The Beginning And End Of The Universe – This story is from the beginning and end of the Universe in January 2021. Click here to purchase the full issue.
Nearly 500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus first proposed that matter consists of countless indivisible building blocks called atoms (Greek: atmos). But about 200 years ago, the modern idea of the atom was born with the work of the English chemist and physicist John Dalton.
- 1 The Beginning And End Of The Universe
- 1.1 How Did The Universe Begin?
- 1.2 Q: Exploring The Universe’s “first Light”
The Beginning And End Of The Universe
Then came the challenge of learning to identify and differentiate the different atoms. In the 19th century, advances in spectroscopy—the study of light by breaking it down into its components—allowed scientists to discover that each particular element and molecule has a spectral signature. These characteristics appear through the unique combination of emission and absorption lines of each element. In the mid-19th century, soon after scientists began classifying the elements common to Earth, astronomers equipped telescopes with spectroscopic vision to learn what the universe is really made of.
The Beginning To The End Of The Universe: The Cosmic Dark Ages
One of the obvious celestial targets in early spectroscopes was the Sun. When astronomers observed our star during a solar eclipse, when the Moon blocked much of the Sun’s powerful light, they discovered a mysterious slip line that did not match any element known on Earth. This substance is called helium after the Greek word Helios.
Early spectroscopic targets included stars and planetary nebulae, but eventually astronomers expanded their scope to include all astronomical objects. Today, we know from studies of deep-sky (and therefore distant) targets that some of the common elements found on Earth are almost entirely life-like, created in the first minutes of the universe during the Big Bang process. nucleosynthesis (BBN).
Over 380,000 years, the universe cooled enough for ionized hydrogen to capture its electrons and become neutral, emitting photons and leaving an imprint on the map of the entire sky: the cosmic microwave background (CMB).
However, the universe did not create all the elements at once. And each of them has many ways to form. If we go back to the earliest moments of the universe, we find that it was dominated by the smallest atomic building blocks—quarks, electrons, and other fundamental particles. Only later, a few seconds after birth, did the universe rapidly expand and cool to produce protons (hydrogen) and neutrons.
The 5 Biggest Questions About The Universe (and How We’re Trying To Answer Them)
Soon after the first hydrogen was formed, several heavier elements quickly followed. But the BBN process didn’t really start until the universe was only 10 seconds old. It only lasted 20 minutes.
Remarkably, the density of the universe at that time was incredibly low, 100,000 times less than that of liquid water. If this is the case, why do we not see nucleation on relatively high-density planets? The answer is that the temperature of BBN at the time was about 1 billion Kelvin (1.8 billion degrees Fahrenheit or less than 1 billion degrees Celsius). So the earliest hydrogen atoms slipped so fast that they often collided with high energy, allowing them to fuse with heavier atoms like helium.
During the first 20 minutes of the universe, it created most of the helium that exists today, as well as deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and small amounts of lithium. During the same period, the temperature surrounding the universe dropped from about 1 billion Kelvin to about 10 million Kelvin, roughly the temperature of the cores of stars, where stellar cores still exist today. Thus, when the universe cooled enough, BBN stopped producing the earliest and lightest elements.
However, a lot of helium was formed in this early period, and this element made up about 25% of all the matter in the nascent universe. But astronomers want to know exactly how much of each element, especially helium and deuterium, was produced during the BBN. Because knowing their exact values is to confirm the generally accepted theories of astronomers and to better understand the origin of the universe.
This Is How The Universe Will End
Tritium (along with the “triton” nucleus) is an unstable form of hydrogen that forms normal helium. (Illustrations are greatly simplified for reasons of space.)
A normal hydrogen atom has one proton in its nucleus. But there is a higher version, deuterium. Deuterium is a hydrogen atom whose nucleus (deuteron) contains protons and neutrons. Although deuterium has the same charge as normal hydrogen, it has twice the charge. Deuterium is also rare. Ordinary hydrogen is 7000 times more abundant on Earth than its heavier cousin. But once orbiting deuterium, it promotes the production of heavier elements such as helium.
There is more than one way to create helium. In the most basic sense, exoplanets and neutrons can combine to form tritium. Then add another proton to the mix and you get a stable helium-4 atom. Alternatively, the exoplanet could combine with a proton to form a “lighter” version of helium called helium-3, which contains two protons and one neutron. Add another neutron and you get helium-4.
The Big Bang also created a “lighter” version of helium, opening another way to produce normal helium.
How Did The Universe Begin?
The heaviest element produced in the BBN period is lithium-7, which has three protons and four neutrons and follows helium in the periodic table. The early universe did not form elements heavier than lithium. They then form in the cores of developing stars.
The largest element mass-produced during the Big Bang core is lithium, which has four neutrons and three protons.
One of the major achievements of the Big Bang theory is that the observed helium is consistent with its predictions. When the universe was dense and hot, nuclear fusion began when protons and neutrons combined into light atomic nuclei. But if the baby’s cosmic matter was more densely packed, the nuclear cells could have become more abundant and formed even heavier elements.
Similarly, if the expansion rate of the early universe was slower than theory predicts, it would have remained denser for longer and produced more light elements. If one of these things—the density or expansion of matter—were different from the Big Bang theory, we would see more helium than we do now. In other words: primordial helium acts as one of many signatures that confirm the birth certificate of the universe.
Is There Anything Beyond The Universe?
It is incredible that cosmologists can calculate the specific abundances of elements produced during the BBN and then compare these predictions directly to the data. Of course, one must consider whether our data include a primordial view of elements that did not exist immediately after the Big Bang. Stellar cores certainly create some pollution, but how much remains an open and pressing question.
Fortunately, astronomers can observe a large number of important elements in many different ways. The most reliable is to look for deuterium and helium. This is often done by probing the distribution of stagnant gas in large pockets around quasars, the constituents of which appear as absorption lines in their spectra. Because these gas clouds are largely star-free, they likely have undergone very little stellar evolution. They are ancient, relatively primitive cosmic relics. By measuring the abundance of deuterium and helium in these clouds, astronomers found that they matched what the Big Bang theory predicted.
This is generally considered a remarkable confirmation of the origin of the universe, as well as the entire process of the core of the Big Bang. But it’s also an example of how scientists can study the earliest moments of the universe, just after the first matter was formed. Jim Al-Khalili tackles one of the biggest questions in science: how the universe began. By recreating key experiments, Jim unlocks the secrets of the creation story of science.
Jim Al-Khalili tackles one of the biggest questions in science: how the universe began. By recreating key experiments, Jim unlocks the secrets of the creation story of science.
Q: Exploring The Universe’s “first Light”
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