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Cosmic Background Radiation

"The cosmic microwave background (CMB, CMBR), in Big Bang cosmology, is electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe, also known as "relic radiation". The CMB is faint cosmic background radiation filling all space. It 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 (the background) 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."

History of Satellite Measurements of CBR

The “egg” image below is a result of two years of measurments of the cosmic background radition by a European Space Agency satellite. The long time is needed to add up signal by repeated "exposures," while the incohenent thermal noise inherent in any measurement, being random, adds at a slower rate. This is the highest resolution image of three satellites, the first two being Amerian. The colors are false although this is as much a photograph as any taken with a digital camera. The color variations correspond to variations in temperature of the CRB as small as 20 millionths of a degree and reveal a great deal about the structure of the universe. The image is considered highly reliable evidence of the big bang and is the basis of much theoritical study of the early universe.

Who Cares?

Having received this comment innumberable times from my wife I thought I should address it directly. It is a good question, and when I first began thinking about it in the course of writing about global warming I had somewhat the same reaction. What difference does it make? Well, the answer is everything and nothing.

As long as the earth was circling the sun and the seasons were reliably changing it was easy to say it did not matter.

However, it always bugged me a bit that something so collosal as the birth of everything (ten thousand trillion, trillion stars) from something a trillionith trillionith the size of an atom must carry something like religious or philosophical or mystic weight.

Setting god aside, we have a few giant unknowns: why we exist, why the big bang happened, and what does death mean. There are others but either of these could occupy a lifetime or two of inquiry. And there is fourth: what is "life?" Not what is the meaning of life, but what is it? (The question will make more sense after I propose an answer.)

As to "who cares?" I will say I do for the simple reason that my life is intertwined with something more mindboggling than I can possibly comprehend, so I am curious why I am involved with this in any way. And I am curious how humans and the earth are one of the products of all this. Do I have answers? Mostly, but not entirely, no.

Understanding climate change must begin with an attempt to understand humankind. And understanding humankind must begin witn an attempt to understand the creation.

My feeling has been, from the time I started thinking about this 15 years ago that part of what makes the earth so precious is the nature of its origin.

Physists say (and have said to me personally) that there are millions of inhabited planets but setti (the search for extraterriestrial intelligence) has been listening using modern technology since 1980, detecting no meaningful signal. An important part of this may be the large number of characteristics of a planet necessary for the birth and life of humankind.

I would venture to say the a reasonable knowledge of the birth of the universe as scientifically understood is a tiny fraction of the population. This may seem insignificant since it is so extreme that there is an inclination to just dismiss it as the imagination of a few scientists. Yet evidence for it is clear, one piece

The universe was born in what is customarily known as the big bang (or what I prefer to call the "Grand Signularity" and untimately leads to humankind with brains capable of reconstrtufting the process (with some exceeptiong) the elements of this process (illutration at right.

This timeline and its steps are something most are not familiar with. However, everything, including space and time begin in the singulity and that includes the energy that eventually turns to mass and after about 10.8 billion years ends as human beings.

It also leads to the rest of the universe (weighing on the order of 1044kg, yet the singularity itself was the smallest thing that can exist being the length of the Plank distance and lasting the Plank time, each being a single quanta of mass and time.

Now comes the crux of the knowledge divides.

Does it mean anything to know that eveything there is was born in a space 10-34 cm in 10-44 seconds. For most people the answer is no, and for most people carrying on with life without this knowledge works just fine and I believe that is ompletely legimimate. After all it has gone on ever since the idea of god was conscieved. However, once it is known, and especially in the context of an endangered planet, it is so extreme that it makes me (at least) review my idea of what the existence of this planet means, and subsequently what existence means.

But when you are afraid that something really important may be taken from you, suddenly matters what it is and where it came from.

A spiral gallery similiar to our own Milky Way which cannot be photographed from this angle since we are locaated in one of the apiral arms.

From the Wikipedia article (click on the image to go to the article):

"The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System, with the name describing the galaxy's appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye. The term Milky Way is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxías kýklos, "milky circle"). From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from its outer rim. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610. Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe. Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies."

I had decided that the climate was a lost cause, until I read of the 400,000 people working on the Apollo program, an utter miracle of devotion, commitment and capability combined with an intensity of effort that boggles the mind.

For a long time I considered humanity the result of the not especially orderly, but definitely preordained process that led from the big bang to humanity.

As I thought about it once the singularity had done its work, the rest seemed inevitable. Energy leads to quarks. Quarks beome protons and neutrons. With gravity these become stars and then certain stars become supernovae.

Quoting from Wikipedia: "... Supernovae are a major source of elements in the interstellar medium from oxygen through to rubidium."

That is all there is to it, except now besides hydrogen and helium we have all the stable elements in the periodic table. It feels to me like magic has happened, for now anything can be created, or perhaps, born. With just helium and hydrogen, the universe is a bore. With oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and all the other stable elements we can make planets and pianos. Goats and golf balls. Green grass and sand. All the elements are there. I cannot help but feel the excitement of discovering worlds of many different kinds.

And of course we can make people, and societies and civilizations. The periodic table is the greatest gift we could receive. Except for "one" thing. I suspect, no I am certain that in the grand singularity was a giant set of constraints and infinite possibilities.

When I speak of this to others I often get a ho hum, as if that is just the way it is and what is the fuss all about. I remember Einstein discovered relatively with pencil and papar and a question: what does it mean for two things to happen at the same time. An utterly simple question that revealed so much.

The “Creation” I refer to above is the result of the appearance 11.75 billion years ago of eveerything out of nothing, neither space nor time had existed. A singularity is the smallest and shortest-lived thing that can be gave us the universe.

Strong evidence for the big bang is the cosmic background radiation, the very weak afterglow of the big bang itself (see picture caption above).

Two scientists from Bell Labs detected an almost perfectly uniform very weak microwave radiation that proved to be the cosmic background radiation.

The big bang was the smallest thing that can be (trillions of times smaller than an atom) appearing from nothing (nothing being no space and no time) and bringing to us a universe of 1022 stars.

It seems to me that the future of this planet needs and deserves this context, and I only barely touch on it here. Clicking on either of the two images above will link you to larger parts of the story. Clicking on

The Big Bang will bring you much more.

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