opaque atmosphere surrounding the Earth.

In 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMD) was discovered. In the early 1990s, the COBE space telescope even more detailed results. Planck has refined and expanded  upon IRAS, COBE and BICEP observations. (Photo Credits: ESA)
In 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) was discovered. In the early 1990s, the COBE space telescope returned even more detailed results and now Planck has refined and expanded upon IRAS, COBE and BICEP observations of the CMB. Inset, first light observations of the Planck mission. (Photo Credits: ESA)

Astronomers and physicists now probe the Universe across the whole electromagnetic spectrum generating terabytes of data and abstractions of the raw data allow us to look out into the Universe with effectively a sixth sense, that which is given to us by 21st century technology. What a remarkable coincidence that the observations of our best telescopes peering through hundreds of thousands of light years, even more so, back 13.8 billion years to the beginning of time, reveal images of the Universe that are not unlike the brilliant and beautiful paintings of a human with a mind that gave him no choice but to see the world differently.

Now 125 years later, this sixth sense forces us to see the World in a similar light. Peer up into the sky and you can imagine the planetary systems revolving around nearly every star, swirling clouds of spiral galaxies, one even larger in the sky than our Moon, and waves of magnetic fields everywhere across the starry night.

Consider what the Planck Mission is revealing, questions it is answering and new ones it is raising – It Turns Out Primordial Gravitational Waves Weren’t Found.