Archive for January 16th, 2008

Exploring the Origin of the Universe

Update: Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010.  Ancient dawn’s early light refines age of universe, Satellite images reveal new aspects of Big Bang’s relic radiationBy Ron Cowen Web edition :
 Age of the universe = 13.75 +/- 0.11 billion years old. via WMAP. end of update.

“A talk on the cosmology of the cosmic microwave background with discussion on the basic cosmological questions such as the Big Bang, dark matter link to some philosohpical questions.”

This Friday   :)

Humm… Dr. Ghassan Yassin by the University of Oxford this friday.

Arabic name (probably Muslim)  and  Person working in the seat of secular science.

I’m looking forward to this one. It will be very interesting to find out which side will show. I’ll take notes.


The talk was brief and informative. While not being my branch of science, I’m interested in it and usually can follow the Physics is a reasonable point (although I think my statment may be complete lobbox having recently looked at a couple of Physics – blogs of all things,  and feeling very very dumb!).

Well, religion wasn’t mentioned once! That disappointed me actually as from th description of the talk I thought it would readily dip into ‘the reason why’ aspect of cosmology, but I guess the people at Oxford etc have long ago ignored that very large elephant in the room.

Actually the wiki page on it is quite good and I recommend you read it.
I arrived as the intro was being read out. Mr Yassin was unaccompanied by other visitors and in chatting to people afterwards I found out it was his first time here. I don’t think he knew what level of knowledge the audience would have and so he kept the level quite simplified.

I’ll give a synopsis of what he said:

He was around “when the field was born” and is very much at the forefront of pioneering science. The field essentially boils down to Cosmic microwave background (CMB). He was a research student while Penzias and Wilson (1964) discovered the CMB, quite by accident, while building an antenna for ordinary communication purposes. Dr. Yassin He now heads the Experimental Cosmology group at Oxford University in the Dept of Physics. I believe his origins are Palestinian as he has a Palestinian accent.

I’m going to skip his bio as I wasn’t able to type and that fast…

Questions touched upon (in 50 minutes!):

a) Age of the Universe?

b) How did it evolve?

c) What is the density of matter? (a critical question under the theory of big bang (BB))

d) What is the geometry of the universe?

e) What is it’s fate?

Quote: “We have one Universe”  – Sorry you fantasy take physiciss with your talk of going through wormholes and parallel universes etc.

Age of the Universe?

15 yrs ago, a good answer would have been between 10 & 20 billion years old.

After recent measurement from WMAP now we say 13.7 +/- 3% bn years. – Note the extraordinary high level of certainty!!

Here was something I found to be a bit of a sore thumb: He said we need to theorize about matter we cannot detect*. This was part of the basis of my first question to him.

Previously measurements at age determination suffered a flaw – objects which scattered light were needed to be able to observe the light. This is the important feature of the CMB as it does not rely on scattering and hence can ‘see’ earlier in the creation of the universe.

Observations and the previous theory of matter don’t account for what was detected and so there was a need to theorize about matter we cannot see – dark Matter.

Geometry of Universe.

It has changed over last 5 years (the theory that is!). The current leading theory supports the flat model (this formed the basis of my second question). This flat model is one of three possibilities: a) Closed b) hyperbolic (infinity) or c) flat (Euclidian). Do not get flat mixed up with flat as in your floor or a table top. The word ‘flat’ as used by Physicists encompasses surfaces of cylinders as being flat as are doughnuts – think of surfaces or the surface of a balloon – you are stuck on the surface of the balloon, you cant go up or down, just walk on the surface, but, and this is where most people’s conceptualisation breaks down, th surface occurs in three (actually I think it should be 4 dimensions   – errrm I think :s )


The CMB is not isotropic (i.e. it’s anisotropic), that is, it’s not the same in all directions. Early CMB detection was not sensitive enough to detect variation. Now though, greater tech driven sensitivity leads to new ways in which to explore the CMB. CMB unlike visible light doesn’t depend on anything to scatter. The new tool, “the most important tool in cosmology”, to probe the CMB came online 15 years ago.

Most observations are made in the long wave part of the EM spectrum – Microwaves.

Time/distance figures:

1.3s from the moon to here.

8 mins light from the sun.

Sirius = 8.6 light years

Betelgeuse = 427 light years away

Andromeda = 2 m light years ago.

Our solar system = 4.5 bn years old

Radio telescope can see up to 5bn years ago. (before the sun was born)

Hubble able to see up to 13bn years – remember universe = 13.7 bn (“Firm belief”) years old.

But there is a horizon that we can never see beyond. Horizon = 13.5 bn years. At this point we enter the dark ages. The horizon is based on or, if you prerfer, is a result of the last remaining light reflecting object.

So we can never see what things look like now, but we can see what things were like in the past.


Big Bang: Universe emerged from hot a dense cosmic “fluid” 13.7 years ago. Gentleman who coined the term big bang never actually believed in it. But “it’s the best model.” Universe started from a singularity. (Talk of ‘singularities’ really gets my goat !!!)

Initially it expanded at an extremely fast rate (inflation) and then settled to uniform expansion.

1-0 s bb explosion     bb=big bang

1-10-32 s Inflation: V rapid expansion within the size of the university increases hugely

3-300000 Decoupling : Atoms were formed.

4-13.7 bn yrs: Present time.

Supporting evidence for theory of BB:

  • (nb: Abundance of He in the U. Stars made of 70%H 25%He – The He made from fusing H together i.e. H being consumed into He – Atom Fusion)
  • The Universe is expanding.

1928 Hubble observed the galaxies are receding “the further you are the faster they expand” – Note: Dr. Yassin made no mention that there are papers which say there are galaxies approaching us so the expansion model he has just advanced is wrong, but I guess he’s simplifying things for unwant of being sidetracked.

  • Cosmic Microwave Background

The detection of the CMB is the one that destroyed all other theories and made BB prevalent.

I’m going to leave this the rest of this post in note mode for now as I’m too buzy. If I’m free, I’ll expand upon it (no pun intended).

“In 4.5bn years the sun will explode”

If early Universe was hot and dense it would have radiated energy. Due to cooling, the radiated energy would now be in the microwave region, i.e. the CMB. (first starts about 4000m years ago)

How to detect it from the other EM signals in the universe?

We see the radiation set free when the universe was 300,000 yrs old and just reaching us now.

Cosmic rad discovered by Penzias and Wilson – 1964 from an antenna they built for simple communications. The hiss was remarkably uniform (isotropic – the same in every direction)

Radiation cooled down from 3000K to 2.72K

Theory says there should be a small variation 1 part in 100,000 but their equipment wasn’t sensitive enough to detest it. The Universe isn’t isotropic so the CMB wont be isotropic either.

The fluctuations:

They built eq to look for and map the fluctuation. 1989 (COBE) < 200m dollars – relatively cheap in terms of satellite costs.

3 frequencies (operating at frequency windows) 31.5, 50 and 90Ghz   In Cambridge they were building a 10-6 sensitive equipment but COBE sensitivity was only 1 in 100,000 (10-5) so Cambridge thought COBE wouldn’t find it, but COBE did.

The fit between experimental points of black body radiation spectrum matched theory well. The CMB is not completely uniform. Delta T/T is approx 10-5


To detect this data, they had to look at the same part of sky after a long period in order to get the data. However ground data matched the COBE data

A number of data sources, showed good mapping with various parts of the radiative curve with that of theory.

WMAP satellite (only 3 years ago – gave an excellent trace of the multipole) and resulted in the certainty of the age of the universe being 13.7 +/- 3% billion years old. WMAP gave much more resolution than COBE. It also gave us a better measure of the Hubble constant. An extremely important value for cosmology, for example in determining the date of the Universe. Now we say Ho = 71 =/-5% (Me: which apparently means the universe will keep expanding – no big crunch)

BUT For the theory to work we must assume that there must be a 96% more matter in the Universe that we cannot see or observe directly in any way. i.e. density of Universe is only 4%. There was evidence of dark matter before CMB (published 50 years ago by some scientist that there may be dark matter – postulated having watched the speed of rotation of galaxies, the resulting calculations concluding observed matter wasn’t compatible with the density of matter that we know about at the time)

Now dark matter has been subdivided into ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ is proposed to support the flatness of the universe. We need more data to resolve this issue.

2 years ago: Supernovae expansion – confirms the acceleration of the expansion.!!! So Universe will not collapse. Therefore dark matter matter does not explain. Theoretical says: Dark matter is not gravitational. Now we call it dark energy.

Current content of the universe:

74% dark energy

22% dark matter

4% atoms

Skipped over much of the info about satellites.


In next few years we will be building about 1000 more sensitive. Light 2 props: 1) intensity and 2) polarization. It is the polarisation. Polarization is about 100 times weaker than just looking at intensity. Will take about 2 years to yield data. US building two. detector satellite to detect signals 100 times weaker than WMAP. On Andes mountains.

Different scanning: Azimuth = spinning.

Plank will have 50 detectors – ready next year. As its in space the lower detect

My Questions

1) “If I did an experiement and I found only 4% agreement with my theory, I’d be very tempted to reject my theory and not try and squeeze the 96% into my current theory, I’d propose a new one – please comment” – Dr. Yassin was very gracious on this one and to summarize, he mentioned about the history of cosmology and the radical shifts of opinion that have occurred over the years. He said maybe that happen.

2) “A few years ago, a Russian mathematician whose name I can’t remember, made a revolutionary discovery in maths {I really couldn’t couldn’t remember his name or what he worked on!} in which his method could be used to determine the shape of anything. Was his work applied to the cosmologists model of a flat Universe” – Dr Yassin said he thought he knew that I was talking about, but didn’t know if it was applied to the cosmologists shape of the universe.

[I meant this guy……  Grigory Perelman who found a solution to Poincaré’s conjecture – ]

3) “Cambridge and Oxford {Dr. Yassin worked at both} are perceived as a hotbed of Secularism. Can you mention something about the theological aspect to all this.” – I started to ask “do you guys in Oxbridge ever discuss God in all this” but he rather quickly stated to give a reply and I never managed to finish that point.

Dr Yassin said he saw no contradiction between big bang and theology (I have to guess he was talking in relation to Islamic because I think he is a Muslim (but I don’t really know if he is and so he is likely talking from his Islamic point of view) and because of conflict in the past between what cosmologists say and the Catholic church, and also I think he’ll be referring to Judaism. He also mentioned Hawkings meeting with the Pope, but said something like, to paraphrase: Hawking didn’t reveal cosmological leanings to God.

At the talk, one person got up to talk. The MC introduced ‘him’ as a young man, but then ‘he’ started to speak, the person sounded very much like a woman to me. The woman was I guess about 18 and shocked me by her manner. It was as if she was an expert in cosmology – someone who ate, breathed and slept cosmology. She had the aura of a new Hawking (minus the affliction). She asked about those mysterious Quasars. She was of Indian origin and her hair was short which is probably why the MC thought she was a boy.

Once again, I have been very impressed by Indian minds.

End note: Sorry about the order of all that. I hope there are some up to date gems in it for you. I’ve mainly had to just list things as they were being said. Smoke coming from my fingertips, I also wanted to think about what he was saying and hence notetaking ended up this way.


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January 2008