Front Row at the Dawn of Time – NYTimes.com

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Baby pictures are often boring to everyone but the parents who show them. But if a baby picture of the universe doesn’t inspire your imagination, what can?


The European Space Agency recently released the first detailed all-sky images taken from its Planck satellite mission, the latest satellite to probe the “afterglow” of the Big Bang.

This is the radiation coming toward us from all directions from a time when the universe was only 380,000 years old, just after it had cooled sufficiently so that the protons in the hot gas could capture electrons to form neutral hydrogen and the universe then became transparent, and the ambient thermal background of radiation could travel unimpeded to us today.

In the intervening 13.7 billion years or so this radiation has cooled to close to 3 degrees above absolute zero and comes to us in the form of microwaves. In fact for those of us old enough to remember television before cable, when the TV stations went off the air and the screen filled with static, about 1 percent of the static visible on the screen was due to this radiation from the Big Bang.

In spite of this, this signal actually remained hidden until it was accidentally found in 1965 by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, who later shared the Nobel Prize for its discovery, which confirmed the Big Bang origin of our universe.

Because this radiation is so cold, it took almost 30 years before a satellite was launched into space by NASA — to get away from the warm background coming from the Earth and the absorption of radiation in our atmosphere — with a sensitivity great enough to actually image this signal. George Smoot, who along with John Mather was awarded a Nobel Prize for this work, exclaimed that looking at this image was like staring at the “face of God.”

This hyperbole can perhaps be forgiven, given the excitement of discovery, but any structure Smoot may have claimed to see was not unlike searches for images of animals in the clouds. The sensitivity of the experiment at the time was barely enough to separate the signal from other random backgrounds in the detector.

Another 20 years and now Planck has produced an exquisite picture whose fine-grained detail displays “hotspots” and “coldspots” in this background over the whole sky that represent variations in temperature of less than 1/10,000th of a degree from place to place. These miniscule fluctuations nevertheless reflect small excesses of matter that would later grow due to gravity to form all the structures we observe today — galaxies, stars, planets, and everything they house.
 

Written By: LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
continue to source article at nytimes.com

28 COMMENTS

  1. “…picture of the universe..”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, and this is a small point which certainly does not dispute the scientific conclusions of this very interesting stuff, but:

    Surely this is actually a picture of a large thing from relatively near the time of the ‘big bang’, but a thing which is effectively 2-dimensional (not just the picture, I really mean the locations where those photons were emitted!). You just go backwards from the point here/now (might as well be our galaxy/now) with whatever would be the general relativity version of the light cone, and intersect it with what was the (spatial) universe then, as defined by the more-or-less fixed frame that the cosmologists use. The camera set-up, and software later, between them get rid of all photons impinging the camera which are from closer in time and not part of the CMB. In flat space-time of one less dimension, that would be a circle circumference, and one dimension up, the surface of a sphere. So it would be far from being a picture of “the universe”. Surely many half-awake non-experts looking at this would be puzzled looking at something which is globally much like a commonplace flattened projection map of the surface of the earth, and see it written up as though it was a picture of something 3-dimensional. So, if I’m right, I don’t think I am being overly picky to find it annoying to be every time described that way, basically incorrectly unless I’m mistaken.

    If I am, I hope someone here can correct me.

    Anyway, the article is good, and Krauss’ writing always has much appeal for me in general,

    • In reply to #1 by phoffman:

      “…picture of the universe..”

      Correct me if I’m wrong, and this is a small point which certainly does not dispute the scientific conclusions of this very interesting stuff, but:

      Surely this is actually a picture of a large thing from relatively near the time of the ‘big bang’, but a thing which is effectively 2-dimensional (not just the picture, I really mean the locations where those photons were emitted!). You just go backwards from the point here/now (might as well be our galaxy/now) with whatever would be the general relativity version of the light cone, and intersect it with what was the (spatial) universe then, as defined by the more-or-less fixed frame that the cosmologists use. The camera set-up, and software later, between them get rid of all photons impinging the camera which are from closer in time and not part of the CMB. In flat space-time of one less dimension, that would be a circle circumference, and one dimension up, the surface of a sphere. So it would be far from being a picture of “the universe”. Surely many half-awake non-experts looking at this would be puzzled looking at something which is globally much like a commonplace flattened projection map of the surface of the earth, and see it written up as though it was a picture of something 3-dimensional. So, if I’m right, I don’t think I am being overly picky to find it annoying to be every time described that way, basically incorrectly unless I’m mistaken.

      If I am, I hope someone here can correct me.

      Anyway, the article is good, and Krauss’ writing always has much appeal for me in general,

      I’m not sure what you mean here. All pictures are two dimensional with implied spatial 3-D. This one is no different in that sense. And it is the whole observable universe, as it was 13.7+/-0.1 billions years ago. We can even calculate the the total number of photons in the observable universe from it. Brilliant! (bad pun intended).

      • In reply to #4 by Northampton:
        “……

        I’m not sure what you mean here. All pictures are two dimensional with implied spatial 3-D. This one is no different in that sense. And it is the whole observable universe, as it was 13.7+/-0.1 billions years ago….”

        You can assert this, but it is false I think. Since what I thought was too much explanation by me was apparent not enough, let me expand a bit:

        Imagine you are standing outside, have extraordinarily good eyes, superhuman. You look out and think you are seeing almost all the universe, at least that part within some narrow solid angle (not the problem), and at some particular time (that is the problem). Your excellent eyesight has seen the edge of a nearby tree, part of the moon, part of the sun, a star in our galaxy, another galaxy quite a distance away, and (somehow or other) just a bit of the cosmic microwave background. And, thinking about it, you realize your mistake: the tree is just about now, the moon is maybe a few seconds ago (I can’t recall the distance), the sun is about 8 minutes ago, the star maybe 10,000 years in the past, the galaxy maybe 2 billion, and the CMB nearly 14 billion years back. But we were talking about distances. Take that star as an example. The only other things you can see at that moment which are roughly 10,000 years in the past by looking in another direction are stars which are on roughly the 2-dimensional sphere the same distance away (roughly 10,000 light years) as that star. You certainly cannot see the entire universe 10,000 years ago, even though, by quickly looking in all directions (including straight through the earth with your extraordinarily superhuman eyesight), you can see any ‘part’ of the ‘observable’ universe, but at different times.

        So if you, and that ‘Planck instrument’, look at stuff where the photons are emitted at approximately some particular time (a few hundred thousand years prior to what is popularly referred to as the big-bang), you only see photons emitted from roughly the surface of a sphere in that early spatial universe. And the instrument, looking only at photons within a narrow range of frequency, plus the scientists/software, get rid of virtually everything in the image which might come from other parts of the universe, but not from that far back in time.

        You are welcome to just baldly assert I’m wrong here, as you did last time, but maybe explaining where I’m wrong would be more convincing. But I doubt you can.

  2. Are we …
    (a) inside of this.
    (b) outside of it.
    (c) both.
    (d) neither.
    (e) none of the above
    (f) all of the above.
    (g) some of the above, please circle all that apply.

    I really like the RDFRS T-shirt that says “It took 13.7 billion years to make something this perfect”. It’s great (who came up with that?). With the new estimate of 13.8 billion years for the age of the universe, those shirts are obsolete (valuable?) collectors items. Please make up some new ones.

    • In reply to #2 by whiteraven:

      Are we …
      (a) inside of this.
      (b) outside of it.
      (c) both.
      (d) neither.
      (e) none of the above
      (f) all of the above.
      (g) some of the above, please circle all that apply.

      I really like the RDFRS T-shirt that says “It took 13.7 billion years to make something this perfect”. It’s great (who came up with that?). With the new estimate of 13.8 billion years for the age of the universe, those shirts are obsolete (valuable?) collectors items. Please make up some new ones.

      We are (a), inside of this. You are looking at variations in the density of the hot plasma all around us that used the be the state of universe from one of the denser lumps in the plasma (a blue spot). All of these lumps expanded away from us and coalesced under gravity to become galaxies, stars, etc. The light from this period has “caught up to us” again because of the slowing expansion of the universe (slowing for the first ~7 billion years anyway).

      The age of the universe at 13.7 billions years should have read: 13.75+/-0.11 billion years (that is the mean value from WMAP and BAO). So the new measurements from Planck are interesting but within the uncertainties of previous measurements. The often quoted 13.72 billion years I believe was from WMAP data alone with an uncertainty of again around +/- 0.1 billion years. So Planck’s measurements imply an age of 13.813 +/- 0.058 billion years. We’ll have to let this data settle down but you could get a shirt with that on it so long as people realize the significance of the new shirt is the reduction in the uncertainty and not a particular value.

      • “….You are looking at variations in the density of the hot plasma all around us that used the be the state of universe from one of the denser lumps in the plasma (a blue spot)….”

        Hardly surprising, but this part of your reply is nonsense, unless what I assert earlier is false. In any case, can you or anyone else here who thinks you correct on this, tell us exactly which is the particular “blue spot” you refer to here in the picture. If you can do that convincingly, I think you will have added to the cosmological knowledge of all the popularizers who have recently written on that, including a number (such as Krauss) who actually do know a great deal about the subject. If you’re correct, but not adding to their knowledge, it is extremely peculiar that not one of them has referred, in their articles, to more-or-less the position that our galaxy would be in the picture. But I think it just ain’t there, which explains everything, including the nonsense of your earlier reply to me.

        (Such a description is easily done by just measuring the image height and width on your screen, and giving the distances in your image to that special “blue spot” where later we people came into existence. Thanks.)

        • In reply to #10 by phoffman:

          “….You are looking at variations in the density of the hot plasma all around us that used the be the state of universe from one of the denser lumps in the plasma (a blue spot)….”

          Hardly surprising, but this part of your reply is nonsense, unless what I assert earlier is false. In any case, can you or anyone else here who thinks you correct on this, tell us exactly which is the particular “blue spot” you refer to here in the picture. If you can do that convincingly, I think you will have added to the cosmological knowledge of all the popularizers who have recently written on that, including a number (such as Krauss) who actually do know a great deal about the subject. If you’re correct, but not adding to their knowledge, it is extremely peculiar that not one of them has referred, in their articles, to more-or-less the position that our galaxy would be in the picture. But I think it just ain’t there, which explains everything, including the nonsense of your earlier reply to me.

          (Such a description is easily done by just measuring the image height and width on your screen, and giving the distances in your image to that special “blue spot” where later we people came into existence. Thanks.)

          It does all come down to this: I never said, “we are in that image.” Indeed I thought that may have been clear from my selection of “(a)” as an answer to the question. Also, I thought it would be clear in the phrase, “all around us.” There may have been some poorly chosen words but I am saying this is an image from when the universe consisted of hot gas. I am saying, again perhaps not very well, at that time all things (observable) were in this plasma and very close (to us), within a few hundred million lightyears. Close to what? What were we? A little bit of slightly higher density gas that would later result in, ultimately, us. This higher density gas would be LIKE one of the “blue spots” on the CMB temperature anisotropy map.

          Apologies for wasting your time. Carry on with your objections.

          • In reply to #19 by Northampton:

            In reply to #10 by phoffman:

            Apologies for wasting your time. Carry on with your objections.

            I have never implied this was a waste of my time. You have certainly avoided answering my original question with anything beyond what many would call blustering.

            Now you say “…this is an image from when the universe consisted of hot gas. I am saying, again perhaps not very well, at that time all things (observable) were in this plasma and very close (to us), within a few hundred million lightyears. Close to what? What were we? A little bit of slightly higher density gas that would later result in, ultimately, us. This higher density gas would be LIKE one of the “blue spots” on the CMB temperature anisotropy map.”

            A small point is that you’ve probably got the colours which they are using mixed up, hotter versus colder, but that is unimportant to the main matter here. It is clear that you believe that the picture is a picture of photons emitted from the entire universe as it was at the time. Essentially you say that above, in quotation marks. And again, in your first reply to me, you basically make the same claim. What you are claiming here (along with a number of other things in your other replies) is completely wrong. If you really believe it, then you must either give us directions as to roughly where in the picture is the place in that earlier entire (as you claim) universe which is where we are now in that same later universe, or you must explain why that cannot be even approximately done.

            After 5 or 6 unsuccessful tries to get something other than bluster on this, it will clearly become a waste of my time, but not quite yet, since others here might at least begin to wonder whether much else you have said has any value. A better use of your own time might be to go over the three different times here that I have explained why it is certainly not a picture of photons originating from the entire universe at that time (not even close to the entire universe!), and certainly does not include points in that earlier universe anywhere near what has become our galaxy.

      • In reply to #5 by Northampton:

        In reply to #2 by whiteraven:

        Are we …
        (a) inside of this.
        (b) outside of it.
        (c) both.
        (d) neither.
        (e) none of the above
        (f) all of the above.
        (g) some of the above, please circle all that apply.

        I really like the RDFRS T-shirt that says “It took 13.7 billion years to make something this perfect”. It’s great (who came up with that?). With the new estimate of 13.8 billion years for the age of the universe, those shirts are obsolete (valuable?) collectors items. Please make up some new ones.

        We are (a), inside of this. You are looking at variations in the density of the hot plasma all around us that used the be the state of universe from one of the denser lumps in the plasma (a blue spot). All of these lumps expanded away from us and coalesced under gravity to become galaxies, stars, etc. The light from this period has “caught up to us” again because of the slowing expansion of the universe (slowing for the first ~7 billion years anyway).

        The age of the universe at 13.7 billions years should have read: 13.75+/-0.11 billion years (that is the mean value from WMAP and BAO). So the new measurements from Planck are interesting but within the uncertainties of previous measurements. The often quoted 13.72 billion years I believe was from WMAP data alone with an uncertainty of again around +/- 0.1 billion years. So Planck’s measurements imply an age of 13.813 +/- 0.058 billion years. We’ll have to let this data settle down but you could get a shirt with that on it so long as people realize the significance of the new shirt is the reduction in the uncertainty and not a particular value.

        So, if the universe were embedded in a higher dimensional space, it’s like we are seeing the bottom of a layer of frosting – we are the cake – and the top of the frosting would be identified with the point from which the universe inflated? By itself there’s no outside; is the universe an open or closed manifold? Does it depend on whether it’s a uni-verse or a multi-verse?

        I like the precision of 13.813 +/- 0.058 billion years (and counting).

        • In reply to #16 by whiteraven:

          So, if the universe were embedded in a higher dimensional space, it’s like we are seeing the bottom of a layer of frosting – we are the cake – and the top of the frosting would be identified with the point from which the universe inflated? By itself there’s no outside; is the universe an open or closed manifold? Does it depend on whether it’s a uni-verse or a multi-verse?

          I like the precision of 13.813 +/- 0.058 billion years (and counting).

          I like the view of a cosmological space-time diagram with lookback time in the vertical axis and proper distance in the horizontal axis: cos s-t

          There are more intuitive diagrams that give a 2-D representation of space such as: BAO Where the little circles would be the “size” of the observable universe. In this diagram the time axis is horizontal. If this diagram were to scale the circles at the time of Last Scattering would be much smaller (as is implied in the previous diagram).

    • In reply to #2 by whiteraven:

      Are we …
      (a) inside of this.
      (b) outside of it.
      (c) both.
      (d) neither.
      (e) none of the above
      (f) all of the above.
      (g) some of the above, please circle all that apply.

      Same questions I have as I struggle with parts of Lawrence’s “A Universe from Nothing”.

    • In reply to #3 by AlGarnier:

      “> Well phoffman, until Google Maps completes it’s street view mapping of the universe or, a hologram projection is produced, we will just have to contend with the annoyance.”

      Perhaps this is simply a limp attempt at humour, but I’ll take it seriously. The annoyance is not with what can actually be seen of the universe at one particular very early time (and Google maps would do no better without violating very basic physics). The annoyance is with describing it incorrectly to people who do more than just vaguely read popularizations of science, while a large part of their brain is either switched off, or concentrating on some deep Twitter observation referring to Google and real estate.

      • In reply to #9 by phoffman:

        In reply to #3 by AlGarnier:

        “> Well phoffman, until Google Maps completes it’s street view mapping of the universe or, a hologram projection is produced, we will just have to contend with the annoyance.”

        Perhaps this is simply a limp attempt at humour, but I’ll take it seriously. The annoyance is not with what can actually be seen of the universe at one particular very early time (and Google maps would do no better without violating very basic physics). The annoyance is with describing it incorrectly to people who do more than just vaguely read popularizations of science, while a large part of their brain is either switched off, or concentrating on some deep Twitter observation referring to Google and real estate.

        I thought it was a reasonable attempt at humour. But, I may have skewed the punch line in my description. I assume (ass-u-me) you are progressing from the flat earth theory to the flat universe theory. Either that or, you are not describing it to me correctly.

        • In reply to #12 by AlGarnier:

          In reply to #9 by phoffman:

          In reply to #3 by AlGarnier:

          “…. I assume (ass-u-me) you are progressing from the flat earth theory to the flat universe theory…”

          I do like that one as a humorous comment; maybe someone could write a good story about a purported ‘Flat Universe Society’!

          “.. Either that or, you are not describing it to me correctly…”

          Imagine the entire (spacial, not space-time) universe as the volume of a very large room (expanding with time, of course, but that ‘s irrelevant here, I think). Imagine a large balloon, just its surface, a tiny bit of thickness, floating in the middle of that room. I am asserting that the photons which the ‘Planck instrument’ has recorded and are enhanced and shown in that picture, all originate from the surface of that balloon, and not from anything at all like the entire universe. I am not saying that the science derived from that is at all faulty; I have every reason to think it is good and valuable stuff. But the popular descriptions are misleading when most people apparently interpret ‘picture of the universe’ to mean it is a picture of the entire universe, as at least one person here clearly does.

          The actual thickness is tiny of course, about half the distance from the sun to the nearest star IIRC, if it were about 2 lightyears, only approx. 20 trillion kilometers when I roughly tried to calculate it.

          • In reply to #14 by phoffman:

            In reply to #12 by AlGarnier:

            In reply to #9 by phoffman:

            In reply to #3 by AlGarnier:

            “…. I assume (ass-u-me) you are progressing from the flat earth theory to the flat universe theory…”

            I do like that one as a humorous comment; maybe someone could write a good story about a purported ‘Flat Universe Society’!

            “.. Either that or, you are not describing it to me correctly…”

            Imagine the entire (spacial, not space-time) universe as the volume of a very large room (expanding with time, of course, but that ‘s irrelevant here, I think). Imagine a large balloon, just its surface, a tiny bit of thickness, floating in the middle of that room. I am asserting that the photons which the ‘Planck instrument’ has recorded and are enhanced and shown in that picture, all originate from the surface of that balloon, and not from anything at all like the entire universe. I am not saying that the science derived from that is at all faulty; I have every reason to think it is good and valuable stuff. But the popular descriptions are misleading when most people apparently interpret ‘picture of the universe’ to mean it is a picture of the entire universe, as at least one person here clearly does.

            The actual thickness is tiny of course, about half the distance from the sun to the nearest star IIRC, if it were about 2 lightyears, only approx. 20 trillion kilometers when I roughly tried to calculate it.

            I understand what you’re saying. Planck is like a blind child in a plastic bubble who has been mapping the extents of his universe for the past 20 years using the faint odour of plastic from its surface as a guide. I don’t think anyone is trying to say that this is the entire universe but, it is an accurate depiction of the data that Planck recorded using the very weak residual microwave radiation from the time of the Big Bang.
            If you were mapping the earth’s surface from it’s core, it would be similar to the two dimensional representation of the universe by Plank. But, it would be nowhere near as accurate as the actual surface. However, Planck’s depiction is an extremely more accurate model of the extents of our universe than any other to date.

      • In reply to #17 by AlGarnier:

        In reply to #13 by Paris Price:

        I have a question. What did the universe expand into or is expanding into? Something or nothing or what?

        Best

        You need to google the laws of thermodynamics and the entropic effects on a closed system for a comprehensive explanation..
        http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy

        Respectfully I am quite aware of the Second Law but it doesn’t answer the question. The law explains the workings of the universe but not what’s outside the universe.

        Best

        • In reply to #20 by Paris Price:

          In reply to #17 by AlGarnier:

          In reply to #13 by Paris Price:

          I have a question. What did the universe expand into or is expanding into? Something or nothing or what?

          Best

          You need to google the laws of thermodynamics and the entropic effects on a closed system for a comprehensive explanation..
          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy

          Respectfully I am quite aware of the Second Law but it doesn’t answer the question. The law explains the workings of the universe but not what’s outside the universe.

          Best

          That is the $64 question and the person who can answer that may not be in existence, Yet! If the laws of physics are consistent throughout the universe, we can expect to see more of the same. There are as many theories based on known science, some that promote alternate universes, as there are religions. Your guess is as good as mine. However, I do believe that the quest for such knowledge is the most important challenge to mankind today. To master the secrets of the universe, regardless of what they may be, is humanity’s only chance of continued survival and possible immortality of the species.

          • In reply to #26 by AlGarnier:

            From my reading, the following is hopefully a useful suggestion here, though it talks more about the space-time universe, rather than just ‘space’. Max Tegmark is a reputable cosmologist, a physics prof at MIT, and has done a bunch of speculating somewhat along these lines. All of that is easily accessed on his easily found and entertaining web site. For some, including me, it means lots of extra technical reading, but so much the better. He conjectures 4, successively more general, multiverses, as they now call them, but read it!

    • In reply to #13 by Paris Price:

      I have a question. What did the universe expand into or is expanding into? Something or nothing or what?

      Best

      I don’t think that question can be answered because the scientific definitions of “something” and “nothing” are not established,

      • In reply to #24 by KRKBAB:

        In reply to #13 by Paris Price:

        I have a question. What did the universe expand into or is expanding into? Something or nothing or what?

        Best

        I don’t think that question can be answered because the scientific definitions of “something” and “nothing” are not established,

        Thanks, I guess we will just have to wait.

  3. Or is it non stuff. Is the black by definition part of the universe? Kind of like “turtles all the way down”?
    Or is it possible that the universe is in a cycle and all that there is? That size is just relative.

    Best

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