Sunday, January 15, 2012

Big Bang Theory


Big Bang Theory

Big Bang Theory, currently accepted explanation of the beginning of the universe. The big bang theory proposes that the universe was once extremely compact, dense, and hot. Some original event, a cosmic explosion called the big bang, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, and the universe has since been expanding and cooling.
The theory is based on the mathematical equations, known as the field equations, of the general theory of relativity set forth in 1915 by Albert Einstein. In 1922 Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann provided a set of solutions to the field equations. These solutions have served as the framework for much of the current theoretical work on the big bang theory. American astronomer Edwin Hubble provided some of the greatest supporting evidence for the theory with his 1929 discovery that the light of distant galaxies was universally shifted toward the red end of the spectrum (see Redshift). Once “tired light” theories—that light slowly loses energy naturally, becoming more red over time—were dismissed, this shift proved that the galaxies were moving away from each other. Hubble found that galaxies farther away were moving away proportionally faster, showing that the universe is expanding uniformly. However, the universe’s initial state was still unknown.
In the 1940s Russian-American physicist George Gamow worked out a theory that fit with Friedmann’s solutions in which the universe expanded from a hot, dense state. In 1950 British astronomer Fred Hoyle, in support of his own opposing steady-state theory, referred to Gamow’s theory as a mere “big bang,” but the name stuck. Indeed, a contest in the 1990s by Sky & Telescope magazine to find a better (perhaps more dignified) name did not produce one.
II
HISTORY
The overall framework of the big bang theory came out of solutions to Einstein’s general relativity field equations and remains unchanged, but various details of the theory are still being modified today. Einstein himself initially believed that the universe was static. When his equations seemed to imply that the universe was expanding or contracting, Einstein added a constant term to cancel out the expansion or contraction of the universe. When the expansion of the universe was later discovered, Einstein stated that introducing this “cosmological constant” had been a mistake.
After Einstein’s work of 1917, several scientists, including the abbé Georges Lemaître in Belgium, Willem de Sitter in Holland, and Alexander Friedmann in Russia, succeeded in finding solutions to Einstein’s field equations. The universes described by the different solutions varied. De Sitter’s model had no matter in it. This model is actually not a bad approximation since the average density of the universe is extremely low. Lemaître’s universe expanded from a “primeval atom.” Friedmann’s universe also expanded from a very dense clump of matter, but did not involve the cosmological constant. These models explained how the universe behaved shortly after its creation, but there was still no satisfactory explanation for the beginning of the universe.
In the 1940s George Gamow was joined by his students Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in working out details of Friedmann’s solutions to Einstein’s theory. They expanded on Gamow’s idea that the universe expanded from a primordial state of matter called ylem consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons in a sea of radiation. They theorized the universe was very hot at the time of the big bang (the point at which the universe explosively expanded from its primordial state), since elements heavier than hydrogen can be formed only at a high temperature. Alpher and Hermann predicted that radiation from the big bang should still exist. Cosmic background radiation roughly corresponding to the temperature predicted by Gamow’s team was detected in the 1960s, further supporting the big bang theory, though the work of Alpher, Herman, and Gamow had been forgotten.
III
THE THEORY
The big bang theory seeks to explain what happened at or soon after the beginning of the universe. Scientists can now model the universe back to 10-43 seconds after the big bang. For the time before that moment, the classical theory of gravity is no longer adequate. Scientists are searching for a theory that merges gravity (as explained by Einstein's general theory of relativity) and quantum mechanics but have not found one yet. Many scientists have hope that string theory, also known as M-theory, will tie together gravity and quantum mechanics and help scientists explore further back in time (see Physics: Unified Field Theory).
Because scientists cannot look back in time beyond that early epoch, the actual big bang is hidden from them. There is no way at present to detect the origin of the universe. Further, the big bang theory does not explain what existed before the big bang. It may be that time itself began at the big bang, so that it makes no sense to discuss what happened “before” the big bang.
According to the big bang theory, the universe expanded rapidly in its first microseconds. A single force existed at the beginning of the universe, and as the universe expanded and cooled, this force separated into those we know today: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. A theory called the electroweak theory now provides a unified explanation of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force theory (see Unified Field Theory). Physicists are now searching for a grand unification theory to also incorporate the strong nuclear force. String theory seeks to incorporate the force of gravity with the other three forces, providing a theory of everything (TOE).
One widely accepted version of big bang theory includes the idea of inflation. In this model, the universe expanded much more rapidly at first, to about 1050 times its original size in the first 10-32 second, then slowed its expansion. The theory was advanced in the 1980s by American cosmologist Alan Guth and elaborated upon by American astronomer Paul Steinhardt, Russian American scientist Andrei Linde, and British astronomer Andreas Albrecht. The inflationary universe theory (see Inflationary Theory) solves a number of problems of cosmology. For example, it shows that the universe now appears close to the type of flat space described by the laws of Euclid’s geometry: We see only a tiny region of the original universe, similar to the way we do not notice the curvature of the earth because we see only a small part of it. The inflationary universe also shows why the universe appears so homogeneous. If the universe we observe was inflated from some small, original region, it is not surprising that it appears uniform.
Once the expansion of the initial inflationary era ended, the universe continued to expand more slowly. The inflationary model predicts that the universe is on the boundary between being open and closed. If the universe is open, it will keep expanding forever. If the universe is closed, the expansion of the universe will eventually stop and the universe will begin contracting until it collapses. Whether the universe is open or closed depends on the density, or concentration of mass, in the universe. If the universe is dense enough, it is closed.
IV
SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
The universe cooled as it expanded. After about one second, protons formed. In the following few minutes—often referred to as the “first three minutes”—combinations of protons and neutrons formed the isotope of hydrogen known as deuterium as well as some of the other light elements, principally helium, as well as some lithium, beryllium, and boron. The study of the distribution of deuterium, helium, and the other light elements is now a major field of research. The uniformity of the helium abundance around the universe supports the big bang theory and the abundance of deuterium can be used to estimate the density of matter in the universe.
From about 380,000 to about 1 million years after the big bang, the universe cooled to about 3000°C (about 5000°F) and protons and electrons combined to make hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms can only absorb and emit specific colors, or wavelengths, of light. The formation of atoms allowed many other wavelengths of light, wavelengths that had been interfering with the free electrons prior to the cooling of the universe, to travel much farther than before. This change set free radiation that we can detect today. After billions of years of cooling, this cosmic background radiation is at about 3 K (-270°C/-454°F).The cosmic background radiation was first detected and identified in 1965 by American astrophysicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.
The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft, a project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), mapped the cosmic background radiation between 1989 and 1993. It verified that the distribution of intensity of the background radiation precisely matched that of matter that emits radiation because of its temperature, as predicted for the big bang theory. It also showed that cosmic background radiation is not uniform, that it varies slightly. These variations are thought to be the seeds from which galaxies and other structures in the universe grew.
Evidence indicates that the matter that scientists detect in the universe is only a small fraction of all the matter that exists. For example, observations of the speeds at which individual galaxies move within clusters of galaxies show that a great deal of unseen matter must exist to exert sufficient gravitational force to keep the clusters from flying apart. Cosmologists now think that much of the universe is dark matter—matter that has gravity but does not give off radiation that we can see or otherwise detect. One kind of dark matter theorized by scientists is cold dark matter, with slowly moving (cold) massive particles. No such particles have yet been detected, though astronomers have made up fanciful names for them, such as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). Other cold dark matter could be nonradiating stars or planets, which are known as MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects).
An alternative theory that explains the dark-matter model involves hot dark matter, where hot implies that the particles are moving very fast. Neutrinos, fundamental particles that travel at nearly the speed of light, are the prime example of hot dark matter. However, scientists think that the mass of a neutrino is so low that neutrinos can only account for a small portion of dark matter. If the inflationary version of big bang theory is correct, then the amount of dark matter and of whatever else might exist is just enough to bring the universe to the boundary between open and closed.
Scientists develop theoretical models to show how the universe’s structures, such as clusters of galaxies, have formed. Their models invoke hot dark matter, cold dark matter, or a mixture of the two. This unseen matter would have provided the gravitational force needed to bring large structures such as clusters of galaxies together. The theories that include dark matter match the observations, although there is no consensus on the type or types of dark matter that must be included. Supercomputers are important for making such models.
V
REFINING THE THEORY
Astronomers continue to make new observations that are also interpreted within the framework of the big bang theory. No major problems with the big bang theory have been found, but scientists constantly adjust the theory to match the observed universe. In particular, a “standard model” of the big bang has been established by results from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001 (see Cosmology). The probe studied the anisotropies, or ripples, in the temperature of cosmic background radiation at a higher resolution than COBE was capable of. These ripples indicate that regions of the young universe were very slightly hotter or cooler, by a factor of about 1/1000, than adjacent regions. WMAP’s observations suggest that the rate of expansion of the universe, called Hubble’s constant, is about 71 km/s/Mpc (kilometers per second per million parsecs, where a parsec is about 3.26 light-years). In other words, the distance between any two objects in space that are separated by a million parsecs increases by about 71 km every second in addition to any other motion they may have relative to one another. In combination with previously existing observations, this rate of expansion tells cosmologists that the universe is “flat,” though flatness here does not refer to the actual shape of the universe but rather that the geometric laws that apply to the universe match those of a flat plane.
To be flat, the universe must contain a certain amount of matter and energy, known as the critical density. The distribution of sizes of ripples detected by WMAP show that ordinary matter—like that making up objects and living things on Earth—accounts for only 4.4 percent of the critical density. Dark matter makes up an additional 23 percent. Astoundingly, the remaining 73 percent of the universe is composed of something else—a substance so mysterious that nobody knows much about it. Called “dark energy,” this substance provides the antigravity-like negative pressure that causes the universe's expansion to accelerate rather than slow down. This “accelerating universe” was detected independently by two competing groups of astronomers in the last years of the 20th century. The ideas of an accelerating universe and the existence of dark energy have caused astronomers to substantially modify previous ideas of the big bang universe.
WMAP's results also show that cosmic background radiation was set free about 389,000 years after the big bang, later than was previously thought, and that the first stars formed about 200 million years after the big bang, earlier than anticipated. Further refinements to the big bang theory are expected from WMAP, which continues to collect data. An even more precise mission to study the beginnings of the universe, the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft, is scheduled to be launched in 2007.



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