Yesterday, the Planck Mission released a new map of the cosmic microwave background radiation:
380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled down enough for protons and electrons to settle down and combine into hydrogen atoms. Protons and electrons are charged, so back when they were freely zipping around, no light could go very far without getting absorbed and then re-radiated. When they combined into neutral hydrogen atoms, the Universe soon switched to being almost transparent… as it is today. So the light emitted from that time is still visible now!
And it would look like this picture here… if you could see microwaves.
When this light was first emitted, it would have looked white to our eyes, since the temperature of the Universe was about 4000 kelvin. That’s the temperature when half the hydrogen atoms split apart into electrons and protons. 4200 kelvin looks like a fluorescent light; 2800 kelvin like an incandescent bulb, rather yellow.
But as the Universe expanded, this light got stretched out to orange, red, infrared… and finally a dim microwave glow, invisible to human eyes. The average temperature of this glow is very close to absolute zero, but it’s been measured very precisely: 2.725 kelvin.
But the temperature of the glow is not the same in every direction! There are tiny fluctuations! You can see them in this picture. The colors here span a range of ± .0002 kelvin.
These fluctuations are very important, because they were later amplified by gravity, with denser patches of gas collapsing under their own gravitational attraction (thanks in part to dark matter), and becoming even denser… eventually leading to galaxies, stars and planets, you and me.
But where did these fluctuations come from? I suspect they started life as quantum fluctuations in an originally completely homogeneous Universe. Quantum mechanics takes quite a while to explain – but in this theory a situation can be completely symmetrical, yet when you measure it, you get an asymmetrical result. The universe is then a ‘sum’ of worlds where these different results are seen. The overall universe is still symmetrical, but each observer sees just a part: an asymmetrical part.
If you take this seriously, there are other worlds where fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background radiation take all possible patterns… and form galaxies in all possible patterns. So while the universe as we see it is asymmetrical, with galaxies and stars and planets and you and me arranged in a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way, the overall universe is still symmetrical – perfectly homogeneous!
That seems very nice to me. But the great thing is, we can learn more about this, not just by chatting, but by testing theories against ever more precise measurements. The Planck Mission is a great improvement over the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which in turn was a huge improvement over the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE):
Here is some of what they’ve learned:
• It now seems the Universe is 13.82 ± 0.05 billion years old. This is a bit higher than the previous estimate of 13.77 ± 0.06 billion years, due to the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
• It now seems the rate at which the universe is expanding, known as Hubble’s constant, is 67.15 ± 1.2 kilometers per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is roughly 3 million light-years. This is less than earlier estimates using space telescopes, such as NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble.
• It now seems the fraction of mass-energy in the Universe in the form of dark matter is 26.8%, up from 24%. Dark energy is now estimated at 68.3%, down from 71.4%. And normal matter is now estimated at 4.9%, up from 4.6%.
These cosmological parameters, and a bunch more, are estimated here:
It’s amazing how we’re getting more and more accurate numbers for these basic facts about our world! But the real surprises lie elsewhere…
A lopsided universe, with a cold spot?
The Planck Mission found two big surprises in the cosmic microwave background:
• This radiation is slightly different on opposite sides of the sky! This is not due to the fact that the Earth is moving relative to the average position of galaxies. That fact does make the radiation look hotter in the direction we’re moving. But that produces a simple pattern called a ‘dipole moment’ in the temperature map. If we subtract that out, it seems there are real differences between two sides of the Universe… and they are complex, interesting, and not explained by the usual theories!
• There is a cold spot that seems too big to be caused by chance. If this is for real, it’s the largest thing in the Universe.
Could these anomalies be due to experimental errors, or errors in data analysis? I don’t know! They were already seen by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe; for example, here is WMAP’s picture of the cold spot:
The Planck Mission seems to be seeing them more clearly with its better measurements. Paolo Natoli, from the University of Ferrara writes:
The Planck data call our attention to these anomalies, which are now more important than ever: with data of such quality, we can no longer neglect them as mere artefacts and we must search for an explanation. The anomalies indicate that something might be missing from our current understanding of the Universe. We need to find a model where these peculiar traits are no longer anomalies but features predicted by the model itself.
For a lot more detail, see this paper:
(I apologize for not listing the authors on these papers, but there are hundreds!) Let me paraphrase the abstract for people who want just a little more detail:
Many of these anomalies were previously observed in the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe data, and are now confirmed at similar levels of significance (around 3 standard deviations). However, we find little evidence for non-Gaussianity with the exception of a few statistical signatures that seem to be associated with specific anomalies. In particular, we find that the quadrupole-octopole alignment is also connected to a low observed variance of the cosmic microwave background signal. The dipolar power asymmetry is now found to persist to much smaller angular scales, and can be described in the low-frequency regime by a phenomenological dipole modulation model. Finally, it is plausible that some of these features may be reflected in the angular power spectrum of the data which shows a deficit of power on the same scales. Indeed, when the power spectra of two hemispheres defined by a preferred direction are considered separately, one shows evidence for a deficit in power, whilst its opposite contains oscillations between odd and even modes that may be related to the parity violation and phase correlations also detected in the data. Whilst these analyses represent a step forward in building an understanding of the anomalies, a satisfactory explanation based on physically motivated models is still lacking.
If you’re a scientist, your mouth should be watering now… your tongue should be hanging out! If this stuff holds up, it’s amazing, because it would call for real new physics.
I’ve heard that the difference between hemispheres might fit the simplest homogeneous but not isotropic solutions of general relativity, the Bianchi models. However, this is something one should carefully test using statistics… and I’m sure people will start doing this now.
As for the cold spot, the best explanation I can imagine is some sort of mechanism for producing fluctuations very early on… so that these fluctuations would get blown up to enormous size during the inflationary epoch, roughly between 10-36 and 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang. I don’t know what this mechanism would be!
There are also ways of trying to ‘explain away’ the cold spot, but even these seem jaw-droppingly dramatic. For example, an almost empty region 150 megaparsecs (500 million light-years) across would tend to cool down cosmic microwave background radiation coming through it. But it would still be the largest thing in the Universe! And such an unusual void would seem to beg for an explanation of its own.
The Planck Mission also shed a lot of light on particle physics, and especially on inflation. But, it mainly seems to have confirmed what particle physicists already suspected! This makes them rather grumpy, because these days they’re always hoping for something new, and they’re not getting it.
We can see this at Jester’s blog Résonaances, which also gives a very nice, though technical, summary of what the Planck Mission did for particle physics:
From a particle physicist’s point of view the single most interesting observable from Planck is the notorious This observable measures the effective number of degrees of freedom with sub-eV mass that coexisted with the photons in the plasma at the time when the CMB was formed (see e.g. my older post for more explanations). The standard model predicts corresponding to the 3 active neutrinos. Some models beyond the standard model featuring sterile neutrinos, dark photons, or axions could lead to not necessarily an integer. For a long time various experimental groups have claimed much larger than 3, but with an error too large to blow the trumpets. Planck was supposed to sweep the floor and it did. They find
that is, no hint of anything interesting going on. The gurgling sound you hear behind the wall is probably your colleague working on sterile neutrinos committing a ritual suicide.
Another number of interest for particle theorists is the sum of neutrino masses. Recall that oscillation experiments tell us only about the mass differences, whereas the absolute neutrino mass scale is still unknown. Neutrino masses larger than 0.1 eV would produce an observable imprint into the CMB. [….] Planck sees no hint of neutrino masses and puts the 95% CL limit at 0.23 eV.
Literally, the most valuable Planck result is the measurement of the spectral index as it may tip the scale for the Nobel committee to finally hand out the prize for inflation. Simplest models of inflation (e.g., a scalar field φ with a φn potential slowly changing its vacuum expectation value) predicts the spectrum of primordial density fluctuations that is adiabatic (the same in all components) and Gaussian (full information is contained in the 2-point correlation function). Much as previous CMB experiments, Planck does not see any departures from that hypothesis. A more quantitative prediction of simple inflationary models is that the primordial spectrum of fluctuations is almost but not exactly scale-invariant. More precisely, the spectrum is of the form
with close to but typically slightly smaller than 1, the size of being dependent on how quickly (i.e. how slowly) the inflaton field rolls down its potential. The previous result from WMAP-9,
( after combining with other cosmological observables) was already a strong hint of a red-tilted spectrum. The Planck result
( after combination) pushes the departure of from zero past the magic 5 sigma significance. This number can of course also be fitted in more complicated models or in alternatives to inflation, but it is nevertheless a strong support for the most trivial version of inflation.
In summary, the cosmological results from Planck are really impressive. We’re looking into a pretty wide range of complex physical phenomena occurring billions of years ago. And, at the end of the day, we’re getting a perfect description with a fairly simple model. If this is not a moment to cry out “science works bitches”, nothing is. Particle physicists, however, can find little inspiration in the Planck results. For us, what Planck has observed is by no means an almost perfect universe… it’s rather the most boring universe.
I find it hilarious to hear someone complain that the universe is “boring” on a day when astrophysicists say they’ve discovered the universe is lopsided and has a huge cold region, the largest thing ever seen by humans!
However, particle physicists seem so far rather skeptical of these exciting developments. Is this sour grapes, or are they being wisely cautious?
Time, as usual, will tell.