Posts Tagged ‘The Big Bang Theory’

Rather than do my usual Friday post about music, today I am giving an update on my Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) book, which I am pleased to say has finally been published. I even got my own hardcopy yesterday, although I’ve had access to the electronic copy for several weeks.

My book "The Cosmic Microwave Background - how it changed our understanding of the Universe" is published by Springer

My book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – how it changed our understanding of the Universe” is published by Springer

In the book I attempt to give the background to the accidental discovery of the CMB, and what studying it has taught us about the properties of the Universe. In chapters 1 and 2 I give the background to how we know that our Earth is not the centre of the Universe, and how we know that our Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions. In Chapter 3 I tell the story of the prediction and accidental discovery of the CMB, and in Chapter 4 I discuss the COBE satellite, which in 1992 discovered in the CMB the first seeds of what would grow into galaxies. In Chapter 5 I discuss ground-based observations to study the CMB in more detail, in Chapter 6 I discus the WMAP satellite’s findings. In the final chapter I discuss the latest results, including from the Planck satellite and also the BICEP2 results claiming to have found evidence for ‘cosmic inflation’.

I got my first hard copy of the book yesterday, Thursday the 12th of February.

I got my first hard copy of the book yesterday, Thursday the 12th of February.

I have tried to write the book at a level which I hope will make it accessible to anyone. Any physics knowledge required is explained when I introduce the particular idea, and I’ve included diagrams wherever possible to help illustrate and explain key concepts.

The book is available from the Springer website in both electronic and hardcopy versions,and also through Amazon and other booksellers.

This is the link to the Springer page for the book. On the Springer website you can look at the preface to the book.

And this is the link to the Amazon page. On the Amazon website you can read the first dozen or so pages of the book, including the table of contents and the opening pages of the first chapter.

I am now working on two other books, you can find more details on a Facebook page which I have recently created


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One of the outstanding problems in astrophysics in the 1940s was how were the elements created. In the 1920s it was realised by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin in her PhD work that the Sun was mainly composed of hydrogen. Then, spectral analysis of others stars and the gases of the interstellar medium led astrophycisits to realise that the Universe was composed mainly of hydrogen (about 75\%), with the remainder being helium (about 24\%), and only 1\% or so being all the other elements (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon etc.)

In the mid 1940s Russian-American physicist George Gamow started thinking about how the elements originated, and he developed a theory with his student Ralph Alpher that they were all created in the early Universe when, he argued, it would have been hotter and denser than it currently is. He published his famous paper “The Origin of Chemical Elements” in Physical Review in 1948, adding renowned physicist Hans Bethe’s name to the author list as a joke so that the paper would have the author list Alpher, Bethe, Gamow (alpha,beta, gamma, geddit? There is also a story that he tried to get his post-doctoral researcher Bob Herman to change his last name to “Delta” šŸ˜› )

The famous Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper on the origin of the chemical elements

The famous Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper, “The Origin of Chemical Elements”, which appeared in Physical Review in 1948.

In fact, Bethe played no part in writing the paper, but he was happy for Gamow to include his name for Gamow’s little joke. In this paper, Gamow and Alpher argued that all the elements were created in the early Universe. However, when others went through the details it was realised that the numbers did not add up, the Universe expanded and cooled too quickly for all the elements to be created in this way. Although it was possible for hydrogen and helium to be created in the first few minutes of the Universe, by the time the Universe was a few minutes old it had become too cool and the density too low to form the heavier elements beyond helium. Part of the reason for heavier elements not being built up in these first few minutes was due to something called the deuterium bottleneck, which I will explain in a future blog.

In the 1950s an alternative theory for the origin of the elements was put forward by Fred Hoyle and his collaborators Willy Fowler and Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge. In a series of papers they argued that the elements had been built up in the interior of stars, the most famous of this series of papers was a 1957 paper entitled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” which appeared in Reviews of Modern Physics. Hoyle was the main advocate of a theory called the Steady State Theory which he had first proposed in 1948. This was a competing theory to the hot big bang theory, and so of course Hoyle did not believe any elements had been formed in a hot, dense early Universe as he did not believe such a Universe ever existed.

The first page of Burbidge teal.'s famous paper Synthesis of the Elements in Stars published in Reviews of Modern Physics in 1957

The first page of Burbidge teal.’s famous paper “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” published in Reviews of Modern Physics in 1957

Again, as with Alpher and Gamow’s theory, detailed calculations found flaws in the Burbidge etal. theory. Although it could explain the creation of elements beyond helium, it was not possible to create enough helium in stars to account for the approximately 25\% found to be present in the Universe today. In part 2 of this blog, I will explain what our current understanding is of the origin of the elements in the proportions we observe in the Universe, and what the deuterium bottleneck is and why it is important.

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The discovery of quasars in the 1960s played a crucial role in helping show that the Universe was different in the past. This had important implications for the testing of the two competing cosmological theories of the time – the “big bang theory” and the “steady state theory”. The steady state theory, whose main proponent was Fred Hoyle, argued that the Universe had always existed and did not change in time. The big bang theory, on the other hand, argued that the Universe had a finite beginning in time, and that since this beginning had expanded, cooled and evolved.

The discovery of quasars was made using radio astronomy, and in fact the word “quasar” stands for “quasi-stellar radio source”. Later similar objects would be found that did not emit strongly in the radio, and so the term “QSO” (quasi-stellar object) was suggested. Both acronyms are used today, pretty much interchangeably. The term “quasar” is often used incorrectly for QSOs which do not have strong radio emission.

The beginnings of radio astronomy

There was a little radio astronomy done before the 2nd World war. Karl Jansky accidentally discovered radio waves coming from space in 1931. After a little research he realised that the signal he was detecting with his radio receiver was coming from the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. However, Jansky was an engineer working for Bell Labs, and his request for funding to follow up this discovery and do a more complete survey of radio emissions from space was rejected, and Jansky re-assigned to another project and not given the freedom of following up on this discovery. The unit of flux in radio astronomy, the Jansky, is named after him.

In 1944 Dutch PhD student Hendrik van de Hulst predicted the existence of an emission line from neutral hydrogen, due to a hyperfine splitting in the ground state. I will explain in a separate blog the theory behind this, but basically the emission line comes about when an electron jumps between two very closely spaced energy levels in the ground state of neutral hydrogen. Because the energy difference is so small, the wavelength of the ensuing photon is extremely long – 21cm to be precise. This is in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

With a combination of this prediction, and the developments made in radar during the 2nd World war, the post-war years saw a boom in radio astronomy. One of the first groups to be established was at Cambridge University. The group was initially led by Martin Ryle, who had worked during the war with the Telecommunications Research Establishment on the design of antennae for airborne radar equipment. After the war, Ryle got a fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratories, and it was there that he established what became known as the Cambridge Radio Astronomy group.

The first Cambridge Radio catalogue (1C)

In 1950 he and his group published the first ever catalogue of radio sources. The paper, published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (Ryle etal. 1950, MNRAS, 110, 508-523) was entitled “A preliminary survey of radio stars in the Northern Hemisphere”. In this paper they listed the positions of 50 discrete “radio stars”, along with the intensity of each source. The positions were not known very accurately, because the long wavelength used (3.7 metres) meant the resolution of their antenna array could not locate the sources’ exact positions to better than about 1 degree of arc. This was a major problem in identifying which astronomical objects the radio sources were.

The second Cambridge radio catalogue (2C)

The second catalogue by the Cambridge group was published in 1955. Entitled “A survey of radio sources between declinations -38 degrees and +83 degrees”, the lead author was John Shakeshaft of the group, with Ryle as second author. It was published in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, (MmRAS 1955, 67, 106-154).

Just like the first catalogue, the second one was done at a wavelength of 3.7 metres. In this second catalogue, 1936 radio sources were found. Of these, 500 of the most intense could have their positions determined to an accuracy of about +/- 2 arc minutes in Right Ascension, and about +/- 12 arc minutes in declination. The team found most of the sources were of small angular diameter, and were distributed isotropically over the sky (that is to say not in any particular direction).

About 30 of the sources were of larger angular diameter, between 20 and 180 arc minutes, but the majority of these larger sources were close to the plane of the Mily Way galaxy and so the authors suggested that they represented a “rare class of galactic object”. They then went on to say that about 100 of the sources appeared to be related to objects which were in the New General Catalogue or the Index Catalogue; both optical catalogues of nebular objects which had been put together in the 1800s and the first decade of the 1900s.

The Third Cambridge radio survey (3C catalogue)

In 1959 the Radio Astronomy group at Cambridge produced their 3rd catalogue, using an upgraded antenna array. This time the observations were done at a frequency of 159 MHz (which corresponds to a wavelength of 1.9 metres). The paper, entitled “A survey of radio sources at a frequency of 159 Mc/s” was published in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society with D.O. Edge as lead author, and listed 471 sources (MmRAS 1959, 68, 37-60). It was revised in 1962 by Bennett, so the revised 3C catalogue had 470 sources (Bennet, 1962, MNRAS, 125, 75-86). Initially astronomers used the 3C catalogue to try to find optical counterparts to these radio sources. After 1962, with Bennet’s improved catalogue, the revised catalogue (3CR) was used.

The discovery of quasars

The first object in the 3C catalogue to which an optical counterpart was found was the object 3C 48, in 1960 by Thomas Matthews and Allan Sandage (both of Caltech). Using radio interferometry to narrow down its position, and then subsequent direct optical photographs, they found that 3C 48 corresponded to a faint blue star-like object. When its spectrum was taken, it looked unlike the spectrum of any star. First of all it contained emission lines (the spectra of stars usually show absorption lines), and these lines were broad not narrow as is usually the case with blue stars. But, most puzzlingly, the pattern of lines did not seem to fit any pattern that astronomers had seen before.

By 1963 Matthews and Sandage had found three starlike counterparts to three sources in the 3C catalogue, and published this in the Astrophysical Journal (“Optical Identification of 3c 48, 3c 196, and 3c 286 with Stellar Objects”, 1963, ApJ, 138, 30-56). The nature of the three sources was not known, but at least it seemed that they had been identified.

A breakthrough happened in 1962. One of the other 3C sources, 3C 273, was predicted to pass behind the Moon on several occasions. Using the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, Cyril Hazard and John Bolton were able to make measurements which allowed Caltech astronomer Maarten Schmidt to find its optical counterpart. Using the Mount Palomar 200-inch telescope, Schmidt obtained a spectrum of the star-like object. The spectrum was as confusing as that of 3C 48, he could see emission lines but was not able to identify them, the pattern just didn’t seem to make any sense.

After much head scratching, Schmidt realised that the lines corresponded to hydrogen emission lines, but they were redshifted to such an extent that he had failed to recognise them. The redshift he measured for 3C 273 was nearly 16% of the speed of light, an unheard of redshift at that time. Assuming Hubble’s law which relates redshift to distance, this put 3C 273 at a huge distance from Earth, much further away than any galaxy ever seen. This work was published in a one page letter in Nature in 1963 – “3C 273: a star-like object with large red-shift”. Nature 197, 1040-1040.

Caltech astronomer Marteen Schmidt, who in 1963 discovered quasars.

Caltech astronomer Maarten Schmidt, who in 1963 discovered quasars.

Very soon afterwards, Jesse Greenstein and Matthews at Caltech identified the redshift of 3C 48, and found it to be 37% of the speed of light, over twice as far away as 3C 273! (“Red-Shift of the Unusual Radio Source 3C48”, 1963, Nature 197, 1041ā€“1042).

The acronym “quasar” was coined by astrophysicist Hong-Yee Chiu. In 1964, he said in an article in Physics Today magazine

So far, the clumsily long name ‘quasi-stellar radio sources’ is used to describe these objects. Because the nature of these objects is entirely unknown, it is hard to prepare a short, appropriate nomenclature for them so that their essential properties are obvious from their name. For convenience, the abbreviated form ‘quasar’ will be used throughout this paper.

As more research was conducted it was found that not all these quasi-stellar objects with extremely high redshifts had strong radio emission. some were “radio quiet”, so the name “QSO” was coined, but because the term “quasar” had been in use for quite a while by this time, many or most astronomers refer to these objects as quasars whether they are radio-loud or radio-quiet.

An evolving Universe

I will go into more detail in a future blog about what we think quasars are. It was in the early 1980s, using the Hubble Space Telescope, that their host galaxies were observed for the first time. They are the extremely active core of galaxies, but are only found in the distant universe. The lowest redshift quasar is at a redshift of 0.056. To put this into context, the redshift of the Norma Cluster is 0.01570, so the nearest quasar lies some 3 times further away. The further away one looks, the more common quasars are. As they are not found in the local Universe, and as looking far away means looking back in time, quasars are very clear evidence of the evolution of the Universe. They are one of the strongest pieces of observational evidence for an evolving Universe, and thus one of the pieces of evidence which helped show that the steady state theory of the Universe was wrong.

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With the announcement earlier in the week of what appears to be direct evidence for cosmic inflation, I ended up getting involved in a discussion on one of John Gribbin‘s FaceBook posts with a gentleman who said “the Big Bang theory will be discredited in the next few years” (or words to that effect), and that the “Steady State theory” was the correct cosmological model.

I was a little surprised that there were even (presumably intelligent and informed) people who still felt that the steady state theory had any credence left. So, rather than answer this gentleman in private, I thought I would do a brief series of blogs on why we think that the big bang theory provides a more correct model of the Universe than the steady state theory.

I should remind readers (all two of you!), a theory is never complete. It is always a work in progress, and this is as true of the big bang theory as of any other theory. As Karl Popper said, it does not matter how many times a theory is confirmed, one robust refutation of that theory and it needs to be revised and/or abandoned. Cosmologists have been trying to test predictions of the big bang theory since LemaƮtre first proposed it in the 1920s, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The expanding Universe

The expansion of the Universe was observationally discovered by Edwin Hubble and his observing assistant Milton Humason in 1929. What Hubble and Humason found was that more distant galaxies appeared to be moving away faster than nearer galaxies. The recession velocity was determined by the Doppler shift in the spectral lines of the galaxies and was a pretty robust result. The distances were a little less robust, as there was no reliable way to determine the distances to the galaxies Hubble included in his study. However, since then we have been able to use the reliable method of Cepheid variables to determine the distances to a large number of galaxies. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (named, of course, after Edwin Hubble) was able to observe Cepheid variable stars out to large distances in the 1990s. This was a Hubble Key Project. The relationship between the distance of a galaxy and how quickly it is moving away from us, the so-called Hubble law, is now well established.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

In the 1910s Vesto Slipher, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona had found that from a sample of 25 “spiral nebulae” (as they were then known), 22 appeared to be moving away from us with 3 moving towards us, based on the Doppler shift in their spectral lines. Slipher noted that there was something strange about this, but never made the connection to an expanding Universe.

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble's original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble’s original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Although Hubble himself never actually said it, the most natural interpretation of the Hubble law is that the Universe is expanding. It is not that the galaxies are rushing through space, but rather that space itself is expanding. A galaxy which is twice as far away as a given galaxy will move away twice as quickly if space is uniformly expanding. Naturally, if space is getting bigger then it would have been smaller in the past – so Hubble’s discovery lent natural support to the emerging idea of a Universe which started out small and is getting bigger.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space which is expanding.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space itself which is expanding.

Einstein’s biggest blunder

Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity, a radically different approach to understanding gravity, in 1916. This theory describes gravity as a bending of space and time, rather than the classical idea of gravity that Newton had developed in 1666. In 1917, when Einstein applied his new equations to the Universe, he found that it predicted a dynamic (expanding or contracting) Universe. But, at the time the general consensus was that the Universe was static, so Einstein introduced a fudge-factor, the “cosmological constant”, to give his equations a static solution. When the expansion of the Universe was later discovered by Hubble and Humason, Einstein purportedly said that the cosmological constant was “the biggest blunder of my life”, as he could have predicted the expansion of the Universe some 12 years before hand.

de Sitter, Friedmann and LemaƮtre

Two years after Einstein introduced his cosmological constant, in 1919, Dutch mathematician and physicist Willem de Sitter produced a solution to Einstein’s equations which had no matter but just the cosmological constant. This predicted an expanding Universe, but nobody took much notice as everyone knew the Universe contained matter.

In 1922, Russian cosmologist Alexander Friedmann produced the first solutions to Einstein’s equations which contained matter but which also predicted that the Universe might expand. Unfortunately for Friedmann, he died in 1925 and his work went largely unnoticed at the time, probably because he only published in Russian.

A few years later, in 1927, Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest Georges LemaĆ®tre independently came up with the same idea as Friedmann. He was aware of Slipher’s work on the redshift of spiral nebulae, and conjectured that it might be a sign of the Universe expanding. He published his work in an obscure Belgian scientific journal, so it too was ignored. But then, renowned cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington published a long commentary of LemaĆ®tre’s paper in the widely read Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, propelling LemaĆ®tre’s work to prominence. Einstein became aware of LemaĆ®tre’s work, but was not convinced by it.

Then, in 1931, LemaƮtre published a letter in the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, outlining his ideas on cosmic expansion in some detail. In this letter he suggested that the Universe had begun in what he called a primordial atom.


Newspapers around the World picked up on the story, and the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline

LemaƮtre suggests one, single, great atom, embracing all energy, started the Universe.

Einstein was won over, and in 1932 he and de Sitter published a paper of a model we now call the Einstein-de Sitter model, in which they stated that the correct cosmological model was one which would just about keep on expanding to infinity, but would take an infinite amount of time to do so and would never re-collapse.

The Steady State Theory

In the 1940s a fierce opponent to LemaĆ®tre’s “primordial atom” theory would emerge, Sir Fred Hoyle. In part 2 of this blog next week I will talk about his competing theory, the “Steady State theory”, and Hoyle’s on-going battle in the 1940s and 1950s with George Gamow, who became the chief champion of the “primordial atom” theory.

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