Archivi tag: cosmic expansion

BOSS quasars yield a precise determination of cosmic expansion

An artist’s conception of how BOSS uses quasars to measure the distant universe. Light from distant quasars is partly absorbed by intervening gas, which is imprinted with a subtle ring-like pattern of known physical scale. Astronomers have now measured this scale with an accuracy of two percent, precisely measuring how fast the universe was expanding when it was just 3 billion years old. (Illustration by Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Andreu Font-Ribera, BOSS Lyman-alpha team, Berkeley Lab.)
La survey del cielo denominata Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), che rappresenta la parte più grande della terza survey Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), ha osservato i quasar distanti per realizzare una mappatura delle variazioni di densità del gas intergalattico a redshift elevati permettendo così di tracciare la struttura dell’Universo primordiale. BOSS ci fornisce da un lato una carta temporale della storia evolutiva dell’Universo al fine di avere maggiori indizi sulla natura dell’energia scura e dall’altro ci permette di realizzare nuove misure della struttura su larga scala, le più precise mai ottenute sull’espansione cosmica sin dall’epoca in cui si sono formate le prime galassie.

Continua a leggere BOSS quasars yield a precise determination of cosmic expansion

Alan Guth commenta i risultati di BICEP2

E’ ancora vivo il fermento che ha generato in questi giorni l’annuncio dei ricercatori dell’Harvard CMB Group sull’esperimento BICEP2 in merito alla rivelazione di un segnale presente nella radiazione cosmica di fondo associato al passaggio di onde gravitazionali primordiali, una forte evidenza indiretta dell’inflazione cosmica (post). Il modello inflazionistico fu inizialmente proposto negli anni ’80 da Alan Guth, oggi Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics presso il MIT, che commenta qui di seguito il significato scientifico dei dati ottenuti da BICEP2.

Q: Can you explain the theory of cosmic inflation that you first put forth in 1980?

A: I usually describe inflation as a theory of the “bang” of the Big Bang: It describes the propulsion mechanism that drove the universe into the period of tremendous expansion that we call the Big Bang. In its original form, the Big Bang theory never was a theory of the bang. It said nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged. The original Big Bang theory was really a theory of the aftermath of the bang. The universe was already hot and dense, and already expanding at a fantastic rate. The theory described how the universe was cooled by the expansion, and how the expansion was slowed by the attractive force of gravity. Inflation proposes that the expansion of the universe was driven by a repulsive form of gravity. According to Newton, gravity is a purely attractive force, but this changed with Einstein and the discovery of general relativity. General relativity describes gravity as a distortion of spacetime, and allows for the possibility of repulsive gravity. Modern particle theories strongly suggest that at very high energies, there should exist forms of matter that create repulsive gravity. Inflation, in turn, proposes that at least a very small patch of the early universe was filled with this repulsive-gravity material. The initial patch could have been incredibly small, perhaps as small as 10-24 centimeter, about 100 billion times smaller than a single proton. The small patch would then start to exponentially expand under the influence of the repulsive gravity, doubling in size approximately every 10-37 second. To successfully describe our visible universe, the region would need to undergo at least 80 doublings, increasing its size to about 1 centimeter. It could have undergone significantly more doublings, but at least this number is needed. During the period of exponential expansion, any ordinary material would thin out, with the density diminishing to almost nothing. The behavior in this case, however, is very different: The repulsive-gravity material actually maintains a constant density as it expands, no matter how much it expands! While this appears to be a blatant violation of the principle of the conservation of energy, it is actually perfectly consistent. This loophole hinges on a peculiar feature of gravity: The energy of a gravitational field is negative. As the patch expands at constant density, more and more energy, in the form of matter, is created. But at the same time, more and more negative energy appears in the form of the gravitational field that is filling the region. The total energy remains constant, as it must, and therefore remains very small. It is possible that the total energy of the entire universe is exactly zero, with the positive energy of matter completely canceled by the negative energy of gravity. I often say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch, since it actually requires no energy to produce a universe. At some point the inflation ends because the repulsive-gravity material becomes metastable. The repulsive-gravity material decays into ordinary particles, producing a very hot soup of particles that form the starting point of the conventional Big Bang. At this point the repulsive gravity turns off, but the region continues to expand in a coasting pattern for billions of years to come. Thus, inflation is a prequel to the era that cosmologists call the Big Bang, although it of course occurred after the origin of the universe, which is often also called the Big Bang.

Q: What is the new result announced this week, and how does it provide critical support for your theory?

A: The stretching effect caused by the fantastic expansion of inflation tends to smooth things out — which is great for cosmology, because an ordinary explosion would presumably have left the universe very splotchy and irregular. The early universe, as we can see from the afterglow of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, was incredibly uniform, with a mass density that was constant to about one part in 100,000. The tiny nonuniformities that did exist were then amplified by gravity: In places where the mass density was slightly higher than average, a stronger-than-average gravitational field was created, which pulled in still more matter, creating a yet stronger gravitational field. But to have structure form at all, there needed to be small nonuniformities at the end of inflation. In inflationary models, these nonuniformities — which later produce stars, galaxies, and all the structure of the universe — are attributed to quantum theory. Quantum field theory implies that, on very short distance scales, everything is in a state of constant agitation. If we observed empty space with a hypothetical, and powerful, magnifying glass, we would see the electric and magnetic fields undergoing wild oscillations, with even electrons and positrons popping out of the vacuum and then rapidly disappearing. The effect of inflation, with its fantastic expansion, is to stretch these quantum fluctuations to macroscopic proportions. The temperature nonuniformities in the cosmic microwave background were first measured in 1992 by the COBE satellite, and have since been measured with greater and greater precision by a long and spectacular series of ground-based, balloon-based, and satellite experiments. They have agreed very well with the predictions of inflation. These results, however, have not generally been seen as proof of inflation, in part because it is not clear that inflation is the only possible way that these fluctuations could have been produced. The stretching effect of inflation, however, also acts on the geometry of space itself, which according to general relativity is flexible. Space can be compressed, stretched, or even twisted. The geometry of space also fluctuates on small scales, due to the physics of quantum theory, and inflation also stretches these fluctuations, producing gravity waves in the early universe. The new result, by John Kovac and the BICEP2 collaboration, is a measurement of these gravity waves, at a very high level of confidence. They do not see the gravity waves directly, but instead they have constructed a very detailed map of the polarization of the CMB in a patch of the sky. They have observed a swirling pattern in the polarization (called “B modes”) that can be created only by gravity waves in the early universe, or by the gravitational lensing effect of matter in the late universe. But the primordial gravity waves can be separated, because they tend to be on larger angular scales, so the BICEP2 team has decisively isolated their contribution. This is the first time that even a hint of these primordial gravity waves has been detected, and it is also the first time that any quantum properties of gravity have been directly observed.

Q: How would you describe the significance of these new findings, and your reaction to them?

A: The significance of these new findings is enormous. First of all, they help tremendously in confirming the picture of inflation. As far as we know, there is nothing other than inflation that can produce these gravity waves. Second, it tells us a lot about the details of inflation that we did not already know. In particular, it determines the energy density of the universe at the time of inflation, which is something that previously had a wide range of possibilities. By determining the energy density of the universe at the time of inflation, the new result also tells us a lot about which detailed versions of inflation are still viable, and which are no longer viable. The current result is not by itself conclusive, but it points in the direction of the very simplest inflationary models that can be constructed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new result is not the final story, but is more like the opening of a new window. Now that these B modes have been found, the BICEP2 collaboration and many other groups will continue to study them. They provide a new tool to study the behavior of the early universe, including the process of inflation. When I (and others) started working on the effect of quantum fluctuations in the early 1980s, I never thought that anybody would ever be able to measure these effects. To me it was really just a game, to see if my colleagues and I could agree on what the fluctuations would theoretically look like. So I am just astounded by the progress that astronomers have made in measuring these minute effects, and particularly by the new result of the BICEP2 team. Like all experimental results, we should wait for it to be confirmed by other groups before taking it as truth, but the group seems to have been very careful, and the result is very clean, so I think it is very likely that it will hold up.

Courtesy MIT: 3 Questions: Alan Guth on new insights into the ‘Big Bang’

A holographic origin for the Big Bang

Un gruppo di fisici teorici hanno pubblicato un articolo in cui propongono una nuova idea che spiegherebbe l’origine dell’Universo. Secondo gli scienziati, è possibile che lo spazio e il tempo vennero creati dal collasso quadridimensionale di una stella che spazzò i detriti nel cosmo per poi trasformarsi in un buco nero.

As it stands, the prevailing theory states the Universe was born from an infinitely dense singularity through some currently unknown mechanism. Actually, the entire big bang event itself is entirely unknown. Our equations have yet to be complete enough to describe the moment of creation, a revelation physicists think will follow the discovery of the theory of everything (which scientists might be one-step closer to doing). Until then, what happened “before the big bang,” the nature of the ‘singularity’ that caused the big bang, and the event itself will remain unknown without some major scientific breakthrough. At the moment, it’s anyone’s guess what happened. (Important side note: we have a lot of knowledge and experimental evidence talking about what happened immediately after the big bang, up to about 10-35 or so seconds after the event, so our timeline for cosmology is still preserved.) The standard big bang theory has some limitations and some serious problems. It’s limitations are mostly summed up by our inability to mathematically or practically study the big bang singularity, as mentioned before. On the flip side, the big bang theory doesn’t really explain why the Universe has a nearly uniform temperature (that’s where inflation theory comes in, which suggests that the Universe went through a period of rapid, faster-than-light expansion in its early history).

This new model is based on the slightly older idea that our Universe is basically a three-dimensional membrane floating in a fourth-dimensional “bulk universe.” That’s the basic idea that’s supporting this new model.

The tenets for the new theory are as follows:

  • The “bulk universe” has fourth-dimensional stars that go through the same life cycle that our three-dimensional stars go through.
  • Just as with our stars, the stars in the bulk universe could go supernova and collapse into a black hole.
  • This is where things start to get really cool. Just as our three-dimensional black holes have event horizons that appear two-dimensional, it’s plausible that the fourth-dimensional black holes have event horizons that appear three-dimensional.
  • This three-dimensional event horizon is knows as a hypersphere. This is the region of space in which our Universe exists.

This new way of looking at the Universe has some strong points in its favor. The model is able to explain the expansion of the Universe and is able to describe the Universe’s nearly uniform temperature, with one (rather large) limitation. The model disagrees with observations made by the Planck telescope, which recently created the most detailed map we have of the cosmic microwave background (post). The hypersphere model has about a four percent discrepancy, which means the hypersphere needs to be refined before it’ll gain any credence.

This new model could go a long way to helping us understand the nature of inflation.

Currently, the only thing we really know about inflation is that “it’s happening.” We don’t know why or how, but the named mechanism for it is known as dark energy. The model proposes that inflation is caused by the Universe’s motion through higher dimensions of space. It’s important to note that the paper where this study was published does not state whether the paper has been submitted to peer review. So, whereas the hypersphere idea is fantastic and fun, it has a long way to go before we can considered a viable hypothesis.

From Quarks to Quasars: Revising the Big Bang? New Theory on Creation.
arXiv: Out of the White Hole: A Holographic Origin for the Big Bang

Black holes as tools to measure the expansion of the Universe

Black HoleA few years ago, researchers revealed that the Universe is expanding at a much faster rate than originally believed, a discovery that earned in 2011 the Nobel Prize in Physics. But measuring the rate of this acceleration over large distances is still challenging and problematic according to Prof. Hagai Netzer of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Now, Prof. Netzer, along with other colleagues from the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and from the Observatoire de Paris, has developed a method with the potential to measure distances of billions of light years with a high degree of accuracy. The method uses certain types of active black holes that lie at the center of many galaxies. The ability to measure very long distances translates into seeing further into the past of the Universe and being able to estimate its rate of expansion at a very young age. This system of measurement takes into account the radiation emitted from the material that surrounds black holes before it is absorbed. “As material is drawn into a black hole, it heats up and emits a huge amount of radiation, up to a thousand times the energy produced by a large galaxy containing 100 billion stars. For this reason, it can be seen from very far distances”, explains Prof. Netzer. Using radiation to measure distances is a general method in astronomy, but until now black holes have never been used to help measure these distances. By adding together measurements of the amount of energy being emitted from the vicinity of the black hole to the amount of radiation which reaches Earth, it’s possible to infer the distance to the black hole itself and the time in the history of the Universe when the energy was emitted. Getting an accurate estimate of the radiation being emitted depends on the properties of the black hole. “For the specific type of black holes targeted in this work, the amount of radiation emitted as the object draws matter into itself is actually proportional to its mass”, say the researchers. Therefore, long-established methods to measure this mass can be used to estimate the amount of radiation involved. The viability of this theory was proved by using the known properties of black holes in our own astronomical vicinity, “only” several hundred million light years away. Prof. Netzer believes that his system will add to the astronomer’s tool kit for measuring distances much farther away, complimenting the existing method which uses the exploding stars called supernovae. According to Prof. Netzer, the ability to measure far-off distances has the potential to unravel some of the greatest mysteries of the Universe, which is approximately 14 billion years old. “When we are looking into a distance of billions of light years, we are looking that far into the past“, he explains. “The light that I see today was first produced when the Universe was much younger“. One such mystery is the nature of what astronomers call “dark energy,” the most significant source of energy in the present day Universe. This energy, which is manifested as some kind of “anti-gravity,” is believed to contribute towards the accelerated expansion of the Universe by pushing outwards. The ultimate goal is to understand dark energy on physical grounds, answering questions such as whether this energy has been consistent throughout time and if it is likely to change in the future.

Tel Aviv University: Using Black Holes to Measure the Universe's Rate of Expansion
arXiv: Super-Eddington accreting massive black holes as long-lived cosmological standards