In this blog I described the first results from the Planck satellite, which is studying the Cosmic Microwave Background in greater detail than we have ever done before. But, what exactly is the Cosmic Microwave Background? Where does it come from? How was it produced?
The origin of the elements
In 1929 Edwin Hubble published evidence that the speed with which galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way was directly related to their distance from us. Although Hubble himself never explicity stated it, this is clear evidence that the Universe is expanding. If the Universe is expanding, then of course one would expect it to have been smaller in the past.
In the 1940s the Russian-American physicist George Gamow started thinking about what the early Universe would have been like. He worked on two related theories, the first that the elements would have been created in the early Universe. The second related to the fact that a smaller, denser Universe would also have been hotter in the past.
In 1948, with his PhD student Ralph Alpher, the two published a paper titled “The Origin of Chemical Elements“. As a joke, Gamow decided to add the well-known physicist Hans Bethe’s name to the paper, so that it could be called “Alpher, Bethe, Gamow” (alpha,beta, gamma – geddit? 🙂 ).
Although the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper was groundbreaking, it was wrong in some of its details. It suggested that all the elements were created in the hot, early Universe. We now think (know?) this is not the case. Only hydrogen and helium were created in the early Universe, the other elements have all been created inside stars, something Sir Fred Hoyle worked out with co-workers in the 1950s.
Alpher and Herman’s paper on the Cosmic Microwave Background
In a related paper, Alpher and Robert Herman, who was working as a post-doctoral research assistant for Gamow, calculated that the early Universe would have been a hot opaque plasma (ionised gas), and would thus have radiated like a black body. However, this radiation would not have been able to travel through the plasma as the photons would scatter of the free electrons.
But, as the Universe expanded and cooled the plasma would become a neutral gas, in that the electrons would combine with the nuclei to produce neutral atoms, allowing the photons to travel unimpeded. They calculated that these photons, which would be able to thence travel unimpeded, would now be at a characteristic black-body temperature of 5K due to the expansion of the Universe. This in the microwave part of the spectrum, hence the name Cosmic Microwave Background.
Our current understanding is pretty much what was derived in this 1948 paper, with a few refinements. Perversely, the moment the plasma became a neutral gas, which we believe to be when the Universe was about 350,000 years old, is referred to as “re-combination”, but as I tell my students, the electrons were combing with the nuclei for the first time. This is when the fog of the early Universe lifted and is the earliest radiation we can see.
In a separate blog on the history of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) I will discuss how
- the CMB was accidentally discovered in 1964
- Gamow’s work was ignored, only to be worked out again in the early 1960s
You can read far more about the prediction of the CMB, and its accidental discovery, in my new book, “The Cosmic Microwave Background – How it changed our understanding of the Universe”.