Cosmic background radiation

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Temperature of the cosmic background radiation spectrum as determined with the COBE satellite: uncorrected (top), corrected for the dipole term due to our peculiar velocity (middle), and corrected for contributions from the dipole term and from our galaxy (bottom). Cobe-cosmic-background-radiation.gif
Temperature of the cosmic background radiation spectrum as determined with the COBE satellite: uncorrected (top), corrected for the dipole term due to our peculiar velocity (middle), and corrected for contributions from the dipole term and from our galaxy (bottom).

Cosmic background radiation is electromagnetic radiation from the Big Bang. The origin of this radiation depends on the region of the spectrum that is observed. One component is the cosmic microwave background. This component is redshifted photons that have freely streamed from an epoch when the Universe became transparent for the first time to radiation. Its discovery and detailed observations of its properties are considered one of the major confirmations of the Big Bang. The discovery (by chance in 1965) of the cosmic background radiation suggests that the early universe was dominated by a radiation field, a field of extremely high temperature and pressure. [1]

Electromagnetic radiation form of energy emitted and absorbed by charged particles, which exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space

In physics, electromagnetic radiation refers to the waves of the electromagnetic field, propagating (radiating) through space, carrying electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, (visible) light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

Big Bang The prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe

The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe from the earliest known periods through its subsequent large-scale evolution. The model describes how the universe expanded from a very high-density and high-temperature state, and offers a comprehensive explanation for a broad range of phenomena, including the abundance of light elements, the cosmic microwave background (CMB), large scale structure and Hubble's law. If the observed conditions are extrapolated backwards in time using the known laws of physics, the prediction is that just before a period of very high density there was a singularity which is typically associated with the Big Bang. Physicists are undecided whether this means the universe began from a singularity, or that current knowledge is insufficient to describe the universe at that time. Detailed measurements of the expansion rate of the universe place the Big Bang at around 13.8 billion years ago, which is thus considered the age of the universe. After its initial expansion, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity, eventually forming early stars and galaxies, the descendants of which are visible today. Astronomers also observe the gravitational effects of dark matter surrounding galaxies. Though most of the mass in the universe seems to be in the form of dark matter, Big Bang theory and various observations seem to indicate that it is not made out of conventional baryonic matter but it is unclear exactly what it is made out of.

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photon energies.


The Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect shows the phenomena of radiant cosmic background radiation interacting with "electron" clouds distorting the spectrum of the radiation.

There is also background radiation in the infrared, x-rays, etc., with different causes, and they can sometimes be resolved into an individual source. See cosmic infrared background and X-ray background. See also cosmic neutrino background and extragalactic background light.

Infrared electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths than those of visible light

Infrared radiation (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with longer wavelengths than those of visible light, and is therefore generally invisible to the human eye, although IR at wavelengths up to 1050 nanometers (nm)s from specially pulsed lasers can be seen by humans under certain conditions. IR wavelengths extend from the nominal red edge of the visible spectrum at 700 nanometers, to 1 millimeter (300 GHz). Most of the thermal radiation emitted by objects near room temperature is infrared. As with all EMR, IR carries radiant energy and behaves both like a wave and like its quantum particle, the photon.

X-ray form of electromagnetic radiation

X-rays make up X-radiation, a form of electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz (3×1016 Hz to 3×1019 Hz) and energies in the range 100 eV to 100 keV. X-ray wavelengths are shorter than those of UV rays and typically longer than those of gamma rays. In many languages, X-radiation is referred to with terms meaning Röntgen radiation, after the German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen who discovered these on November 8, 1895, who usually is credited as its discoverer, and who named it X-radiation to signify an unknown type of radiation. Spelling of X-ray(s) in the English language includes the variants x-ray(s), xray(s), and X ray(s).

Cosmic infrared background

Cosmic infrared background is infrared radiation caused by stellar dust.

Timeline of significant events

1896: Charles Édouard Guillaume estimates the "radiation of the stars" to be 5.6  K. [2]

Charles Édouard Guillaume Swiss physicist

Charles Édouard Guillaume was a Swiss physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1920 in recognition of the service he had rendered to precision measurements in physics by his discovery of anomalies in nickel steel alloys. In 1919, he gave the fifth Guthrie Lecture at the Institute of Physics in London with the title "The Anomaly of the Nickel-Steels".

The Kelvin scale is an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale using as its null point absolute zero, the temperature at which all thermal motion ceases in the classical description of thermodynamics. The kelvin is the base unit of temperature in the International System of Units (SI).

1926: Sir Arthur Eddington estimates the non-thermal radiation of starlight in the galaxy has an effective temperature of 3.2 K.

1930s: Erich Regener calculates that the non-thermal spectrum of cosmic rays in the galaxy has an effective temperature of 2.8 K. [2]

Erich Regener German physicist

Erich Rudolf Alexander Regener was a German physicist known primarily for the design and construction of instruments to measure cosmic ray intensity at various altitudes. He is also known for predicting a 2.8 K cosmic background radiation, for the invention of the scintillation counter which contributed to the discovery of the structure of the atom, for his calculation of the charge of an electron and for his early work on atmospheric ozone. He is also credited with the first use of rockets for scientific research.

1931: The term microwave first appears in print: "When trials with wavelengths as low as 18 cm were made known, there was undisguised surprise that the problem of the micro-wave had been solved so soon." Telegraph & Telephone Journal XVII. 179/1"

1938: Nobel Prize winner (1920) Walther Nernst re-estimates the cosmic ray temperature as 0.75 K. [2]

1946: The term "microwave" is first used in print in an astronomical context in an article "Microwave Radiation from the Sun and Moon" by Robert Dicke and Robert Beringer.

1946: Robert Dicke predicts a microwave background radiation temperature of 20 K (ref: Helge Kragh)

1946: Robert Dicke predicts a microwave background radiation temperature of "less that 20 K"[ clarification needed ] but later revised to 45 K (ref: Stephen G. Brush).

1946: George Gamow estimates a temperature of 50 K. [2]

1948: Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman re-estimate Gamow's estimate at 5 K. [2]

1949: Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman re-re-estimate Gamow's estimate at 28 K.

1960s: Robert Dicke re-estimates a MBR (microwave background radiation) temperature of 40 K (ref: Helge Kragh).

1965: Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson measure the temperature to be approximately 3 K. Robert Dicke, P. J. E. Peebles, P. G. Roll and D. T. Wilkinson interpret this radiation as a signature of the Big Bang. [2]

See also

Related Research Articles

Cosmic microwave background Electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe in Big Bang cosmology

The cosmic microwave background is electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe in Big Bang cosmology. In older literature, the CMB is also variously known as cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) or "relic radiation". The CMB is a faint cosmic background radiation filling all space that is an important source of data on the early universe because it is the oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe, dating to the epoch of recombination. With a traditional optical telescope, the space between stars and galaxies is completely dark. However, a sufficiently sensitive radio telescope shows a faint background noise, or glow, almost isotropic, that is not associated with any star, galaxy, or other object. This glow is strongest in the microwave region of the radio spectrum. The accidental discovery of the CMB in 1964 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s, and earned the discoverers the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Radiation waves or particles propagating through space or through a medium, carrying energy

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

Cosmic noise and galactic radio noise is random noise that originates outside the Earth's atmosphere. It can be detected and heard in radio receivers. Cosmic noise characteristics are similar to those of thermal noise. Cosmic noise is experienced at frequencies above about 15 MHz when highly directional antennas are pointed toward the sun or to certain other regions of the sky such as the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Celestial objects like Quasars, super dense objects that lie far from Earth, emit electromagnetic waves in its full spectrum including radio waves. We can also hear the fall of a meteorite in a radio receiver; the falling object burns from friction with the Earth's atmosphere, ionizing surrounding gases and producing radio waves. Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) from outer space, discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, is also a form of cosmic noise. CMBR is thought to be a relic of the Big Bang, and pervades the space almost homogeneously over the entire celestial sphere. The bandwidth of the CMBR is wide, though the peak is in the microwave range.

Timeline of cosmological theories

This timeline of cosmological theories and discoveries is a chronological record of the development of humanity's understanding of the cosmos over the last two-plus millennia. Modern cosmological ideas follow the development of the scientific discipline of physical cosmology.

George Gamow Russian-American physicist and science writer

George Gamow, born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov, was a Soviet-American theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He was an early advocate and developer of Lemaître's Big Bang theory. He discovered a theoretical explanation of alpha decay via quantum tunneling, and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis and Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and molecular genetics.

Arno Allan Penzias American physicist

Arno Allan Penzias is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics who is co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation along with Robert Woodrow Wilson, which helped establish the Big Bang theory of cosmology.

Ylem is a term that was used by George Gamow, his student Ralph Alpher, and their associates in the late 1940s for a hypothetical original substance or condensed state of matter, which became subatomic particles and elements as we understand them today. The term ylem was actually resuscitated by Ralph Alpher.

Discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation

The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation constitutes a major development in modern physical cosmology. The cosmic background radiation (CMB) was measured by Andrew McKellar in 1941 at an effective temperature of 2.3 K using CN stellar absorption lines observed by W. S. Adams. Theoretical work around 1950 showed that the need for a CMB for consistency with the simplest relativistic universe models. In 1964, US physicist Arno Penzias and radio-astronomer Robert Woodrow Wilson rediscovered the CMB, estimating its temperature as 3.5 K, as they experimented with the Holmdel Horn Antenna. The new measurements were accepted as important evidence for a hot early Universe and as evidence against the rival steady state theory. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their joint measurement.

Observational cosmology

Observational cosmology is the study of the structure, the evolution and the origin of the universe through observation, using instruments such as telescopes and cosmic ray detectors.

Robert H. Dicke American astronomer

Robert Henry Dicke was an American physicist who made important contributions to the fields of astrophysics, atomic physics, cosmology and gravity.

Jim Peebles American astronomer

Phillip James Edwin Peebles is a Canadian-American physicist and theoretical cosmologist who is currently the Albert Einstein Professor Emeritus of Science at Princeton University. He is widely regarded as one of the world's leading theoretical cosmologists in the period since 1970, with major theoretical contributions to primordial nucleosynthesis, dark matter, the cosmic microwave background, and structure formation. His three textbooks have been standard references in the field.

Ralph Asher Alpher American cosmologist

Ralph Asher Alpher was an American cosmologist, who carried out pioneering work in the early 1950s on the Big Bang model, including big bang nucleosynthesis and predictions of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Structure formation The formation of galaxies, galaxy clusters and larger structures from small early density fluctuations

In physical cosmology, structure formation is the formation of galaxies, galaxy clusters and larger structures from small early density fluctuations. The universe, as is now known from observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation, began in a hot, dense, nearly uniform state approximately 13.8 billion years ago. However, looking in the sky today, we see structures on all scales, from stars and planets to galaxies and, on still larger scales, galaxy clusters and sheet-like structures of galaxies separated by enormous voids containing few galaxies. Structure formation attempts to model how these structures formed by gravitational instability of small early density ripples.

Robert Herman was a United States scientist, best known for his work with Ralph Alpher in 1948-50, on estimating the temperature of cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang explosion.

History of the Big Bang theory

The history of the Big Bang theory began with the Big Bang's development from observations and theoretical considerations. Much of the theoretical work in cosmology now involves extensions and refinements to the basic Big Bang model.

George Smoot American astrophysicist and cosmologist

George Fitzgerald Smoot III is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, Nobel laureate, and one of two contestants to win the US$1 million prize on Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer with John C. Mather that led to the "discovery of the black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation".

The Tenerife Experiment was a Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) experiment built by Jodrell Bank of the University of Manchester and in collaboration with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC). It was installed and run at the Observatorio del Teide in Tenerife in 1984, and ran with various upgrades and additional experiments until 2000. Contact was made with the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) which had shown that the Teide Observatory was an ideal site for infra-red observations. An agreement was arrived at and the first radiometer (10 GHz) was installed in 1984 and so was born the Tenerife Experiment.


  1. "First minutes of the Big Bang". What is USA News. 12 March 2014. Retrieved 2013-11-19.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Assis, A. K. T.; Neves, M. C. D. (3 July 1995). "History of the 2.7 K Temperature Prior to Penzias and Wilson" (PDF). Apeiron. 2 (3).