| Planck satellite: Maps detail Universe’s oldest light!

Planck satellite: Maps detail Universe’s ancient light ~ Jonathan AmosScience correspondent, BBC News, Paris.


A map tracing the “oldest light” in the sky has been produced by Europe’s Planck Surveyor satellite. Its pattern confirms the Big Bang theory for the origin of the Universe but subtle, unexpected details will require scientists to adjust some of their ideas.

A spectacular new map of the “oldest light” in the sky has just been released by the European Space Agency.

Scientists say its mottled pattern is an exquisite confirmation of our Big-Bang model for the origin and evolution of the Universe.

But there are features in the picture, they add, that are unexpected and will require ideas to be refined.

The map was assembled from 15 months’ worth of data acquired by the 600m-euro (£515m) Planck space telescope.

It details what is known as the cosmic microwave background, or CMB – a faint glow of microwave radiation that pervades all of space.

Its precise configuration, visible in the new Planck data, is suggestive of a cosmos that is slightly older than previously thought – one that came into existence 13.82 billion years ago.

This is an increase of about 50 million years on earlier calculations.

The map’s pattern also indicates a subtle adjustment is needed to the Universe’s inventory of contents.

It seems there is slightly more matter out there (31.7%) and slightly less “dark energy” (68.3%), the mysterious component thought to be driving the cosmos apart at an accelerating rate.

“I would imagine for [most people] it might look like a dirty rugby ball or a piece of modern art,” said Cambridge University’s George Efstathiou, presenting the new picture here at Esa headquarters in Paris.

“But I can assure you there are cosmologists who would have hacked our computers or maybe even given up their children to get hold of this map, we’re so excited by it.”

Planck is the third western satellite to study the CMB. The two previous efforts – COBE and WMAP – were led by the US space agency (Nasa). The Soviets also had an experiment in space in the 1980s that they called Relikt-1.

How Planck’s view hints at new physics

Planck anomalies graphic
  • The CMB’s temperature fluctuations are put through a number of statistical analyses
  • Deviations can be studied as a function of their size on the sky – their angular scale
  • When compared to best-fit Big Bang models, some anomalies are evident
  • One shows the fluctuations on the biggest scales to be weaker than expected
  • Theorists will need to adjust their ideas to account for these features

The CMB is the light that was finally allowed to spread out across space once the Universe had cooled sufficiently to permit the formation of hydrogen atoms – about 380,000 years into the life of the cosmos.

It still bathes the Earth in a near-uniform glow at microwave frequencies, and has a temperature profile that is just 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

But it is possible to detect minute deviations in this signal, and these fluctuations – seen as mottling in the map – are understood to reflect the differences in the density of matter when the light parted company and set out on its journey all those years ago.

The fluctuations can be thought of as the seeds for all the structure that later developed in the cosmos – all the stars and galaxies.

Scientists subject the temperature deviations to a range of statistical analyses, which can then be matched against theoretical expectations.

This allows them to rule in some models to explain the origin and evolution of the cosmos, while ruling out a host of others.

The team that has done this for Planck’s data says the map is an elegant fit for the standard model of cosmology – the idea that the Universe started in a hot, dense state in an incredibly small space, and then expanded and cooled.

At a fundamental level, it also supports an “add-on” to this Big Bang theory known as inflation, which postulates that in the very first moments of its existence the Universe opened up in an exponential manner – faster than light itself.

But because Planck’s map is so much more detailed than anything previously obtained, it is also possible to see some anomalies in it.

Temperature anomalies in Planck data
Planck has confirmed the north/south differences and a “cold spot” in the data

One is the finding that the temperature fluctuations, when viewed across the biggest scales, do not match those predicted by the standard model. Their signal is a bit weaker than expected.

Continue reading the main story

Planck’s new numbers

  • 4.9% normal matter – atoms, the stuff from which we are all made
  • 26.8% dark matter – the unseen material holding galaxies together
  • 68.3% dark energy – the mysterious component accelerating cosmic expansion
  • The number for dark energy is lower than previously estimated
  • The new age – 13.82 billion years – results from a slower expansion
  • This is described by value known as the Hubble Constant
  • It also has been recalculated at at 67.15 km per second, per megaparsec

There appears also to be an asymmetry in the average temperatures across the sky; the southern hemisphere is slightly warmer than the north.

A third significant anomaly is a cold spot in the map, centred on the constellation Eridanus, which is much bigger than would be predicted.

These features have been hinted at before by Planck’s most recent predecessor – Nasa’s WMAP satellite – but are now seen with greater clarity and their significance cemented.

A consequence will be the binning of many ideas for how inflation propagated, as the process was first introduced in the 1980s as a way to iron out such phenomena.

The fact that these delicate features are real will force theorists to finesse their inflationary solutions and possibly even lead them to some novel physics on the way.

“Inflation doesn’t predict that it should leave behind any kind of history or remnant, and yet that’s what we see,” Planck project scientist Dr Jan Tauber told BBC News.

Continue reading the main story

CMB – The ‘oldest light’ in the Universe

Detail of CMB data
  • Theory says 380,000 years after the Big Bang, matter and light “decoupled”
  • Matter went on to form stars and galaxies; the light spread out and cooled
  • The light – the CMB – now washes over the Earth at microwave frequencies
  • Tiny deviations from this average glow appear as mottling in the map (above)
  • These fluctuations reflect density differences in the early distribution of matter
  • Their pattern betrays the age, shape and contents of the Universe, and more


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| ‘God particle’ confirmed: CERN says data ‘strongly indicates’ Higgs boson found!

‘God particle’ confirmed: CERN says data ‘strongly indicates’ Higgs boson found ~ RT.

It is now almost certain the subatomic particle that brings together everything in the universe has been found, CERN scientists announced on Thursday. Latest analysis of data from the Large Hadron Collider proves that the Higgs boson actually exists.

Real CMS proton-proton collision events in which 4 high energy electrons (green lines and red towers) are observed. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of a Higgs boson but is also consistent with background Standard Model physics processes. (Image from cds.cern.ch)

Real CMS proton-proton collision events in which 4 high energy electrons (green lines and red towers) are observed. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of a Higgs boson but is also consistent with background Standard Model physics processes. (Image from cds.cern.ch)

The search for the missing particle dubbed as ‘the holy grail of physics,’ which has been going on for almost half a century and has brought the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) into existence, has finally resulted in some strong experimental evidence.

For the first time since the triumphant announcement of the new particle discovery in July 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN has declared it is indeed the Higgs boson that they’ve found, as the analyzed LHC data “strongly indicates.”

“The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is,” said physicist Joe Incandela, the spokesperson for CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) team.

The silicon strip tracker of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) nears completion. Shown here are three concentric cylinders, each comprised of many silicon strip detetectors (the bronze-coloured rectangular devices, similar to the CCDs used in digital cameras). These surround the region where the protons collide. (Image from cds.cern.ch)

The silicon strip tracker of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) nears completion. Shown here are three concentric cylinders, each comprised of many silicon strip detetectors (the bronze-coloured rectangular devices, similar to the CCDs used in digital cameras). These surround the region where the protons collide. (Image from cds.cern.ch)

The existence of the boson in question and its linked energy field was predicted by British physicist Peter Higgs as he was looking for answers of the open questions of particle physics. Without the Higgs boson, the Standard Model of particle physics fails to explain all the processes happening in the universe, its absence would also not be compatible with Einstein’s theory of general relativity – still a dominant way of explaining gravity.

The question which has eluded countless physicists for decades, and the missing link explaining how the universe works at the very basic level, is what gives mass to matter. In other words, what has brings all the flying particles together to form stars, planets and humans ever since the Big Bang.

Many scientists attribute this role to the elusive Higgs boson, although “exotic” theories exist, which go beyond the Standard Model.

Now, after petabytes of LHC data have been processed, CERN scientists are quite confident there is a Higgs boson – and that it most likely fits into the mainstream particle physics principles, as David Charlton of the LHC’s ATLAS team indicated during the Thursday CERN conference.

Although it might take years for the discovery to be fully confirmed and fleshed out, one cannot expect anything more sensational from the LHC team in the coming two years, as the 27-kilometer collider has been shut down for maintenance until the early 2015.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) instrumental in search for the Higgs bosone. (Image from ciemat.es)

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) instrumental in search for the Higgs boson. (Image from ciemat.es)


Higgs Bosun Joke

| Large Hadron Collider: The coolest place in the universe!

The coolest place in the universe ~  BRIAN COXNew Statesman.


The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is a thing of wonder – not just for smashing 600 million protons together a second, but for uniting 10,000 scientists from 113 countries in the pursuit of knowledge.


The Large Hadron Collidor. Artwork by Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman
The Large Hadron Collidor. Artwork by Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman

The discovery of a Higgs-like particle by the Large Hadron Collider at the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (known as Cern) was the greatest scientific story of 2012. It is also a spectacular demonstration of what can be achieved when the intellectual power of theoretical physics is coupled with engineering and international collaboration. In those first two sentences, I’ve already used two hyperbolic adjectives; let me explain why I feel justified in doing so.

The Higgs boson is a fundamental subatomic particle whose existence was predicted in a series of papers in 1964 by a group of theoretical physicists including Robert Brout, François Englert, Peter Higgs and Tom Kibble. The prediction was made partly on aesthetic grounds – by which I mean it was introduced to make the equations that describe how subatomic particles interact with each other more elegant. Technically, the Higgs mechanism is a means of preserving certain symmetry properties of the equations which are considered to be desirable, or even “beautiful”. As such, the successful prediction of the Higgs boson can be regarded as a prime example of what the physicist Eugene Wigner termed “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural sciences”.

Its job is to give mass to the other fundamental particles, including the electrons and quarks out of which we are made. It does this by interacting with them, and the strength of the interaction determines the mass of the particle; electrons are less massive than top quarks because they interact more weakly with Higgs particles. The Higgs particles fill all of space. Every cubic meter of the room in front of you is crammed with Higgs particles. They occupy all of the space inside your body, outside your body, and throughout and between every galaxy in the observable universe.

How did the Higgs particles get there? The answer is not yet known but it is thought that they “condensed out” into the universe less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang as the universe expanded and cooled. This is a process not dissimilar to ice crystals forming on a cold window on a frosty morning. Water vapour in the air undergoes what physicists call a phase transition when it comes into contact with the cool glass. The symmetry of the vapour state is broken and the intricate structural forms of ice crystals spontaneously emerge. This happens because it is energetically favourable; at low enough temperatures, water molecules can release energy by bonding together into clumps, rolling down a metaphorical hill and settling into a valley floor. Similarly, the “empty” vacuum of space has a lower energy when filled with a condensate of Higgs particles, which is ultimately the explanation for why there is any large-scale structure in the universe at all.

This sounds odd and it gets odder. If we naively calculate the energy locked up in the Higgs condensate, it is bordering on the absurd. In every cubic meter of space the condensate stores 1037 joules, which is more energy than the sun outputs in 1,000 years. This should blow the universe apart but it doesn’t, for reasons that nobody understands.

Despite all this, we have discovered that it is broadly correct: space really is crammed full of Higgs particles, and we really are bumping into them all the time. This gives us our mass at the most fundamental level, and without this strange and convoluted mechanism we would not exist. The slight caveat is that there are many differing Higgs-like theories, each leading to Higgs particles with different properties. Some of these theories predict that there is more than one type of Higgs particle. This is why, technically speaking, Cern always refers to the new particle as “Higgs-like”. There is more work to do to pin down precisely which Higgs has been seen, but what is now beyond reasonable doubt is that a new particle, which behaves roughly like the so-called Standard Model Higgs Boson, has been produced and detected.

The discovery of the Higgs is more than a profound vindication of advanced mathematics and its application in theoretical physics. It is also a surprising engineering and political achievement. No single nation is prepared to invest in a project as technically difficult and high-risk as the Large Hadron Collider. The machine itself is 27 kilometres in circumference and is constructed from 9,300 superconducting electromagnets operating at -271.3°C. There is no known place in the universe that cold outside laboratories on earth; in the 13.75 billion years since the Big Bang occurred, the universe is still roughly 1° warmer than the LHC. This makes it by far the largest refrigerator in the world; it contains almost 120 tonnes of liquid helium.

Buried inside the magnets are two beam pipes, which, at ultra-high vacuum, contain circulating beams of protons travelling at 99.9999991 per cent the speed of light, circumnavigating the ring 11,245 times every second. Up to 600 million protons are brought into collision every second, and in each of these tiny explosions, the conditions that were present less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang are re-created. Four giant detectors, known as ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE, diligently observe each collision, searching for new physical phenomena such as the Higgs, searching for a needle in a thousand haystacks.

In order to construct and operate this group of complex, interdependent machines, more than 10,000 physicists and engineers from 608 institutes in 113 countries collaborate with each other for the sole purpose of enhancing our knowledge of the universe.

Cern’s founding convention, written in 1954 as part of the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War, makes this purpose explicit: “the Organisation shall provide for collaboration among European States in nuclear research of a pure scientific and fundamental character . . . the Organisation shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available”.

Cern, in other words, is a place of high ideals that actually works. Its budget, shared between many nations, is approximately that of a single medium-sized European university. Free from the usual bureaucratic and political interference that dogs large international collaborations, managed almost exclusively by scientists and engineers, it has consistently delivered some of the most complex engineering projects of the past 60 years on time and on budget. In doing so, as a spin-off, it has invented the World Wide Web and many of the technologies used in medical imaging and the newly emerging field of proton beam cancer therapy. This, in the modern jargon, is known as “impact” – a tremendous return on society’s investment. But, very importantly indeed, this impact came as a side effect of the exploration of nature for its own sake.

I find all this to be deeply inspiring; it makes me optimistic for the future of the human race. First, we have been able to discover something profound about our universe. How astonishing it is that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, a small group of apes on an insignificant rock among hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy were able to predict the existence of a piece of nature that condensed into the vacuum of space less than a billionth of a second after the universe began 13.75 billion years ago. And how wonderful that they did this together; that there is a place where people put their religious, political and cultural differences aside in the name of exploring and understanding the natural world.

That sounds ridiculously idealistic and bordering on the naive, but Cern is a place that confounds and confuses in equal measure because it is idealistic. There is no agenda other than the advancement of our understanding. That is why it works and that is the key to understanding why it exists and what it does.

Over the coming decades, the LHC will continue to produce Higgs particles and the experimental scientists will measure their properties in ever-greater detail to understand better how nature works at the most fundamental level. They will also be on the lookout for unexpected physics, because the LHC is operating at the edge of our understanding. They will, no doubt, make further contributions to the economies of Cern’s member states and the well-being of their citizens but this is not a reason, and never can be, for the exploration of nature.

In 1969, the US physicist Robert R Wilson was called before a Congressional committee to justify the funding of Fermilab, the US equivalent of Cern. Asked to justify the expenditure on the project, in terms of enhancing national security and the economic interests of the United States, Wilson replied: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

Cern’s tremendous achievements in 2012 fall into the same category. Because of the Large Hadron Collider, we understand our universe significantly better than we did in 2011, and that is a wonderful thing.

[Editor’s note: This piece originally had the headline “The coldest place in the universe”. Since we went to press, it was pointed out that the Boomerang Nebula is the coldest known region in the distant universe. As Brian Cox tweets: “That’s science“.]


The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo credit: Image Editor)

Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of t...

Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research ((French: Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire), known as CERN) with all the Magnets and Instuments. The shown part of the tunnel is located under the LHC P8, near the LHCb. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)