Tag Archives: cosmic microwave background

Mini Black Holes as Dark Matter?

Ancient Voyager Satellite Says No for the Smallest Possible

Hawking Radiation

Black holes can come in all sizes from about a billion tons up to billions of solar masses.

Because isolated black holes are difficult to detect, especially smaller mass ones, they have long been considered as candidates for dark matter, invoked to explain the extra gravitational accelerations measured at the outskirts of galaxies.

Stephen Hawking showed that black holes radiate low energy particles very slowly due to quantum thermodynamic effects. So the very lowest mass black holes evaporate away due to Hawking radiation during the life of the universe.

Voyager Satellites

The Voyager satellites were launched in 1977 and NASA has determined that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012. This is the boundary for the solar wind, which holds back a large portion of galactic cosmic rays. Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause last year.

Forty-two years after launch, and having toured Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these remarkable satellites are still returning valuable data about the outer reaches of the Solar System.

What is the connection between black holes, dark matter, and Voyager 1?

In the early universe, large numbers of so-called primordial black holes (PBHs) of various sizes may have formed. The question arises, could these be the primary component of dark matter?

Primordial Black Holes as Dark Matter Candidates

The detection of gravitational waves from half a dozen mergers of black holes of intermediate mass has given new energy to this idea. Also, there is the continued failure to detect exotic particle candidates for dark matter in Earth-bound laboratory experiments.

A team of Japanese astronomers, searching for microlensing effects with stars in the Andromeda galaxy, have ruled out small black holes in the range of 10^{20} grams up to about 3 times the Earth’s mass. has more detail.

Constraints from other lensing experiments (MACHO, EROS) and the cosmic microwave background appear to rule out more massive primordial black holes as the explanation for most dark matter.

What about the tiniest allowable black holes, from about 4 \cdot 10^{14} gm (smaller ones have evaporated already) up to 10^{20} gm?

Voyager 1 Constraints

With a recent analysis researchers at the Laboratoire de Physique Theorique et Hautes Energies (LPTHE) show that the Voyager 1 satellite now rules out primordial black holes with masses below 10^{17} gm as well, as the source of most dark matter. And it is because of the Hawking radiation that we do not detect.

Although Hawking radiation has never been detected, it is on very firm theoretical grounds that it should exist. Everything, including strange objects like black holes, has a quantum nature.

Smaller black holes radiate at higher temperatures and have shorter lifetimes. The Hawking radiation temperature is

T = 1.1  GeV / (m/10^{13} gm)

Thus for an m = 10^{16} gm black hole the Hawking temperature is about 1 MeV. (GeV or giga electron-Volt is a billion eV and around the rest mass energy of a proton, and an MeV or mega electron-Volt is a million eV and about twice the rest mass energy of an electron.)

Since these temperatures are in the MeV range, only very light particles such as neutrinos, electrons, and positrons would be emitted by the PBHs.

Figure 1 from the Boudaud and Cirelli paper shows the observed combined electron and positron cosmic ray flux from Voyager 1 in the energy range from 3 MeV to 50 MeV. It also shows results in the 1 to 10 GeV range from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2 experiment on the International Space Station (located well inside the heliopause). Two different models of how the energetic particles propagate through the galaxy are used.

Smallest possible Black Holes ruled out

PBHs with 10^{15} or 10^{16} grams are clearly ruled out; they would inject far too many energetic electron and positron cosmic rays into the interstellar medium that Voyager 1 has entered.

The authors state that no more than 0.1% of dark matter can be due to PBHs of mass less than 10^{16} grams (10 billion tons).

In Figure 1, a monotonic mass distribution was assumed (PBHs all have the same mass). They also consider various log-normal mass distributions and similar constraints on the allowable PBH mass were found.

What about at 10^{17} grams and above? Most mass regions are ruled out.

The mass region above 5 \cdot 10^{17} grams and up to about 10^{20} grams has been excluded as a primary source of dark matter from PBHs by a 2012* result from Barnacka, Glicenstein, and Moderski. They searched for gravitational lensing effects upon gamma ray burst sources due to intervening black holes.

So vast ranges of possible PBH masses are ruled out. However the mass region from 3 \cdot 10^{16} up to 5 \cdot 10^{17} grams remains a possibility as a dark matter hideout for PBHs.

*The same year that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, coincidentally


Boudaud, M. And Cirelli, M. 2019 “Voyager 1 electrons and positrons further constrain primordial black holes as dark matter”

Barnacka, A., Glicenstein, J.-F., Moderski, R. 2012 “New constraints on primordial black holes abundance from femtolensing of gamma-ray bursts”


No Dark Energy?

Dark Energy is the dominant constituent of the universe, accounting for 2/3 of the mass-energy balance at present.

At least that is the canonical concordance cosmology, known as the ΛCDM or Lambda – Cold Dark Matter model. Here Λ is the symbol for the cosmological constant, the simplest, and apparently correct (according to most cosmologists), model for dark energy.

Models of galaxy formation and clustering use N-body simulations run on supercomputers to model the growth of structure (galaxy groups and clusters) in the universe. The cosmological parameters in these models are varied and then the models are compared to observed galaxy catalogs at various redshifts, representing different ages of the universe.

It all works pretty well except that the models assume a fully homogeneous universe on the large scale. While the universe is quite homogeneous for scales above a billion light-years, there is a great deal of filamentary web-like structure at scales above clusters, including superclusters and voids, as you can easily see in this map of our galactic neighborhood.


Galaxies and clusters in our neighborhood. IPAC/Caltech, by Thomas Jarrett“Large Scale Structure in the Local Universe: The 2MASS Galaxy Catalog”, Jarrett, T.H. 2004, PASA, 21, 396

Well why not take that structure into account when doing the modeling? It has long been known that more local inhomogeneities such as those seen here might influence the observational parameters such as the Hubble expansion rate. Thus even at the same epoch, the Hubble parameter could vary from location to location.

Now a team from Hungary and Hawaii have modeled exactly that, in a paper entitled “Concordance cosmology without dark energy” . They simulate structure growth while estimating the local values of expansion parameter in many regions as their model evolves.

Starting with a completely matter dominated (Einstein – de Sitter) cosmology they find that they can reasonably reproduce the average expansion history of the universe — the scale factor and the Hubble parameter — and do that somewhat better than the Planck -derived canonical cosmology.

Furthermore, they claim that they can explain the tension between the Type Ia supernovae value of the Hubble parameter (around 73 kilometers per second per Megaparsec) and that determined from the Planck satellite observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation (67 km/s/Mpc).

Future surveys of higher resolution should be able to distinguish between their model and ΛCDM, and they also acknowledge that their model needs more work to fully confirm consistency with the cosmic microwave background observations.

Meanwhile I’m not ready to give up on dark energy and the cosmological constant since supernova observations, cosmic microwave background observations and the large scale galactic distribution (labeled BAO in the figure below) collectively give a consistent result of about 70% dark energy and 30% matter. But their work is important, something that has been a nagging issue for quite a while and one looks forward to further developments.


Measurements of Dark Energy and Matter content of Universe

Dark Energy and Matter content of Universe

WIMPs or MACHOs or Primordial Black Holes

A decade or more ago, the debate about dark matter was, is it due to WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) or MACHOs (massive compact halo objects)? WIMPs would be new exotic particles, while MACHOs are objects formed from ordinary matter but very hard to detect due to their limited electromagnetic radiation emission.


Schwarzenegger (MACHO), not Schwarzschild (Black Holes)

Image credit: Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0

Candidates in the MACHO category such as white dwarf or brown dwarf stars have been ruled out by observational constraints. Black holes formed in the very early universe, dubbed primordial black holes, were thought by many to have been ruled out as well, at least across many mass ranges, such as between the mass of the Moon and the mass of the Sun.

The focus during recent years, and most of the experimental searches, has shifted to WIMPs or other exotic particles (axions or sterile neutrinos primarily). But the WIMPs, which were motivated by supersymmetric extensions to the Standard Model of particle physics, have remained elusive. Most experiments have only placed stricter and stricter limits on their possible abundance and interaction cross-sections. The Large Hadron Collider has not yet found any evidence for supersymmetric particles.

Have primordial black holes (PBHs) as the explanation for dark matter been given short shrift? The recent detections by the LIGO instruments of two gravitational wave events, well explained by black hole mergers, have sparked new interest. A previous blog entry addressed this possibility:

The black holes observed in these events have masses in a range from about 8 to about 36 solar masses, and they could well be primordial.

There are a number of mechanisms to create PBHs in the early universe, prior to the very first second and the beginning of Big Bang nucleosynthesis. At any era, if there is a total mass M confined within a radius R, such that

2*GM/R > c^2 ,

then a black hole will form. The above equation defines the Schwarzschild limit (G is the gravitational constant and c the speed of light). A PBH doesn’t even have to be formed from matter whether ordinary or exotic; if the energy and radiation density is high enough in a region, it can also result in collapse to a black hole.


Cosmic Strings

Image credit: David Daverio, Université de Genève, CSCS supercomputer simulation data

The mechanisms for PBH creation include:

  1. Cosmic string loops – If string theory is correct the very early universe had very long strings and many short loops of strings. These topological defects intersect and form black holes due to the very high density at their intersection points. The black holes could have a broad range of masses.
  2. Bubble collisions from symmetry breaking – As the very early universe expanded and cooled, the strong force, weak force and electromagnetic force separated out. Bubbles would nucleate at the time of symmetry breaking as the phase of the universe changed, just as bubbles form in water as it boils to the surface. Collisions of bubbles could lead to high density regions and black hole formation. Symmetry breaking at the GUT scale (for the strong force separation) would yield BHs of mass around 100 kilograms. Symmetry breaking of the weak force from the electromagnetic force would yield BHs with a mass of around our Moon’s mass ~ 10^25 kilograms.
  3. Density perturbations – These would be a natural result of the mechanisms in #1 and #2, in any case. When observing the cosmic microwave background radiation, which dates from a time when the universe was only 380,000 years old, we see density perturbations at various scales, with amplitudes of only a few parts in a million. Nevertheless these serve as the seeds for the formation of the first galaxies when the universe was only a few hundred million years old. Some perturbations could be large enough on smaller distance scales to form PBHs ranging from above a solar mass to as high as 100,000 solar masses.

For a PBH to be an effective dark matter contributor, it must have a lifetime longer than the age of the universe. BHs radiate due to Hawking radiation, and thus have finite lifetimes. For stellar mass BHs, the lifetimes are incredibly long, but for smaller BHs the lifetimes are much shorter since the lifetime is proportional to the cube of the BH mass. Thus a minimum mass for PBHs surviving to the present epoch is around a trillion kilograms (a billion tons).

Carr et al. (paper referenced below) summarized the constraints on what fraction of the matter content of the universe could be in the form of black holes. Traditional black holes, of several solar masses, created by stellar collapse and detectable due to their accretion disks, do not provide enough matter density. Neither do supermassive black holes of over a million solar masses found at the centers of most galaxies. PBHs may be important in seeding the formation of the supermassive black holes, however.

Limits on the PBH abundance in our galaxy and its halo (which is primarily composed of dark matter) are obtained from:

  1. Cosmic microwave background measurements
  2. Microlensing measurements (gravitational lensing)
  3. Gamma-ray background limits
  4. Neutral hydrogen clouds in the early universe
  5. Wide binaries (disruption limits)

Microlensing surveys such as MACHO and EROS have searched for objects in our galactic halo that act as gravitational lenses for light originating from background stars in the Magellanic Clouds or the Andromeda galaxy. The galactic halo is composed primarily of dark matter.

A couple of dozen of objects with less than a solar mass have been detected.  Based on these surveys the fraction of dark matter which can be PBHs with less than a solar mass is 10% at most. The constraints from 1 solar mass up to 30 solar masses are weaker, and a PBH explanation for most of the galactic halo mass remains possible.

Similar studies conducted toward distant quasars and compact radio sources address the constraint in the supermassive black hole domain, apparently ruling out an explanation due to PBHs with from 1 million to 100 million solar masses.

Lyman-alpha clouds are neutral hydrogen clouds (Lyman-alpha is an important ultraviolet absorption line for hydrogen) that are found in the early universe at redshifts above 4. Simulations of the effect of PBH number density fluctuations on the distribution of Lyman-alpha clouds appear to limit the PBH contribution to dark matter for a characteristic PBH mass above 10,000 solar masses.

Distortions in the cosmic microwave background are expected if PBHs above 10 solar masses contributed substantially to the dark matter component. However these limits assume that PBH masses do not change. Merging and accretion events after the recombination era, when the cosmic microwave background was emitted, can allow a spectrum of PBH masses that were initially less than a solar mass before recombination evolve to one dominated by PBHs of tens, hundreds and thousands of solar masses today. This could be a way around some of the limits that appear to be placed by the cosmic microwave background temperature fluctuations.

Thus it appears could be a window in the region 30 to several thousand solar masses for PBHs as an explanation of cold dark matter.

As the Advanced LIGO gravitational wave detectors come on line, we expect many more black hole merger discoveries that will help to elucidate the nature of primordial black holes and the possibility that they contribute substantially to the dark matter component of our Milky Way galaxy and the universe.


B. Carr, K. Kohri, Y. Sendouda, J. Yokoyama, 2010 “New cosmological constraints on primordial black holes”

S. Cleese and J. Garcia-Bellido, 2015 “Massive Primordial Black Holes from Hybrid Inflation as Dark Matter and the Seeds of Galaxies”

P. Frampton, 2015 “The Primordial Black Hole Mass Range”

P. Frampton, 2016 “Searching for Dark Matter Constituents with Many Solar Masses”

Green, A., 2011 “Primordial Black Hole Formation”

P. Pani, and A. Loeb, 2014 “Exclusion of the remaining mass window for primordial black holes as the dominant constituent of dark matter”

S. Perrenod, 2016

NEW BOOK just released:

S. Perrenod, 2016, 72 Beautiful Galaxies (especially designed for iPad, iOS; ages 12 and up)


The Supervoid

The largest known structure in the universe goes by the name of the Supervoid. It is an enormously large under-dense region about 1.8 billion light-years in extent. Voids (actually low density regions) in galaxy and cluster density have been mapped over several decades.

The cosmic microwave background radiation map from the Planck satellite and earlier experiments is extremely uniform. The temperature is about 2.7 Kelvins everywhere in the universe at present. There are small microKelvin scale fluctuations due to primordial density perturbations. The over-dense regions grow over cosmic timescales to become galaxies, groups and clusters of galaxies, and superclusters made of multiple clusters. Under-dense regions have fewer galaxies and groups per unit volume than the average.

The largest inhomogeneous region detected in the cosmic microwave background map is known as the Cold Spot and has a very slightly lower temperature by about 70 microKelvins (a microKelvin being only a millionth of a degree). It may be partly explained by a supervoid of radius 320 Megaparsecs, or around 1 billion light-years radius.

Superclusters heat cosmic microwave background photons slightly when they pass through, if there is significant dark energy in the universe. Supervoids cool the microwave background photons slightly. The reason is that, once dark energy becomes significant, during the second half of the universe’s expansion to date, it begins to smooth out superclusters and supervoids. It pushes the universe back towards greater uniformity while accelerating the overall expansion.

A photon will gain energy (blueshift) when it heads into a supercluster on its way to the Earth. This is an effect of general relativity. And as it leaves the other side of the supercluster as it continues its journey, it will lose energy (redshift) as it climbs out of the gravitational potential well. But while it is passing through the supercluster, that structure is spreading out due to the Big Bang overall expansion, and its gravitational potential is weakening. So the redshift or energy loss is smaller than the original energy gain or blueshift. So net-net, photons gain energy passing through a supercluster.

The opposite happens with a supervoid. Photons lose energy on the way in. They gain  energy on the way out, but less than they lost. Net-net photons lose energy, become colder, when passing through supervoids. Now all of this is relative to the overall redshift that all photons experience as they travel from the Big Bang last scattering surface to the Earth. During each period that the universe doubles in size, the Big Bang radiation doubles in wavelength, or halves in temperature.

In a newly published paper titled “Detection of a Supervoid aligned with the Cold Spot in the Cosmic Microwave Background”, astronomers looked at the distribution of galaxies in the direction of the well-established Cold Spot. The supervoid core redshift distance is in the range z = 0.15 to z = 0.25, corresponding to a distance of roughly 2 to 3 billion light-years from Earth.

They find a reduction in galaxy density of about 20%, and of dark matter around 14%, in the supervoid, relative to the overall average density values in the universe. The significance of the detection is high, around 5 standard deviations. The center of the low density region is well aligned with the position of the Cold Spot in the galactic Southern Hemisphere.

Both the existence of this supervoid and its alignment with the Cold Spot are highly significant. The chance of the two being closely aligned to this degree is calculated as just 1 chance in 20,000. The image below is Figure 2 from the authors’ paper and maps the density of galaxies in the left panel and the temperature differential of the microwave background radiation in the right panel. The white dot in the middle of each panel marks the center of the Cold Spot in the cosmic microwave background.


A lower density of galaxies is indicated by a blue color in the left panel. Red and orange colors denote a higher density of galaxies. The right panel shows slightly lower temperature of the cosmic microwave background in blue, and slightly higher temperature in red.

The authors have calculated the expected temperature reduction due to the supervoid; using a first-order model it is about 20 microKelvins. While this is not sufficient to explain the entire Cold Spot temperature decrease, it is a significant portion of the overall 70 microKelvin reduction.

Dark Energy is gradually smearing out the distinction between superclusters and supervoids. Dark Energy has come to dominate the universe’s mass-energy balance fairly recently, since about 5 billion years ago. If there is no change in the Dark Energy density, over many billions of years it will push all the galaxies so far apart from one another that no other galaxies will be detectable from our Milky Way.


I. Szapudi et al, 2015 M.N.R.A.S., Volume 450, Issue 1, p. 288, “Detection of a supervoid aligned with the cold spot of the cosmic microwave background” –

S. Perrenod and M. Lesser, 1980, P.A.S.P. 91:764, “A Redshift Survey of a High-Multiplicity Supercluster”


Planck Mission Full Results Confirm Canonical Cosmology Model

Dark Matter, Dark Energy values refined

The Planck satellite, launched by the European Space Agency, made observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) for a little over 4 years, beginning in August, 2009 until October, 2013.

Preliminary results based on only the data obtained over the first year and a quarter of operation, and released in 2013, established high confidence in the canonical cosmological model. This ΛCDM (Lambda-Cold Dark Matter) model is of a topologically flat universe, initiated in an inflationary Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago and dominated by dark energy (the Λ component), and secondarily by cold dark matter (CDM). Ordinary matter, of which stars, planets and human beings are composed, is the third most important component from a mass-energy standpoint. The amount of dark energy is over twice the mass-energy equivalent of all matter combined, and the dark matter is well in excess of the ordinary matter component.


This general model had been well-established by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), but the Planck results have provided much greater sensitivity and confidence in the results.

Now a series of 28 papers have been released by the Planck Consortium detailing results from the entire mission, with over three times as much data gathered. The first paper in the series, Planck 2015 Results I, provides an overview of these results. Papers XIII and XIV detail the cosmological parameters measured and the findings on dark energy, while several additional papers examine potential departures from a canonical cosmological model and constraints on inflationary models.

In particular they find that:

Ωb*h²  = .02226 to within 1%.

In this expression Ωb is the baryon (basically ordinary matter) mass-energy fraction (fraction of total-mass energy in ordinary matter) and h = H0/100. H0 is the Hubble constant which measures the expansion rate of the universe, and indirectly, its age. The best value for H0 is 67.8 kilometers/sec/Megaparsec  (millions of parsecs, where 1 parsec = 3.26 light-years). H0 has an uncertainty of about 1.3% (two standard deviations). In this case h = .678 and the expression above becomes:

Ωb = .048, with uncertainty around 3% of its value. Thus, just under 5% of the mass-energy density in the universe is in ordinary matter.

The cold matter density is measured to be:

Ωc*h²  = .1186 with uncertainty less than 2% and with the h value substituted we have Ωc = .258 with similar uncertainty.

Since the radiation density in the universe is known to be very low, the remainder of the mass-energy fraction is from dark energy,

Ωe = 1 – .048 – .258 = .694

So in approximate percentage terms the Planck 2015 results indicate 69% dark energy, 26% dark matter, and 5% ordinary matter as the mass-energy balance of the universe. These results are essentially the same as the ratios found from the preliminary results reported in 2013. It is to be emphasized that these are present-day values of the constituents. The components evolve differently as the universe expands. Dark energy is manifested with its current energy density in every new unit of volume as the universe continues to expand, while the average dark matter and ordinary matter densities decrease inversely as the volume grows. This implies that in the past, dark energy was less important, but it will dominate more and more as the universe continues to expand.

Why is dark energy produced as the universe expands? The simplest explanation is that it is the irreducible quantum energy of empty space, of the vacuum. Empty space – space with no particles whatsoever – still has fields (scalar fields, in particular) permeating it, and these fields have a minimum energy. It also has ‘virtual’ particles popping in and out of existence very briefly. This is the cosmological constant (Λ) model for the dark energy.

This is the ultimate free lunch in nature. The dark energy works as a negative gravity; it enters into the equations of general relativity as a negative pressure which causes space to expand. And as space expands, more dark energy is created! A wonderful self-reinforcing process is in place. Since the dark energy dominates over matter, the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and has been for the last 5 billion years or so. Why wonderful? Because it adds billions upon billions of years of life to our universe.

The Planck Consortium also find the universe is topologically flat to a very high degree, with an upper limit of 1/2 of 1% deviation from flatness at large scales. This is an impressive observational result.

One of the most interesting results is Planck’s ability to constrain inflationary models. While a massive inflation almost certainly happened during the first billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second as the Universe began, as indicated by the very uniformity of the CMB signal, there are many possible models of the inflationary field’s energy potential.

We’ll take a look at this in a future blog entry.

BICEP2 Apparently Detects Quantum Nature of Gravity and Supports Inflationary Big Bang

Can a single experiment do all of the following?

  1. Provide significant confirmation of the inflationary version of the Big Bang model (and help constrain which model of inflation is correct)
  2. Confirm the existence of gravitational waves
  3. Support the quantum nature of gravity (at very high energies)
  4. Provide the first direct insight into the highest energy levels imagined by physicists – 10^16 GeV (10,000 trillion GeV) – 12 orders of magnitude beyond the LHC

Apparently it can! BICEP2 is a radio telescope experiment located at the South Pole, taking advantage of the very cold, dry air at that remote location for greater sensitivity. It is focused on measuring polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation that is a remnant of the hot Big Bang of the early universe. (BICEP is an abbreviation of Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization; this is the second version of the experiment).

The results announced by the BICEP2 team on March 17 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, if they have been correctly interpreted, are the most important in cosmology in the 21st century to date. They are of such enormous significance that a Nobel Prize in Physics is highly likely, if the results and interpretation are confirmed.

We infer from a number of previous observations that there was likely an inflationary period very early on in the universes’s history. We are talking very, very, early – in the first billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. See this earlier post of mine here: This new result from BICEP2 is very supportive of inflationary Big Bang models, and that includes very simple models for inflation.

What is the observation? It is B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background radiation. The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is the thermal radiation left over from a time when the universe became transparent, at age 380,000 years, almost 14 billion years ago. There are two polarization modes for alignment of CMB radiation, the E-mode and the B-mode. The B-mode measures the amount of “curliness” in the alignment of CMB microwave photons (as you can easily see in the image below).

There are two known causes of B-mode polarization for the CMB. The first, also detected by the BICEP2 experiment, is due to intervening clusters of galaxies along the line of sight. These clusters bend the light paths due to their immense masses, in accordance with general relativity. These effects are seen at smaller spatial scales. At larger spatial scales, we have the more significant effect, whereby the gravitational waves generated during the inflation epoch imprint the polarization.




You can easily see the curly B-mode polarization with a quick glance at BICEP2’s results. (


What is being seen in today’s CMB is due to this second and more profound cause, which is nothing less than quantum fluctuations in space-time in the very, very early universe revealing themselves due to the gravitational waves that they generated. And these gravitational waves in turn caused a small curling effect on the cosmic microwave background, until the time of decoupling of radiation and matter. This is seen in the image at angular scales of a few degrees.

At age 380,000 years the universe became transparent to the CMB radiation and it traveled for another 13.8 billion years and underwent a redshift by a factor of 1500 as the universe expanded. So what was optical radiation at that time, becomes microwave radiation today, with a characteristic temperature of 2.7 Kelvins (degrees above absolute zero), while still retaining the curly pattern seen by BICEP2.

This is the first observation that provides some direct insight into extremely high energy scales within the context of a single experiment. We are talking here of approximately a trillion times higher energy than the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, where the Higgs boson was discovered.

The BICEP2 results are a single experiment that for the first time apparently ties quantum mechanics and gravity together. It supports the quantum nature of gravity, which occurs at very high energy scales. The Planck scale at which space-time would be quantized corresponds to an energy level of 10^18 or 10^19 GeV (ten million trillion GeV), and inflation in many models begins when the universe has an energy level somewhat lower, at 10^16 GeV (ten thousand trillion GeV, where 1 GeV is a little more than the rest mass-energy of a proton).

And take a look at this interview of Sean Carroll by PBS’s Gwen Ifill to get some more context around this (hopefully correct!) universe-expanding discovery. Other astronomers are already racing to confirm it.


References: – BICEP2 web site at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

More Dark Matter: First Planck Results


Credit: European Space Agency and Planck Collaboration 

Map of CMB temperature fluctuations with slightly colder areas in blue, and hotter areas in red.


The first results from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite have provided excellent confirmation for the Lambda-CDM (Dark Energy and Cold Dark Matter) model. The results also indicate somewhat more dark matter, and somewhat less dark energy, than previously thought. These are the most sensitive and accurate measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation to date.

Results from Planck’s first 1 year and 3 months of observations were released in March, 2013. The new proportions for mass-energy density in the current universe are:

  • Ordinary matter 5%
  • Dark matter 27%
  • Dark energy 68%


Credit: European Space Agency and Planck Collaboration

The prior best estimate for dark matter primarily from the NASA WMAP satellite observations, was 23%. So the dark matter fraction is higher, and the dark energy fraction correspondingly lower, than WMAP measurements had indicated.

Dark energy still dominates by a very considerable degree, although somewhat less than had been thought prior to the Planck results. This dark energy – Lambda – drives the universe’s expansion to speed up, which is known as the runaway universe. At one time dark matter dominated, but for the last 5 billion years, dark energy has been dominant, and it grows in importance as the universe continues to expand.

The Planck results also added a little bit to the age of the universe, which is measured to be about 13.8 billion years, about 3 times the age of the earth. The CMB radiation itself, was emitted when the universe was only 380,000 years old. It was originally in the infrared and optical portions of the spectrum, but has been massively red-shifted, by around 1500 times, due to the expansion of the universe.

There are many other science results from the Planck Science team in cosmology and astrophysics. These include initial support indicated for relatively simple models of “slow roll” inflation in the extremely early universe. You can find details at the ESA web sites referenced below, and in the large collection of papers from the 47th ESlab Conference link.

References: – news article at ESA site – runaway universe blog – Planck Science Team site – 47th ESlab Conference presentations on Planck science results

The Big Bang model

CMB spectrum (COBE)

Cosmic Microwave Background spectrum (credit: NASA)

The Big Bang theory describing the origin and expansion of the universe from a very tiny and energetic initial state was developed initially in the 1920s as a solution for Einstein’s equations of general relativity. It assumed, correctly, a uniform (homogeneous) density of matter and energy. While the universe around us today appears highly non-uniform, with visible matter apparently concentrated in groups of galaxies, and in individual galaxies, gaseous nebulae, and star clusters, stars, and planets, all the evidence indicates that matter was very uniformly distributed throughout the first one million years of existence. At that time there were no stars or galaxies, rather the universe consisted of hot dense, but expanding, gas and photons (light). Even today, on the largest scales of 500 million light years and beyond, the universe appears to be quite uniform on average.

The first great support for the Big Bang came from the detection of what we call the Hubble expansion, named for Edwin Hubble, who in 1929 first demonstrated that galaxy recession predominates and depends on distance from us. Galaxies on average are all moving away from each other, unless they are gravitationally bound to their neighbors. The rate of expansion is simply proportional to the distance to the galaxy; this is known as Hubble’s law. Every galaxy moves away from every other galaxy regardless of its position in the universe; this implies a global and uniform expansion.

How do we determine this relationship? The light from these distant galaxies is shifted to be redder than normal in proportion to the velocity away from our galaxy. The redshift is a measure of the velocity of recession and the velocity is found to be proportional to the distance from our Milky Way to the galaxy in question. To be clear, the galaxy velocity and distance follow a linear relation. If we were located in another galaxy, we would observe the same effect. Most of the galaxies would be receding from us as well, at rates proportional to their distance. This is just what one expects for a universe which is isotropic – the same in each direction – and which is expanding uniformly. Each dimension of three-dimensional space is getting larger with time. The gravitationally bound objects, such as the galaxies themselves, are not expanding, but the space between the galaxies is stretching and has been since the Big Bang initial event.

Since the rate of the expansion is proportional to distance, one can take the proportionality constant, known as Hubble’s constant, and by inverting that determine an approximate age of the universe. It amounts to ‘running the movie backward.’ The age works out to 14 billion years, which is very close to the current best estimate of the age of 13.8 billion years, about 3 times the age of the Sun and the Earth.

Another great success of the Big Bang model was in its prediction of the helium abundance. The same hydrogen fusion process that powers the Sun took place in the early universe during the first 20 minutes, when the temperature was millions of degrees. In the Sun hydrogen is fused to created helium. For the early universe, this is known as primordial or Big Bang nucleosynthesis. There was only time enough and the right conditions to create helium, the second lightest element in the periodic table, and also the heavy form of hydrogen known as deuterium, plus just a bit of the third element lithium. None of the heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon or iron were created – this would happen later inside stellar furnaces. The final result of this cosmological nucleosynthesis turned 25% of the initial available mass of hydrogen into helium, and into trace amounts of deuterium, lithium and beryllium. The primordial abundance observed in the oldest stars for helium and deuterium matches the predictions of the Big Bang nucleosynthesis model.

The Big Bang moved from being possible theory to well-established factual model describing the universe when the first detection of the cosmic microwave background was published in 1965 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who received the Nobel Physics prize for their discovery. The cosmic microwave background is blackbody thermal radiation at millimeter wavelengths in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum., and as we observe it at present, it has a temperature of a little under 3 degrees above absolute zero (see image above which has the characteristic thermal blackbody shape). It fills space in every direction in which one observes, and is remarkably uniform in intensity. The cosmic microwave background dates from a time when the universe was about 380,000 years old, and the radiation was originally emitted at a temperature of around 3000 degrees on the Kelvin scale. It also has redshifted, by over 1000 times. Thus we detect today as radio waves photons that were originally emitted in the optical and infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum when the universe was only 380,000 years old. Unlike the hydrogen and helium atoms which are found in stars and on planets, these photons have stretched out in proportion to the expansion of the universe.