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Marcela Reyna

Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009

Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

Cosmic Microwave Background: Conception to Legacy

0. Introduction
Physicists can rely on mathematics alone to come up with exotic theories on how the universe came
into existence. But even the most exotic theories, such as string theory, needs more than mathematics to
make a it a valid science. Experiments must be carried out and continuously yield the same results.
This is why CMB is so important within cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the universe but it is
difficult to study such a large complex system when we play such a small role in the evolution of it. In
order for progress to be made in a debatable scientific field, we must focus on the best source of hard

Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is the evidence scientists turn to when dealing with astro-
physics. As Paul Erdos stated, “God created two acts of folly. First, He created the universe in a Big
Bang. Second, He was negligent enough to leave behind evidence for this act, in the form of the
microwave radiation.” CMB is believed to hold the answers to questions like: How did the first stars
form? And did Inflation really happen?

CMB is “relic” electromagnetic radiation in a near perfect black body spectrum. CMB has one of the
most important contributions to cosmology in that it is the strongest evidence in favor of the Big Bang/
Standard Cosmological Model. Recent evidence from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe
(WMAP) has led to numerous discoveries in cosmology. In this paper, I will discuss CMB and the
successful mission objectives of WMAP.

1. Overview
If we dissect the term “Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation”, we can obtain an initial
understanding of what CMB is.

Cosmic is defined as: “Of or relating to the cosmos, the extraterrestrial vastness, or the universe in
contrast to the earth alone.”

Microwave is a section of the electromagnetic spectrum with a wavelength ranging from 1 millimeter
to 1 meter.

Background is defined as: “The part of a scene that lies behind objects in the foreground “

Radiation is the transfer of heat by electromagnetic1 waves. All objects at a finite temperature emit
radiation. Every body emits electromagnetic radiation. At ordinary temperatures (below 600 degrees
Celsius) the radiations emitted contains wavelengths that fall within the infrared range. However, when
temperature increases, the wavelengths become shorter which shifts its range in the electromagnetic
spectrum to visible light.

Any charged particle that moves with acceleration will emit electromagnetic radiation. The electric and

magnetic fields are always perpendicular to one another. Together, they form an electromagnetic wave.
Electromagnetic waves do not need a medium to travel and are transversal.
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

Using all these definitions we can define CMB as remnants of heat throughout the universe with
wavelengths ranging from 1 millimeter to 1 meter.

Illustration 1: Electromagnetic Spectrum

2. Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)

To study CMB, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was created by National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Princeton and launched in June 2001 (following
COBE2) with the following major objectives:

a. Provide evidence for the Big Bang Model and the Cosmic Inflation Theory
b. Provide an accurate measurement of the CMB
c. Measure the geometry, content and evolution of the Universe

David T. Wilkinson of Bell Laboratories was the first person to discover CMB; however, it's prediction
was made by Gamow in connection to BBN. Wilkinson helped build both COBE and WMAP which
the latter was ultimately named after him after his premature death.

WMAP has been highly successful in returning valued scientific data which has been used to write
some of the most important scientific papers of the decade. The rest of this paper is dedicated to
reviewing these three major objectives listed above.

3. Evidence for the Big Bang Model and Cosmic Inflation Theory
To understand CMB, we must first understand the role it plays in the Big Bang Model. There are
several models to understand how the universe began; however, the Big Bang Model is the standard
amongst the scientific community today mostly because it accounts for the existence of CMB.

3.1 A brief account of the evolution of the universe

Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was also created by NASA prior to WMAP to also study CMB
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

The Big Bang model states:

a. (Big Bang – Planck Era) Before space existed, there was only energy. This energy was extremely high
(infinite) at an infinitely small point (singularity) which eventually began to form into mass.

b. (Planck Era – Grand Unification Era) Something occurred which triggered the conversion from energy to
matter and in that instant space began to form. At the time of the Big Bang, t=0 sec to t=10^-43 is the
Planck era or Planck epoch and is a period of time where scientists do not know the exact physics of
universe at that point; however scientists believe that there was a symmetry breaking3 which then
caused a period of inflation.

c. (Grand Unification Era – Inflationary Era) From the point of the Grand Unification Epoch to t=10^-33 or
t=10^-32 there was an exponential growth of the universe called inflation where the expansion of the
universe was exponential.

d. (Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN4)) From 10^-2 to around 10^3 seconds.

e. (Matter-Radiation Equality) Occurred at around t = 50,000 years.

f. (Surface Of Last Scattering) Occurred at around t = 380,000 years.

Item f. listed above is particularly important to the formation of CMB and the role it plays in the Big
Bang Model.

3.2 CMB Formation: The Last Scattering Surface

CMB was produced by Thompson scattering. Thompson scattering is an elastic5 collision that occurs
when a charged particle collides with electromagnetic radiation. When the particles collide, they do not
merge to form a larger particle, instead they bound off of one another sometimes creating a shower of
other particles. When this collision happens, the charged particle is accelerated by the radiation which
in turn causes the charged particle to emit radiation. When an electric charge is accelerated, it generates
a magnetic field. The magnetic field then induces an electric field (Faraday’s Effect/Induction). When
the electric field and magnetic field are oscillating at the same frequency, electromagnetic waves are
produced (Maxwell's Equations). This is the nature of light which is described by Maxwell’s equations
in that when you have a moving electric field, a magnetic field is induced and when you have a moving
magnetic field, an electric field is induced.

During the time that the universe was an ionized plasma, this type of scattering was constantly
occurring. Because plasma is defined as a state of matter where electrons are not bound to atoms, this
makes the plasma highly charged or electrically conductive. The electron density was so high during
this phase of the universe that the mean free path of a photon was small (very likely to collide with a
free electron). It was not until the universe expanded and cooled to a sufficient temperature that helium
Some scientists believe that all the forces were unified and by breaking this symmetry, inflation started.
BBN-Big Bang Nucleosynthesis last about seventeen minutes from 3 minutes after the Big Bang until 20 minutes after
the Big Bang and during this time the production of nuclei took place (not including H-1).
Elastic collision is when the total final energy equals the total initial energy, Ef=Ei
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

and hydrogen formation occurred. This “sufficient” temperature is called the recombination
temperature which is roughly T = 0.3 eV = 3500K. It was at this time that the constant scattering
seized, this is called the last scattering surface and it was the time when the radiation was polarized for
the last time creating a “wall of light” which we see today as the CMB. This is also referred to as the
decoupling of matter from photons which basically means photons no longer scatter with matter
because the universe has expanded, causing the free electron density to decrease and causing the free
path of a photon to increase to the size of the “horizon distance” or size of the observable universe.
Before the recombination temperature was reached, the universe had a higher energy distribution of
radiation (relativistic particles such as photons and neutrinos). But at the recombination temperature,
the matter- radiation equality was reached. The Matter-Radiation equality is when the energy
distribution of radiation equals that of matter in the universe. After this point when the universe
continued to expand causing the temperature to drop, our universe became matter dominated. Any
radiation that happened prior to “the last scattering surface” cannot be viewed today, therefore the
CMB we see is from the time of the last scattering surface.

3.3 Determining the Recombination Time and Decoupling Temperature

Using what we know from the previous section, we can determine the recombination time and
decoupling temperature by taking recent data from WMAP on CMB and plugging it into a few
relations. Because the universe is expanding, it is moving a way from us which we see as a redshift z.

Given Variables:
R- Scale Factor
R0 - Scale Factor at time of recombination
T- Temperature of radiation today
T0 -Temperature at time of reconfiguration
z- redshift
btzm = Boltzmann constant = 8.617 * 10^-5 eV K^-1
Given Relations:
R ~ t^2/3

Use of Scale factor to determine the Redshift:

R0/R = lambda0/lambda = 1+z

Establish relationship between Temperature and the Scale Factor

R = 1/T => R0/R = T/T0

Plug in known values to determine the redshift.

T/T0 = 1 + z = .3eV/(2.73 K * btzm) =1300

The Boltzmann constant is the conversion factor between eV and K.

Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

Establish relationship between time and the Scale Factor

R ~ t^2/3
trec = t0/(t^2/3) = t0(R/R0)^3/1=t0(T0/Trec) = t0/(1+zrec)^3/2=
1.4X10^10 years/(1300^3/2)=300,0000 years

One would use a similar set of steps to determine the time of decoupling:
tdec=t0(T0/Tdec)^3/2=t0/(1+zdec)^3/2 = 380000 years

The time the photons decoupled from matter is the time of the last scattering surface.

3.3 Linearly Polarized CMB

CMB is linearly polarized. This means that the Electric field component of the electromagnetic wave is
always parallel to a specific axis. The idea that CMB is linearly polarized ties in with earlier discussion
in CMB Formation: The Last Scattering Surface on Thompson Scattering and Faraday’s effect.

Not all of the CMB is polarized, and this is shown by the anisotropies in the measurement. What
happens is that when for example two photons are about to collide with an electron, say one photon is
coming from the x axis from right to left, the other photon is coming on the y-axis from up to down and
the electron is at the origin; however, it had been moving on the z-axis from back to forward. When the
two photons hit the electron, the electron is accelerated and it's electric field is

3.4 CMB used as evidence to Inflationary Theory

If we can detect inflationary/primordial gravitational waves in the CMB, this would be direct evidence
of the Era of Inflation. Electromagnetic waves are moving disturbances of an electromagnetic field,
similarly gravitational waves are moving disturbances of a gravitational field. An inflationary
gravitation wave could range from 1 cm to 10^23 km which is roughly the size of the observable
universe. The stronger the wave, the longer the wavelength. The strength of the wave depends on the
rate which the universe expanded during the inflationary era. Gravitation waves are believed to stretch
the plasma of the early universe leaving traces of the oscillatory motions in the CMB. This can be
found by looking for Doppler shifts in the CMB. Red Shifts would indicate gravitational waves moving
away from our galaxy while blue shifts indicate gravitational waves moving towards our galaxy. If a
gravitational wave from the Big Bang were discovered in the CMB, this would be the oldest relic in our
This paper does not serve as a means to explain gravitational waves, inflation or general relativity but
instead to note some of the important results which could come out of experiments and research on

4. An Accurate Measurement of CMB

CMB radiation is in a near perfect blackbody spectrum. A perfect blackbody is a body which absorbs
all light and emits none. A blackbody emits thermal radiation or blackbody radiation which is
temperature dependent only (the color and shape of the blackbody does not matter). CMB has been
measured to be 2.725 K.

If we imagine the universe as it is today densely packed together at t=10^-43 after the Big Bang, we
can imagine that body as a blackbody. Inside the body, there is more radiation (photons) than matter
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

(Baryons). The matter is an ionized plasma so there are free electrons and no formed atoms. The
radiation then interactions with the free electrons via elastic scattering or Thompson scattering. No
radiation is emitted from the blackbody; however, it is expanding and a point is reached where there is
no longer collisions between photons and free electrons (as described by section CMB Formation: The
Last Scattering Surface). After the surface of last scattering, the universe continued to expand (as it still
is today) leaving behind the radiation we see today as CMB with a blackbody spectrum.

5. Geometry, Content and Evolution of the Universe
By studying data from WMAP, we can say the following is true or is possible (needs further research)
about the universe.

5.1 The Universe is Isotropic

CMB is used to determine the geometry of the universe. The CMB appears to indicate that the universe
is isotropic6. . WMAP has measured the CMB to be 2.725K and independent of direction, meaning no
matter where the temperature is measured, the same result is given. The fact that the radiation measured
is almost the same from every direction tells us that the universe is nearly uniform (isotropic) which is
evidence in favor of the Big Bang Model. However, there are also anisotropies measured in the CMB.
There are two types of anisotropies, one happened before the surface of last scattering surface
(primary) and the other happened after the last scattering surface (secondary).

The primary temperature anisotropies in the CMB occurred due to scattering. Most of the anisotropies
are so small that on the larger scale, it doesn't really effect the overall fact that the universe is isotropic.
An analogy often used with this is if we compare our galaxy to an atom in an ideal gas. Although the
distribution is not entirely perfect, on the grand scale, the differences are so small that they're negligible
and such is our situation in the universe.

5.2 A Dipole Anisotropy Exists

Measurement of CMB shows that the temperature is one part in one thousand hotter in one direction in
the sky than in the opposite. This is due to the motion of the earth through the CMB and is called dipole
anisotropy. As the earth is moving around the sun, we are also moving through the CMB and so we are
both moving away from and moving towards the CMB depending on the direction you are looking
from. If you are looking in the direction where the earth is moving away from the CMB then there is a
red shift and the region/radiation appears colder; however if you are looking towards the CMB then
there is a blue shift and the region/radiation appears hotter.

Besides one side of the map being colder than the other, there is also a large cold spot centered on
Galactic coordinates b=-57 degrees, l=209 degrees with a radius of approximately 5 degrees. Scientists
do not yet know exactly why this is. Speculations have been made that it's a topological defect, an axis
of evil, voids. However, there is yet to be a well supported theory.

5.3 Content of the Universe

Physicists have been able to determine what the universe is currently made up of and what it was made
up of around the time of the last scattering surface. Evidence shows that the universe is primarily made

Same measured temperature, independent of direction.
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper

up of Dark Matter. Although this topic is interesting, it is out of scope of this paper.

6. The Future of CMB

WMAP data has been spawning paper after paper of new discoveries. From determining a precise
measurement of cosmological parameters to strong support of the Big Bang model and one day further
support of the cosmic inflation theory, CMB results have been endless. We are now able to gain a better
understanding of our universe and begin to scientifically answer the questions humans have been
asking themselves for centuries.

WMAP 5-year Cosmological Interpretation, Astrophysical Journal
Echoes from The Big Bang, Scientific American
A Singular conundrum: How odd is our Universe?, Science AAAS
A Texture in the sky?, Science AAAS
A Cosmic Microwave Background Feature consistent with a cosmic Texture, Science AAAS
Untangling the Celestial Strings, Science AAAS
The Cosmic Rosetta Stone, Science AAAS
The Universe Measured with a Comb, AAAS
Cosmological Birefringence induced by neutrino current, NRC Research Press
Astroparticle Physics, Claus Grupen
Modern Physics, Tipler
The Road to Reality
Marcela Reyna
Astroparticle Physics Spring 2009
Cosmic Microwave Background Research Paper