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11/18/2018 Formation of the elements/Nucleosynthesis in the early universe

In the beginning...
What we're calling the beginning is the universe when it had a temperature of 100,000,000,000 K.
The universe had already existed for a very small fraction of a second and was dominated by
radiation. There was some matter present, but it was infinitesimal compared to the amount of
radiation. The radiation was in the form of photons, neutrinos (and anti-neutrinos). The matter
present was in the form of electrons, positrons, and a very small concentration of protons and
neutrons (about 1 part per billion). As a result of the extremely high temperature and density, all of
these items acted like particles. This means that they were constantly colliding into each other, just
like a sample of tightly-packed marbles in a container. In the early universe there were no physical
"walls" to contain these objects, but there were so many collisions happening so quickly that the
collisions themselves acted like the walls of the universe. However, these walls were not static. With
the collisions, the size of the universe was increasing. This expansion caused the density of energy to
decrease as it was spread out over a larger volume. This resulted in a decrease in the temperature of
the universe. This process continues to happen today.

These collisions had three major results. The first was that the universe reached a condition called
thermal equilibrium. To give you an idea about what this is we'll look at a glass of water at 40
degrees. The temperature of an object is a reflection of the amount of energy present in that sample
of matter. However, not every molecule present has the energy that corresponds to 40 degrees. The
total energy is actually spread out over a range of energies, so that there are some that have more
energy than the corresponding temperature, and others that have less. This is what it looks like on a

These molecules are constantly colliding with the surrounding molecules and results in exchanges of
energy. This causes the number of molecules at certain energies to change. If something is in thermal
equilibrium, every molecule that changes its energy level will result in another molecule changing its
energy level to replace it (not necessarily in the same collision). In a way, this means that the energy
present in a system is spread out among particles in such a way that the population of molecules at
different energies doesn't change, even though the molecules themselves are constantly changing
energy levels. In the early universe, as a result of the rapid collisions between particles, there was a
state of thermal equilibrium. The reason this is so important is that things in thermal equilibrium can
be quantified. This means that the system can be described by mathematical formulas, and that
predictions can be made as to how the system would would change with time. Therefore, we can
follow the evolution of the early universe through these formulas, even though we weren't there.

The other two consequences of these collisions involve interactions between particles as they collided.

The first interaction to be considered was the constant annihilation and re-creation of electrons and
positrons. One of the most famous scientific discoveries of this century is the equivalence of matter
and energy. The basic concept is that under the proper conditions, energy can be turned into matter,
or vice versa. This is not something common to our experience because of the conditions in which we
now live (it's too cold and there's not enough pressure). But in the early universe, with its high
temperature and density, this was common. Photons were converted into electrons and positrons.
(Known as PAIR PRODUCTION) They could not be converted into heavier particles (protons and
neutrons) because they didn't have enough energy. These electrons and positrons would eventually 1/5
11/18/2018 Formation of the elements/Nucleosynthesis in the early universe

collide with their respective anti-particle, and then be changed back into radiation. (Referred to as

The second interaction was the conversion between protons and neutrons. These heavier atomic
particles were already present In the Beginning. They were continually changing back and forth by
means of the following two reactions:

In the beginning, because of the high energy density, the collisions between particles happened so
rapidly that the proton- and neutron-creating reactions balanced each other out, and the relative
number of protons and neutrons, though small, were equal. But, the equality between protons and
neutrons was broken almost immediately. A neutron is slightly heavier than a proton. Therefore, it
requires a little more energy to change a proton into a neutron than vice versa. Initially this didn't
matter because there was plenty of energy to go around. But, because the energy density was
decreasing as the universe expanded, there was less energy available for each collision. This started
to tip the balance in favor of the proton-forming reactions. This lead to an increase in the number of
protons compared to neutrons, and as the temperature dropped more, this effect became more
exaggerated. (The final numbers will be mentioned later on.)

According to the formulas, at 13.82 seconds after the Beginning, the temperature had dropped to
3,000,000,000 K. At this point there was a drastic reduction in the population of electrons and
positrons. The reason for this was once again the expansion of the universe. As electrons and
positrons were annihilated, the radiation that formed was stretched (specifically its wavelength) by
the growing universe. This reduced the energy carried by the photons below the level which would
allow them to be converted back into electrons and positrons.

Up to this time (just over three minutes past the Beginning) there had been no nucleosynthesis. This
was a result of the high energy density. In order to form atomic nuclei, the nucleons (the scientific
word for protons and neutrons) must be able to collide and stick together. In the early universe the
key reaction was the collision of a proton and a neutron to form a deuterium nucleus (an isotope of
hydrogen). Collisions between protons and neutrons had been happening continuously since the
Beginning, but their energies were too high to allow them to stick together to form deuterium nuclei. 2/5
11/18/2018 Formation of the elements/Nucleosynthesis in the early universe

This prevented further nuclear reactions leading to heavier nuclei. This type of situation where an
intermediate product is the weak link in the overall synthesis is sometimes called a "bottleneck." This
concept also applies in nucleosynthesis of heavier elements. Once the bottleneck is overcome, the
remaining reactions are able to be completed. In the early universe, once the deuterium bottleneck
was cleared, the newly formed deuterium could undergo further nuclear reactions to form Helium.

This could happen by means of two different reaction pathways described below.

Pathway #1

The deuterium nucleus collides with a proton to form He-3, then a neutron to form He-4.

Pathway #2

The deuterium collides first with a neutron to form H-3 (more commonly called tritium), then with a
proton to form He-4. 3/5
11/18/2018 Formation of the elements/Nucleosynthesis in the early universe

He nuclei were the heaviest to form. This was the result of the energy density being too low to allow
heavier nuclei to collide with enough energy to stick. At the time that nucleosynthesis began, the
relative abundance of protons to neutrons was 13% neutrons and 87% protons. When
nucleosynthesis began, all the neutrons present were incorporated into He nuclei. When all the
neutrons were used up, the remaining protons remained as hydrogen nuclei. So, when this first wave
of nucleosynthesis was completed, the universe consisted of roughly 25% He and 75% H (by weight).

Below is a graphical summation of nucleosynthesis in the early universe. The graph shows the relative
abundances of different nuclei (vertical axis) during the first three hours of creation. The horizontal
axis has been labeled using both time (top) and the equivalent temperature (bottom). For those not
used to using a logarithmic scale, a dashed line has been added at the 1% abundance level. Anything
below this line would be less than 1% of the total mass present.

As can be seen from the curves, at the higher temperatures only neutrons and protons exist, with
there being more protons than neutrons. But, as the temperature decreases, there is an increase in
the amount of deuterium and helium nuclei. Just below 1 billion degrees there is a significant increase
in deuterium and helium, and a decrease in the abundance of protons and neutrons. This is the
deuterium bottleneck mentioned previously. This uses up the all the free neutrons and some protons,
and causes the neutron line to drop off, and the proton line to dip (relatively few protons are used
up). The deuterium abundance only increases to a point because it is an intermediate to the
formation of helium. So as it is created, it is quickly consumed to complete the process of helium
nucleosynthesis. Once all the neutrons have been used up, its presence drops off.

The final step in the formation of elements was capture of the proper number of free electrons to
form neutral atoms.

But, the remaining electrons still had plenty of energy, so it took about 700,000 years of cooling until
this was able to occur. The capture of electrons to form atoms resulted in an important change in the
universe. At that moment, without free electrons to interact with the photons present, the universe
became transparent to radiation. This means that the photons were freely able to expand with the 4/5
11/18/2018 Formation of the elements/Nucleosynthesis in the early universe

universe. These photons had high energies, which means that they had short wavelengths. But the
expansion of the universe caused the wavelengths to get stretched out as the universe grew. These
stretched out photon wavelengths are what we now refer to as the Cosmic Microwave Background
(CMB). They are a leftover from the Big Bang. We have been able to measure the intensity of this
background radiation, and it has closely matched that which is predicted from theoretical calculations.
This has been a strong evidence in support of the "Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe.

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