News From Space: Cosmic Inflation and Dark Matter

big bang_blackholeHello again! In another attempt to cover events that built up while I was away, here are some stories that took place back in March and early April of this year, and which may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds of the year. In fact, they may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds in recent history, as they may help to answer the most fundamental questions of all – namely, what is the universe made of, and how did it come to exist?

First up, in a development that can only be described as cosmic in nature (pun intended), back in March, astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center announced the first-ever observation of gravitational waves. This discovery, which is the first direct evidence of the Big Bang, is comparable to significance to CERN’s confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012. And there is already talk about a Nobel Prize for the Harvard crew because of their discovery.

big_bangThis theory, which states that the entire universe sprung into existence from a tiny spot in the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, has remained the scientific consensus for almost a century. But until now, scientists have had little beyond theory and observations to back it up. As the name would suggest, gravitational waves are basically ripples in spacetime that have been propagating outward from the center of the universe ever since the Big Bang took place.

Originally predicted as part of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916, these waves are believed to have existed since a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang took place, and have been propagating outward for roughly 14 billion years. The theory also predicts that, if we can detect some gravitational waves, it’s proof of the initial expansion during the Big Bang and the continued inflation that has been taking place ever since.

bicep2-640x425Between 2010 and 2012, the BICEP2 – a radio telescope situated at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (pictured above) – the research team listened to the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). They were looking for hints of B-mode polarization, a twist in the CMB that could only have been caused by the ripples of gravitational waves. Following a lot of data analysis, the leaders announced that they found that B-mode polarization.

The work will now be scrutinized by the rest of the scientific community, of course, but the general consensus seems confident that it will stand up. In terms of scientific significance, the confirmation of gravitational waves would be the first direct evidence that the universe started out as nothing, erupted into existence 13.8 billion years ago, and has continued to expand ever since. This would confirm that cosmic inflation really exists and that the entire structure of the universe was decided in the beginning by the tiniest flux of gravitational waves.

planck-attnotated-580x372And that’s not only discovery of cosmic significance that was made in recent months. In this case, the news comes from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has been analyzing high-energy gamma rays emanating from the galaxy’s center since 2008. After pouring over the results, an independent group of scientists claimed that they had found an unexplained source of emissions that they say is “consistent with some forms of dark matter.”

These scientists found that by removing all known sources of gamma rays, they were left with gamma-ray emissions that so far they cannot explain. And while they were cautious that more observations will be needed to characterize these emissions, this is the first time that potential evidence has been found that may confirm that this mysterious, invisible mass that accounts for roughly 26.8% of the universe actually exists.

darkmatter1To be fair, scientists aren’t even sure what dark matter is made of. In fact, it’s very existence is inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter and gravitational lensing of background radiation. Originally, it was hypothesized to account for the discrepancies that were observed between the calculations of the mass of galaxies, clusters and entire universe made through dynamical and general relativistic means, and  the mass of the visible “luminous” matter.

The most widely accepted explanation for these phenomena is that dark matter exists and that it is most probably composed of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) that interact only through gravity and the weak force. If this is true, then dark matter could produce gamma rays in ranges that Fermi could detect. Also, the location of the radiation at the galaxy’s center is an interesting spot, since scientists believe that’s where dark matter would lurk since the insofar invisible substance would be the base of normal structures like galaxies.

fermi_gamma-raysThe galactic center teems with gamma-ray sources, from interacting binary systems and isolated pulsars to supernova remnants and particles colliding with interstellar gas. It’s also where astronomers expect to find the galaxy’s highest density of dark matter, which only affects normal matter and radiation through its gravity. Large amounts of dark matter attract normal matter, forming a foundation upon which visible structures, like galaxies, are built.

Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and lead author of the study, had this to say on the subject:

The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it. The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.

Hooper and his colleagues suggest that if WIMPs were destroying each other, this would be “a remarkable fit” for a dark matter signal. They again caution, though, that there could be other explanations for the phenomenon. Writing in a paper submitted to the journal Physical Review D, the researchers say that these features are difficult to reconcile with other explanations proposed so far, although they note that plausible alternatives not requiring dark matter may yet materialize.

CERN_LHCAnd while a great deal more work is required before Dark Matter can be safely said to exist, much of that work can be done right here on Earth using CERN’s own equipment. Tracy Slatyer, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the report, explains:

Dark matter in this mass range can be probed by direct detection and by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so if this is dark matter, we’re already learning about its interactions from the lack of detection so far.This is a very exciting signal, and while the case is not yet closed, in the future we might well look back and say this was where we saw dark matter annihilation for the first time.

Still, they caution that it will take multiple sightings – in other astronomical objects, the LHC, or direct-detection experiments being conducted around the world – to validate their dark matter interpretation. Even so, this is the first time that scientists have had anything, even tentative, to base the existence of Dark Matter’s on. Much like until very recently with the Big Bang Theory, it has remained a process of elimination – getting rid of explanations that do not work rather than proving one that does.

So for those hoping that 2014 will be the year that the existence of Dark Matter is finally proven – similar to how 2012 was the year the Higgs Boson was discovered or 2013 was the year the Amplituhedron was found – there are plenty of reasons to hope. And in the meantime, check out this video of a gamma-ray map of the galactic center, courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Center.


Evidence for the Big Bang

planck-attnotated-580x372The Big Bang Theory has been the dominant cosmological model for over half a century. According to the theory, the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago from an extremely hot, dense state and then began expanding rapidly. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled and began to form various subatomic particles and basic elements. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars, galaxies, and eventually planets.

And while it has its detractors, most of whom subscribe to the alternate Steady State Theory – which claims that new matter is continuously created as the universe expands – it has come to represent the scientific consensus as to how the universe came to be. And as usual, my ol’ pal and mentor in all things digital, Fraser Cain, recently released a video with the help of Universe Today discussing the particulars of it.

big_bangAddressing the particulars of the Big Bang Theory, Cain lists the many contributions made over the past century that has led this so-called theory to become the scientific consensus has come to exist. They are, in a nutshell:

  1. Cosmic Expanion: In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher calculated the speed and distance of “spiral nebulae” (galaxies) by measuring the light coming from them. He determined most were moving away. In 1924, Edwin Hubble determined that these galaxies were outside the Milky Way. He postulates that the motion of galaxies away from our own indicates a common point of origin.
  2. Abundance of Elements: Immediately after the big bang, only hydrogen existed and compressed into a tiny area of space under incredible heat and pressure. Like a star, this turned hydrogen into helium and other basic elements. Looking out into the universe (and hence back in time) scientists have found that great distances, the ratios of hydrogen to basic elements is consistent with what is found in star’s interiors.
  3. Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation: In the 1960’s, using a radiotelescope, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a background radio emission coming from every direction in the sky, day or night. This was consistent with the Big Bang Theory, which predicted that after the Big Bang, there would have been a release of radiation which then expanded billions of light years in all directions and cooled to the point that it shifted to invisible, microwave radiation.
  4. Large Scale Structure: The formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos are very similar. This is consistent with belief that after the initial Big Bang, the matter created would have cooled and began to coalesce into large collections, which is what galaxies, local galactic groups, and super-clusters are.

These are the four pillars of the Big Bang Theory, but they are no means the only points in its favor. In addition, there are numerous observational clues, such as how we have yet to observe a stars in the universe older than 13 billion years old, and fluctuations in the CMB that indicate a lack of uniformity. On top of that, there is the ongoing research into the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which are sure to bear fruit in the near future if all goes well.

big_bang1In short, scientists have a pretty good idea of how the universe came to be and the evidence all seems to confirm it. And some mysteries remain, we can be relatively confident that ongoing experimentation and research will come up with new and creative ways to shed light on the final unknowns. Little reason then why the Big Bang Theory enjoys such widespread support, much like Evolution, Gravity, and General Relativity.

Be sure to check out the full video, and subscribe to Universe Today for additional informative videos, podcasts, and articles. As someone who used to write for them, I can tell you that it’s a pretty good time, and very enlightening!

News From Space: Big Bang Vs. Black Hole

big bang_blackholeFor decades, the Big Bang Theory has remained the accepted theory of how the universe came to be, beating out challengers like the Steady State Theory. However, many unresolved issues remain with this theory, the most notable of which is the question of what could have existed prior to the big bang. Because of this, scientists have been looking for way to refine the theory.

Luckily, a group of theoretical physicists from the Perimeter Institute (PI) for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario have announced a new interpretation on how the universe came to be. Essentially, they postulate that the birth of the universe could have happened after a four-dimensional star collapsed into a black hole and began ejecting debris.

big_bangThis represents a big revision of the current theory, which is that universe grew from an infinitely dense point or singularity. But as to what was there before that remain unknown, and is one of a few limitations of the Big Bang. In addition, it’s hard to predict why it would have produced a universe that has an almost uniform temperature, because the age of our universe (about 13.8 billion years) does not give enough time to reach a temperature equilibrium.

Most cosmologists say the universe must have been expanding faster than the speed of light for this to happen. But according to Niayesh Afshordi, an astrophysicist with PI who co-authored the study, even that theory has problems:

For all physicists know, dragons could have come flying out of the singularity. The Big Bang was so chaotic, it’s not clear there would have been even a small homogenous patch for inflation to start working on.

black_holeThe model Afshordi and her colleagues are proposing is basically a three-dimensional universe floating as a membrane (or brane) in a “bulk universe” that has four dimensions. If this “bulk universe” has four-dimensional stars, these stars could go through the same life cycles as the three-dimensional ones we are familiar with. The most massive ones would explode as supernovae, shed their skin and have the innermost parts collapse as a black hole.

The 4-D black hole would then have an “event horizon”, the boundary between the inside and the outside of a black hole. In a 3-D universe, an event horizon appears as a two-dimensional surface; but in a 4-D universe, the event horizon would be a 3-D object called a hypersphere. And when this 4-D star blows apart, the leftover material would create a 3-D brane surrounding a 3-D event horizon, and then expand.

planck-attnotated-580x372To simplify it a little, they are postulating that the expansion of the universe was triggered by the motion of the universe through a higher-dimensional reality. While it may sound complicated, the theory does explain how the universe continues to expand and is indeed accelerating. Whereas previous theories have credited a mysterious invisible force known as “dark energy” with this, this new theory claims it is the result of the 3-D brane’s growth.

However, there is one limitation to this theory which has to do with the nearly uniform temperature of the universe. While the model does explain how this could be, the ESA’s Planck telesceop recently mapped out the universe and discovered small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background (CBM). These patches were believed to be leftovers of the universe’s beginnings, which were a further indication that the Big Bang model holds true.

big_bang1The PI team’s own CBM readings differ from this highly accurate survey by about four percent, so now they too are going back to the table and looking to refine their theory. How ironic! However, the IP team still feel the model has worth. While the Planck observations show that inflation is happening, they do not show why the inflation is happening.

Needless to say, we are nowhere near to resolving how the universe came to be, at least not in a way that resolves all the theoretical issues. But that’s the things about the Big Bang – it’s the scientific equivalent of a Hydra. No matter how many times people attempt to discredit it, it always comes back to reassert its dominance!