In previous chapters, we explored the contents of the universe—planets, stars, and galaxies—and learned about how these objects change with time. But what about the universe as a whole? How old is it? What did it look like in the beginning? How has it changed since then? What will be its fate?
Cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole and is the subject of this chapter. The story of observational cosmology really begins in 1929 when Edwin Hubble published observations of redshifts and distances for a small sample of galaxies and showed the then-revolutionary result that we live in an expanding universe—one which in the past was denser, hotter, and smoother. From this early discovery, astronomers developed many predictions about the origin and evolution of the universe and then tested those predictions with observations. In this chapter, we will describe what we already know about the history of our dynamic universe and highlight some of the mysteries that remain.
- 29.1: The Age of the Universe
- Cosmology is the study of the organization and evolution of the universe. The universe is expanding, and this is one of the key observational starting points for modern cosmological theories. Modern observations show that the rate of expansion has not been constant throughout the life of the universe. Initially, when galaxies were close together, the effects of gravity were stronger than the effects of dark energy, and the expansion rate gradually slowed.
- 29.2: A Model of the Universe
- A model that is isotropic and homogeneous (same everywhere) is a pretty good approximation of reality. The universe is expanding, which means that the universe undergoes a change in scale with time; space stretches and distances grow larger by the same factor everywhere at a given time. Observations show that the mass density of the universe is less than the critical density. In other words, there is not enough matter in the universe to stop the expansion.
- 29.3: The Beginning of the Universe
- The universe cools as it expands. The energy of photons is determined by their temperature, and calculations show that in the hot, early universe, photons had so much energy that when they collided with one another, they could produce material particles. As the universe expanded and cooled, protons and neutrons formed first, then came electrons and positrons. Next, fusion reactions produced deuterium, helium, and lithium nuclei.
- 29.4: The Cosmic Microwave Background
- When the universe became cool enough to form neutral hydrogen atoms, the universe became transparent to radiation. Scientists have detected the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation from this time during the hot, early universe. Measurements with the COBE satellite show that the CMB acts like a blackbody with a temperature of 2.73 K. Tiny fluctuations in the CMB show us the seeds of large-scale structures in the universe.
- 29.5: What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
- Twenty-seven percent of the critical density of the universe is composed of dark matter. To explain so much dark matter, some physics theories predict that additional types of particles should exist. One type has been given the name of WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), and scientists are now conducting experiments to try to detect them in the laboratory. Dark matter plays an essential role in forming galaxies.
- 29.6: The Inflationary Universe
- The Big Bang model does not explain why the CMB has the same temperature in all directions. Neither does it explain why the density of the universe is so close to critical density. These observations can be explained if the universe experienced a period of rapid expansion, which scientists call inflation, about 10–35 second after the Big Bang. New grand unified theories (GUTs) are being developed to describe physical processes in the universe before and at the time that inflation occurred.
- 29.7: The Anthropic Principle
- Recently, many cosmologists have noted that the existence of humans depends on the fact that many properties of the universe—the size of density fluctuations in the early universe, the strength of gravity, the structure of atoms—were just right. The idea that physical laws must be the way they are because otherwise we could not be here to measure them is called the anthropic principle. Some scientists speculate that there may be a multiverse of universes, in which ours is just one.
Thumbnail: This drawing shows the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently planned for launch in 2018. The silver sunshade shadows the primary mirror and science instruments. The primary mirror is 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diameter. Before and during launch, the mirror will be folded up. After the telescope is placed in its orbit, ground controllers will command it to unfold the mirror petals. To see distant galaxies whose light has been shifted to long wavelengths, the telescope will carry several instruments for taking infrared images and spectra. (credit: modification of work by NASA).
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).