Cosmic Background Radiation
Cosmic Background Radiation — The Big Bang theory predicts that the early universe was a very hot place and that as it expands, the gas within it cools. Thus the universe should be filled with radiation that is literally the remnant heat left over from the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB.
When any patch of the sky is observed where no individual sources can be discerned, and the effects of the interplanetary dust, and interstellar matter are taken into account, there is still is radiation.
This radiation is known as Cosmic Background Radiation. The origin of this radiation depends on the region of the spectrum that we are observing.
Certainly the most famous component is the Cosmic microwave background radiation, a remainder of the epoch when the universe, still hot, became transparent for the first time to radiation.
There is also background radiation in the infrared, x-rays, etc., with different causes; most of these are ultimately attributable to unresolved individual sources.
The existence of the CMB radiation was first predicted by George Gamow in 1948, and by Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in 1950. It was first observed inadvertently in 1965 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The radiation was acting as a source of excess noise in a radio receiver they were building.
Coincidentally, researchers at nearby Princeton University, led by Robert Dicke and including Dave Wilkinson of the WMAP science team, were devising an experiment to find the CMB. When they heard about the Bell Labs result they immediately realized that the CMB had been found.
The result was a pair of papers in the Physical Review: one by Penzias and Wilson detailing the observations, and one by Dicke, Peebles, Roll, and Wilkinson giving the cosmological interpretation. Penzias and Wilson shared the 1978 Nobel prize in physics for their discovery.
Today, the CMB radiation is very cold, only 2.725 above absolute zero, thus this radiation shines primarily in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and is invisible to the naked eye. However, it fills the universe and can be detected everywhere we look. In fact, if we could see microwaves, the entire sky would glow with a brightness that was astonishingly uniform in every direction.
Since light travels at a finite speed, astronomers observing distant objects are looking into the past. Most of the stars that are visible to the naked eye in the night sky are 10 to 100 light years away. Thus, we see them as they were 10 to 100 years ago.
We observe Andromeda, the nearest big galaxy, as it was three million years ago. Astronomers observing distant galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope can see them as they were only a few billion years after the Big Bang. (Most cosmologists believe that the universe is between 12 and 14 billion years old.)
The CMB radiation was emitted only a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, long before stars or galaxies ever existed. Thus, by studying the detailed physical properties of the radiation, we can learn about conditions in the universe on very large scales, since the radiation we see today has traveled over such a large distance, and at very early times.