Planck reveals an almost perfect Universe
2013-03-22 0:00

By Stuart Clark | The Guardian

The map of the oldest light in the universe shows intriguing deviations from expectations. Will these oddities be explained away or are we at the beginning of a revolution in cosmology?

The map of the cosmic microwave background radiation revealed today by the European Space Agencyís Planck mission.

Today is a great day. The European Space Agency has released the most precise map so far of the oldest light in the universe. The best news is that is reveals an íalmost perfect universeí. By that they mean it almost conforms to expectations Ė but not quite.

While the basic íbig bangí picture of our universeís birth is confirmed, the unexplained aspects of the data are where the real excitement lies because these could be signposts to new physics. At the press conference this morning, Professor George Efstathiou, University of Cambridge, UK said that the Planck data showed that, íCosmology is not finished.í

In an accompanying video, he even speculates that some of the strange data could be evidence of physics that took place before the big bang. This explosive origin has traditionally been thought to be the beginning of space and time.

Although now called the big bang, Belgian cosmologist Georges LemaÓtre, who was the first to mathematically investigate the origin of the universe, wistfully referred to it as the íday without yesterdayí. If Efstathiou is right, however, the big bang did have a yesterday after all.

ESA say that this new map of the cosmic microwave background íchallenges some of the fundamental principles of the big bang theory.í It does this by confirming the existence of features in the map that cannot be explained by prevailing theory.

The first strange feature is that the universeís temperature appears to fluctuate more on one side of the universe than the other.

Secondly, there is definitely a ícold spotí in the universe that extends over an area of space much larger than expected.

A third challenge is that the large scale temperature fluctuations across the entire universe are smaller than those expected from the fluctuations measured at smaller scales.

The theory that these observations challenge is called inflation. It postulates that a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe underwent a sudden catastrophic expansion. This behaviour was invented to explain why the temperature of the microwave background appeared, at the time, to be so uniform across the entire universe, and on all cosmic scales.

Now, Planck is showing that the temperature, and the fluctuations in it, are not as uniform as thought.

Another problem with inflation is that it lacks a theoretical underpinning from fundamental physics. In other words, no one can find a convincing explanation for why the universe would suddenly expand just after the big bang.

The anomalies in the Planck map announced today could be the extra clues that are needed to urge inflation into a fully fledged theory, or they could provide nails for its coffin.

Time will tell, and either way, we will have made progress.

More data is expected from Planck in about a yearís time.

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