RWTH Aachen Particle Physics Theory

Schlagwort: ‘CMB’

A Beginner’s Guide to the CMB

September 11th, 2018 | by

CMB as seen by Planck

Ever since its accidental discovery in 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background, or the CMB for short, is touted to be the holy grail of modern cosmology. In the simplest of terms, CMB is a snapshot of the universe in its infancy. It tells us what the universe looked like three hundred thousand years after the big bang, and since we understand how the universe evolves (or is supposed to evolve) it gives us testable predictions regarding the structure of the universe we observe today. It has become an incredible resource to verify our cosmological models at scales varying from the incredibly tiny to the mind-bogglingly large. The magnitude of information which can be gleaned from a map which quite literally looks like a painting accident involving a horde of unruly pigeons is astounding. But before we get into that, what exactly is the CMB? Where does it come from?

Before everything else, there was the Big Bang which ended up creating a universe populated with a more-or-less homogeneous hot particle soup. (If only it had remained that way). The fact that these particles hadn’t yet coalesced into atoms meant that they interacted strongly with radiation (or light). Imagine a photon moving in this mess of charged particles. It would deflect quite often, seeing as how it would be surrounded by electrons or protons. In science-speak, one would say that the free-streaming length of the photon would be very small. And since the photon can’t travel long distances without being scattered, the universe would be opaque. As time passes and the universe expands, its temperature drops. With this cooling, at some point the formation of atoms becomes favorable and instead of charged particles joy-riding around the universe, we suddenly have electrically neutral atoms. This means that photons are now free to travel without undergoing repeated scattering. Essentially, the universe becomes transparent and these photons form the relic radiation which we call CMB. The Cosmic part of it is this. ‘Microwave’ simply means that we observe these photons, not in the visible spectrum but, as a result of the expansion of the universe, in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. ‘Background’ is also straightforward. The CMB permeates everything. It is a constant presence in our lives much as the foreboding inevitability of death that we all grow up with.

All that is well and good, but how helpful is having a picture of the baby universe? Since Cosmology is the study of the history and evolution of the universe, the answer, unsurprisingly, is pretty helpful.

The CMB photons carry with them information about the early universe, for instance, its temperature. When the CMB was first discovered, it looked to be fairly homogeneous. And so, the temperature of the universe appeared to be constant. This was, and continues to be, a strong evidence in favor of the Big Bang theory which predicts this homogeneity on account of the early universe being extremely hot and dense. As measurements improved, it was found that there are “fluctuations” in the CMB spectrum. These fluctuations are tiny (Order 10^-5 K), but instead of being something that can be glossed over, they form the basis of all precision studies and tests undertaken in cosmology today. Called CMB anisotropies, these correspond to the different colored regions seen in the CMB map. Some parts of the early universe were slightly hotter and some parts were slightly colder. The fact that these anisotropies exist and are not entirely uncorrelated with each other provides deep insights into the content and structure of our universe.

For a taste of how all of this works, a simple example is to study how fluctuations in the CMB give rise to the galaxies and galaxy clusters we see today. In essence, can we predict the location of galaxies or galaxy clusters in our mostly empty universe today starting from a map of the temperature fluctuations which existed billions of years ago? The answer is yes. You see, fluctuations in temperature can be mapped onto fluctuations in the density of the universe. The temperature of a photon can tell us whether it came from a region packed with particles (over-dense) or one which was fairly empty (under-dense). An overdensity in the universe implies a gravitational potential well. More particles mean a stronger gravitational force. The photons escaping from such regions would have to expend energy in order to ‘climb out’ of the potential well. By the time they make it out, they have significantly less energy than what they started out with and hence are colder. In the opposite scenario, underdensities would mean weaker potential wells. The energy lost by the photons would be smaller and so they would be hotter. In short, the blue spots on the CMB map correspond to regions of over-density and the red spots correspond to regions of under-density.

But what do these density fluctuations imply for the future of our universe? Simple. They act as seeds. Overdensities and the resulting gravitational potential well will promote the clustering of matter, eventually leading to the formation of stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and so forth. So, studying CMB anisotropies gives us direct predictions of the structure of the universe today!

This is only one of the many cool things we can do with the CMB. Some sixty-odd years after its discovery, the Cosmic Microwave Background continues to be a rich resource for theorists and experimentalists alike. It has become a touchstone for cosmological models and is responsible for shaping our understanding of the universe. And now you know why.

TTK Outreach: A Beginner’s Guide to Dark Matter

January 17th, 2018 | by

In the post-truth society that we live in it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole of doubting every scientifically held belief. To wonder if NASA is hiding proof of intelligent extra-terrestrial life (they’re not), or if people at CERN are rubbing their hands plotting something nefarious (nope) or whether the Big Bang theory is a Big Bad Lie (it really…isn’t).  But don’t worry, we at TTK have got you covered. Every Wednesday we answer your questions live on Twitter and every whenever-this-author-stops-procrastinating-day we give you a more elaborate explanation of some of the most frequently asked questions.

Today on the agenda: Dark Matter — what it is and why you should be reasonably sure of its existence.

Simply stated, dark matter is a kind of matter that doesn’t interact with light. This means we can’t “see” it in the conventional sense. As you would expect, this makes studying dark matter a bit difficult. But if there is one redeeming quality in humankind, it is that we don’t shy away from the seemingly impossible. Of course, the question remains, if we can’t see dark matter and if it doesn’t interact all that much with other things, how do we know that it exists in the first place? The answer comes to you in four parts.

1. Galaxy Rotation Curves

Some of the earliest indirect evidence of dark matter comes from galaxy rotation curves. A rotation curve is a plot of the orbital speed of stars or visible gas present in a galaxy as a function of their distance from the galactic center. If we assume that the total mass of a galaxy is only composed of normal or ‘visible’ matter, the farther we move away from the center (where most of this mass is concentrated), the lower the orbital speeds should get. This is what happens in the Solar system. Since the Sun accounts for most of the mass percentage, the planets farthest from it revolve slowly as compared to the ones close by.

However, measurements of galactic rotation curves don’t agree with this prediction at all. Instead of decreasing with distance, the orbital speeds of outlying stars appear to either stagnate to a constant value or increase. This points towards the possibility of an additional contribution to the mass of a galaxy from something we can’t see.  Maybe something dark?

2. The Bullet Cluster

Bullet Cluster

Another smoking gun for dark matter is the Bullet Cluster. It is composed of two colliding galaxy clusters, the smaller of which looks like a bullet. Galaxy clusters are a busy place and when they collide, chaos ensues. The stars, far apart as they are, mostly survive the collision without a story to tell (aka pass through).  The particles present in the galactic plasma, however, smash and ricochet and radiate a lot of energy.

Galactic plasma makes up most of the baryonic (visible) mass of a cluster so we can derive a mass-profile for the cluster from this radiated energy. We can also model the mass-profile by studying the lensing effects of clusters. Because massive objects bend light, we can figure out their mass distribution by studying how they distort light from surrounding clusters. If the entire mass of a cluster is just the baryonic mass, these two mass-profiles should coincide. What we find instead, is that they are in exact opposition. In the image above, the pink regions are where the baryonic mass is present. The blue regions show where the total mass of each cluster is concentrated. The zero-overlap between the two implies the presence of a non-baryonic, invisible source of mass. Moreover, it purports that most of the mass of a cluster is non-baryonic or dark. (In fact, roughly 80% of the universe’s matter content is dark!)

Quick Side Note: Keep in mind that the colors are for purely representative purposes! The radiation emitted by the galactic plasma doesn’t fall within the visible spectrum. Similarly, the blue is where the experiments tell us dark matter is concentrated.

3. Large Scale Structure Formation

Sloan Digital Sky Survey

An interesting question to ask cosmologists is why does the universe have a structure? How do we go from a more or less homogeneous particle soup to well-defined clusters of galaxies and then even to clusters of clusters of galaxies? The simple answer to this question is fluctuations. Tiny fluctuations right after the Big Bang lead to overdensities and underdensities of matter. As the universe expands, these fluctuations also grow on account of gravity and we end up with clumps of matter which would eventually form stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, etc. There is one small problem with this line of reasoning though. We know that the early universe was dominated by radiation (or light). And light exerts pressure. So even as the fluctuations would cause matter to clump, radiation would cause it to homogenize. In the end, the fluctuations would be nearly wiped out and we wouldn’t have the kind of structure that we see today.

Dark matter solves this problem. It is massive and it doesn’t interact with light. Formation of dark matter lumps would aid the ‘clumping’ of normal, baryonic matter and give rise to structure despite the homogenizing effect of radiation.

4. Cosmic Microwave Background


The CMB can be regarded as a picture of the baby universe. And though at first glance it might look like random splotches of paint, it provides deep insights into what the universe looked like billions of years ago. Any cosmological model that we create has to be in agreement with this map. By specifying initial conditions — for instance, percentage of matter, dark matter and radiation — we should end up with density fluctuations as observed here. The best model we currently have is the ΛCDM. As you might have guessed, the DM here stands for dark matter. It is only when we include dark matter in the model that our predictions line up with the data.


These are just a few of the reasons we believe that dark matter exists. And even though we haven’t detected anything like a dark matter particle (yet), everywhere we look the universe seems to suggest that it must be there. If you still don’t understand why you should believe in it, (and as a reward for reading these 1000+ words), here’s a (dark) analogy: