Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

34.1: Cosmology and Particle Physics

[ "article:topic", "authorname:openstax", "Big Bang", "cosmology", "cosmic microwave background", "cosmologicl red shift", "electroweak epoch", "GUT epoch", "Hubble constant", "spontaneous symmetry breaking", "superforce", "TOE epoch" ]
  • Page ID
  • Look at the sky on some clear night when you are away from city lights. There you will see thousands of individual stars and a faint glowing background of millions more. The Milky Way, as it has been called since ancient times, is an arm of our galaxy of stars -- the word galaxy coming from the Greek word galaxias, meaning milky. We know a great deal about our Milky Way galaxy and of the billions of other galaxies beyond its fringes. But they still provoke wonder and awe (see Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). And there are still many questions to be answered. Most remarkable when we view the universe on the large scale is that once again explanations of its character and evolution are tied to the very small scale. Particle physics and the questions being asked about the very small scales may also have their answers in the very large scales.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Take a moment to contemplate these clusters of galaxies, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Trillions of stars linked by gravity in fantastic forms, glowing with light and showing evidence of undiscovered matter. What are they like, these myriad stars? How did they evolve? What can they tell us of matter, energy, space, and time? (credit: NASA, ESA, K. Sharon (Tel Aviv University) and E. Ofek (Caltech))

    As has been noted in numerous Things Great and Small vignettes, this is not the first time the large has been explained by the small and vice versa. Newton realized that the nature of gravity on Earth that pulls an apple to the ground could explain the motion of the moon and planets so much farther away. Minute atoms and molecules explain the chemistry of substances on a much larger scale. Decays of tiny nuclei explain the hot interior of the Earth. Fusion of nuclei likewise explains the energy of stars. Today, the patterns in particle physics seem to be explaining the evolution and character of the universe. And the nature of the universe has implications for unexplored regions of particle physics.

    Cosmology is the study of the character and evolution of the universe. What are the major characteristics of the universe as we know them today? First, there are approximately \(10^{11}\) galaxies in the observable part of the universe. An average galaxy contains more than \(10^{11}\) stars, with our Milky Way galaxy being larger than average, both in its number of stars and its dimensions. Ours is a spiral-shaped galaxy with a diameter of about 100,000 light years and a thickness of about 2000 light years in the arms with a central bulge about 10,000 light years across. The Sun lies about 30,000 light years from the center near the galactic plane. There are significant clouds of gas, and there is a halo of less-dense regions of stars surrounding the main body. (See Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) Evidence strongly suggests the existence of a large amount of additional matter in galaxies that does not produce light -- the mysterious dark matter we shall later discuss.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Milky Way galaxy is typical of large spiral galaxies in its size, its shape, and the presence of gas and dust. We are fortunate to be in a location where we can see out of the galaxy and observe the vastly larger and fascinating universe around us. (a) Side view. (b) View from above. (c) The Milky Way as seen from Earth. (credits: (a) NASA, (b) Nick Risinger, (c) Andy)

    Distances are great even within our galaxy and are measured in light years (the distance traveled by light in one year). The average distance between galaxies is on the order of a million light years, but it varies greatly with galaxies forming clusters such as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). The Magellanic Clouds, for example, are small galaxies close to our own, some 160,000 light years from Earth. The Andromeda galaxy is a large spiral galaxy like ours and lies 2 million light years away. It is just visible to the naked eye as an extended glow in the Andromeda constellation. Andromeda is the closest large galaxy in our local group, and we can see some individual stars in it with our larger telescopes. The most distant known galaxy is 14 billion light years from Earth -- a truly incredible distance. (See Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\).)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): (a) Andromeda is the closest large galaxy, at 2 million light years distance, and is very similar to our Milky Way. The blue regions harbor young and emerging stars, while dark streaks are vast clouds of gas and dust. A smaller satellite galaxy is clearly visible. (b) The box indicates what may be the most distant known galaxy, estimated to be 13 billion light years from us. It exists in a much older part of the universe. (credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (University of California, Santa Cruz and Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team)

    Consider the fact that the light we receive from these vast distances has been on its way to us for a long time. In fact, the time in years is the same as the distance in light years. For example, the Andromeda galaxy is 2 million light years away, so that the light now reaching us left it 2 million years ago. If we could be there now, Andromeda would be different. Similarly, light from the most distant galaxy left it 14 billion years ago. We have an incredible view of the past when looking great distances. We can try to see if the universe was different then -- if distant galaxies are more tightly packed or have younger-looking stars, for example, than closer galaxies, in which case there has been an evolution in time. But the problem is that the uncertainties in our data are great. Cosmology is almost typified by these large uncertainties, so that we must be especially cautious in drawing conclusions. One consequence is that there are more questions than answers, and so there are many competing theories. Another consequence is that any hard data produce a major result. Discoveries of some importance are being made on a regular basis, the hallmark of a field in its golden age.

    Perhaps the most important characteristic of the universe is that all galaxies except those in our local cluster seem to be moving away from us at speeds proportional to their distance from our galaxy. It looks as if a gigantic explosion, universally called the Big Bang, threw matter out some billions of years ago. This amazing conclusion is based on the pioneering work of Edwin Hubble (1889–1953), the American astronomer. In the 1920s, Hubble first demonstrated conclusively that other galaxies, many previously called nebulae or clouds of stars, were outside our own. He then found that all but the closest galaxies have a red shift in their hydrogen spectra that is proportional to their distance. The explanation is that there is a cosmological red shift due to the expansion of space itself. The photon wavelength is stretched in transit from the source to the observer. Double the distance, and the red shift is doubled. While this cosmological red shift is often called a Doppler shift, it is not -- space itself is expanding. There is no center of expansion in the universe. All observers see themselves as stationary; the other objects in space appear to be moving away from them. Hubble was directly responsible for discovering that the universe was much larger than had previously been imagined and that it had this amazing characteristic of rapid expansion.

    Universal expansion on the scale of galactic clusters (that is, galaxies at smaller distances are not uniformly receding from one another) is an integral part of modern cosmology. For galaxies farther away than about 50 Mly (50 million light years), the expansion is uniform with variations due to local motions of galaxies within clusters. A representative recession velocity \(v\) can be obtained from the simple formula

    \[v = H_{0}d, \label{34.2.1}\]

    where \(d\) is the distance to the galaxy and \(H_{0}\) is the Hubble constant. The Hubble constant is a central concept in cosmology. Its value is determined by taking the slope of a graph of velocity versus distance, obtained from red shift measurements, such as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\). We shall use an approximate value of \(H_{0} = 20 km/s \cdot Mly\). Thus, \(v = H_{0}d\) is an average behavior for all but the closest galaxies. For example, a galaxy 100 Mly away (as determined by its size and brightness) typically moves away from us at a speed of \(v = \left( 20 km/s \cdot Mly \right) \left( 100 Mly \right) = 2000 km/s\). There can be variations in this speed due to so-called local motions or interactions with neighboring galaxies. Conversely, if a galaxy is found to be moving away from us at speed of 100,000 km/s based on its red shift, it is at a distance \(d = v/H_{0} = \left( 10,000 km/s \right) / \left( 20 km/s \cdot Mly \right) = 5000 Mly = 5 Gly\) or \(5 \times 10^{9} ly\). This last calculation is approximate, because it assumes the expansion rate was the same 5 billion years ago as now. A similar calculation in Hubble’s measurement changed the notion that the universe is in a steady state.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): This graph of red shift versus distance for galaxies shows a linear relationship, with larger red shifts at greater distances, implying an expanding universe. The slope gives an approximate value for the expansion rate. (credit: John Cub).

    One of the most intriguing developments recently has been the discovery that the expansion of the universe may be faster now than in the past, rather than slowing due to gravity as expected. Various groups have been looking, in particular, at supernovas in moderately distant galaxies (less than 1 Gly) to get improved distance measurements. Those distances are larger than expected for the observed galactic red shifts, implying the expansion was slower when that light was emitted. This has cosmological consequences that are discussed in "Dark Matter and Closure." The first results, published in 1999, are only the beginning of emerging data, with astronomy now entering a data-rich era.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) shows how the recession of galaxies looks like the remnants of a gigantic explosion, the famous Big Bang. Extrapolating backward in time, the Big Bang would have occurred between 13 and 15 billion years ago when all matter would have been at a point. Questions instantly arise. What caused the explosion? What happened before the Big Bang? Was there a before, or did time start then? Will the universe expand forever, or will gravity reverse it into a Big Crunch? And is there other evidence of the Big Bang besides the well-documented red shifts?

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Galaxies are flying apart from one another, with the more distant moving faster as if a primordial explosion expelled the matter from which they formed. The most distant known galaxies move nearly at the speed of light relative to us.

    The Russian-born American physicist George Gamow (1904–1968) was among the first to note that, if there was a Big Bang, the remnants of the primordial fireball should still be evident and should be blackbody radiation. Since the radiation from this fireball has been traveling to us since shortly after the Big Bang, its wavelengths should be greatly stretched. It will look as if the fireball has cooled in the billions of years since the Big Bang. Gamow and collaborators predicted in the late 1940s that there should be blackbody radiation from the explosion filling space with a characteristic temperature of about 7 K. Such blackbody radiation would have its peak intensity in the microwave part of the spectrum. (See Figure \(\PageIndex{6}.\) In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two American scientists working with Bell Telephone Laboratories on a low-noise radio antenna, detected the radiation and eventually recognized it for what it is.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)b shows the spectrum of this microwave radiation that permeates space and is of cosmic origin. It is the most perfect blackbody spectrum known, and the temperature of the fireball remnant is determined from it to be \(2.75 \pm 0.002 K\). The detection of what is now called the cosmic microwave background (CMBR) was so important (generally considered as important as Hubble’s detection that the galactic red shift is proportional to distance) that virtually every scientist has accepted the expansion of the universe as fact. Penzias and Wilson shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): (a) The Big Bang is used to explain the present observed expansion of the universe. It was an incredibly energetic explosion some 10 to 20 billion years ago. After expanding and cooling, galaxies form inside the now-cold remnants of the primordial fireball. (b) The spectrum of cosmic microwave radiation is the most perfect blackbody spectrum ever detected. It is characteristic of a temperature of 2.725 K, the expansion-cooled temperature of the Big Bang’s remnant. This radiation can be measured coming from any direction in space not obscured by some other source. It is compelling evidence of the creation of the universe in a gigantic explosion, already indicated by galactic red shifts.

    Making Connections: Cosmology and Particle Physics

    There are many connections of cosmology -- by definition involving physics on the largest scale -- with particle physics -- by definition physics on the smallest scale. Among these are the dominance of matter over antimatter, the nearly perfect uniformity of the cosmic microwave background, and the mere existence of galaxies.

    Matter versus antimatter

    We know from direct observation that antimatter is rare. The Earth and the solar system are nearly pure matter. Space probes and cosmic rays give direct evidence -- the landing of the Viking probes on Mars would have been spectacular explosions of mutual annihilation energy if Mars were antimatter. We also know that most of the universe is dominated by matter. This is proven by the lack of annihilation radiation coming to us from space, particularly the relative absence of 0.511-MeV \(\gamma\) rays created by the mutual annihilation of electrons and positrons. It seemed possible that there could be entire solar systems or galaxies made of antimatter in perfect symmetry with our matter-dominated systems. But the interactions between stars and galaxies would sometimes bring matter and antimatter together in large amounts. The annihilation radiation they would produce is simply not observed. Antimatter in nature is created in particle collisions and in \(\beta ^{+}\) decays, but only in small amounts that quickly annihilate, leaving almost pure matter surviving.

    Particle physics seems symmetric in matter and antimatter. Why isn’t the cosmos? The answer is that particle physics is not quite perfectly symmetric in this regard. The decay of one of the neutral \(K\)-mesons, for example, preferentially creates more matter than antimatter. This is caused by a fundamental small asymmetry in the basic forces. This small asymmetry produced slightly more matter than antimatter in the early universe. If there was only one part in \(10^{9}\) more matter (a small asymmetry), the rest would annihilate pair for pair, leaving nearly pure matter to form the stars and galaxies we see today. So the vast number of stars we observe may be only a tiny remnant of the original matter created in the Big Bang. Here at last we see a very real and important asymmetry in nature. Rather than be disturbed by an asymmetry, most physicists are impressed by how small it is. Furthermore, if the universe were completely symmetric, the mutual annihilation would be more complete, leaving far less matter to form us and the universe we know.

    How can something so old have so few wrinkles?

    A troubling aspect of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) was soon recognized. True, the CMBR verified the Big Bang, had the correct temperature, and had a blackbody spectrum as expected. But the CMBR was too smooht -- it looked identical in every direction. Galaxies and other similar entities could not be formed without the existence of fluctuations in the primordial stages of the universe and so there should be hot and cool spots in the CMBR, nicknamed wrinkles, corresponding to dense and sparse regions of gas caused by turbulence or early fluctuations. Over time, dense regions would contract under gravity and form stars and galaxies. Why aren’t the fluctuations there? (This is a good example of an answer producing more questions.) Furthermore, galaxies are observed very far from us, so that they formed very long ago. The problem was to explain how galaxies could form so early and so quickly after the Big Bang if its remnant fingerprint is perfectly smooth. The answer is that if you look very closely, the CMBR is not perfectly smooth, only extremely smooth.

    A satellite called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) carried an instrument that made very sensitive and accurate measurements of the CMBR. In April of 1992, there was extraordinary publicity of COBE’s first results --  there were small fluctuations in the CMBR. Further measurements were carried out by experiments including NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which launched in 2001. Data from WMAP provided a much more detailed picture of the CMBR fluctuations. (See Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\).)  These amount to temperature fluctuations of only \(200 \mu k\)  out of 2.7 K, better than one part in 1000. The WMAP experiment will be followed up by the European Space Agency’s Planck Surveyor, which launched in 2009.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): This map of the sky uses color to show fluctuations, or wrinkles, in the cosmic microwave background observed with the WMAP spacecraft. The Milky Way has been removed for clarity. Red represents higher temperature and higher density, while blue is lower temperature and density. The fluctuations are small, less than one part in 1000, but these are still thought to be the cause of the eventual formation of galaxies. (credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team)

    Let us now examine the various stages of the overall evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, illustrated in Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\). Note that scientific notation is used to encompass the many orders of magnitude in time, energy, temperature, and size of the universe. Going back in time, the two lines approach but do not cross (there is no zero on an exponential scale). Rather, they extend indefinitely in ever-smaller time intervals to some infinitesimal point.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): The evolution of the universe from the Big Bang onward is intimately tied to the laws of physics, especially those of particle physics at the earliest stages. The universe is relativistic throughout its history. Theories of the unification of forces at high energies may be verified by their shaping of the universe and its evolution.

    Going back in time is equivalent to what would happen if expansion stopped and gravity pulled all the galaxies together, compressing and heating all matter. At a time long ago, the temperature and density were too high for stars and galaxies to exist. Before then, there was a time when the temperature was too great for atoms to exist. And farther back yet, there was a time when the temperature and density were so great that nuclei could not exist. Even farther back in time, the temperature was so high that average kinetic energy was great enough to create short-lived particles, and the density was high enough to make this likely. When we extrapolate back to the point of \(W^{\pm}\) and \(Z^{0}\) production (thermal energies reaching 1 TeV, or a temperature of about \(10^{15} K\)), we reach the limits of what we know directly about particle physics. This is at a time about \(10^{-12}s\) after the Big Bang. While \(10^{-12}s\) may seem to be negligibly close to the instant of creation, it is not. There are important stages before this time that are tied to the unification of forces. At those stages, the universe was at extremely high energies and average particle separations were smaller than we can achieve with accelerators. What happened in the early stages before \(10^{-22} s\)  is crucial to all later stages and is possibly discerned by observing present conditions in the universe. One of these is the smoothness of the CMBR.

    Names are given to early stages representing key conditions. The stage before \(10^{-11} s\) back to \(10^{-34} s\) is claled the electroweak epoch, because the electromagnetic and weak forces become identical for energies above about 100 GeV. As discussed earlier, theorists expect that the strong force becomes identical to and thus unified with the electroweak force at energies of about \(10^{14} GeV\). The average particle energy would be this great at \(10^{-34} s\) after the Big Bang, if there are no surprises in the unknown physics at energies above about 1 TeV. At the immense energy of \(10^{14} GeV\) (corresponding to a temperature of about \(10^{26} K\)), the \(W^{\pm}\) and \(Z^{0}\) carrier particles would be transformed into massless gauge bosons to accomplish the unification. Before \(10^{-34} s\) back to about \(10^{43} s\),  we have Grand Unification in the GUT epoch,  in which all forces except gravity are identical. At \(10^{-43} s\), the average energy reaches the immense \(10^{19} GeV\)  needed to unify gravity with the other forces in TOE, the Theory of Everything. Before that time is the TOE epoch,but we have almost no idea as to the nature of the universe then, since we have no workable theory of quantum gravity. We call the hypothetical unified force superforce.

    Now let us imagine starting at TOE and moving forward in time to see what type of universe is created from various events along the way. As temperatures and average energies decrease with expansion, the universe reaches the stage where average particle separations are large enough to see differences between the strong and electroweak forces (at about \(10^{-35} s\)). After this time, the forces become distinct in almost all interactions -- they spontaneous symmetry breaking, in which conditions spontaneously evolved to a point where the forces were no longer unified, breaking that symmetry. This is analogous to a phase transition in the universe, and a clever proposal by American physicist Alan Guth in the early 1980s ties it to the smoothness of the CMBR. Guth proposed that spontaneous symmetry breaking (like a phase transition during cooling of normal matter) released an immense amount of energy that caused the universe to expand extremely rapidly for the brief time from \(10^{-35} s\) to about \(10^{-32} s\). This expansion may have been by an incredible factor of \(10^{50}\) or more in the size of the universe and is thus called the inflationary scenario. One result of this inflation is that it would stretch the wrinkles in the universe nearly flat, leaving an extremely smooth CMBR. While speculative, there is as yet no other plausible explanation for the smoothness of the CMBR. Unless the CMBR is not really cosmic but local in origin, the distances between regions of similar temperatures are too great for any coordination to have caused them, since any coordination mechanism must travel at the speed of light. Again, particle physics and cosmology are intimately entwined. There is little hope that we may be able to test the inflationary scenario directly, since it occurs at energies near \(10^{14} GeV\), vastly greater than the limits of modern accelerators. But the idea is so attractive that it is incorporated into most cosmological theories.

    Characteristics of the present universe may help us determine the validity of this intriguing idea. Additionally, the recent indications that the universe’s expansion rate may be increasing (see "Dark Matter and Closure") could even imply that we are in another inflationary epoch.

    It is important to note that, if conditions such as those found in the early universe could be created in the laboratory, we would see the unification of forces directly today. The forces have not changed in time, but the average energy and separation of particles in the universe have. As discussed in "The Four Basic Forces," the four basic forces in nature are distinct under most circumstances found today. The early universe and its remnants provide evidence from times when they were unified under most circumstances.


    • Cosmology is the study of the character and evolution of the universe.
    • The two most important features of the universe are the cosmological red shifts of its galaxies being proportional to distance and its cosmic microwave background (CMBR). Both support the notion that there was a gigantic explosion, known as the Big Bang that created the universe.
    • Galaxies farther away than our local group have, on an average, a recessional velocity given by \(v = H_{0}d\), where \(d\) is the distance to the galaxy and \(H_{0}\) is the Hubble constant, taken to have the average value \(H_{0} = 20 km/s \cdot Mly\).
    • Explanations of the large-scale characteristics of the universe are intimately tied to particle physics.
    • The dominance of matter over antimatter and the smoothness of the CMBR are two characteristics that are tied to particle physics.
    • The epochs of the universe are known back to very shortly after the Big Bang, based on known laws of physics.
    • The earliest epochs are tied to the unification of forces, with the electroweak epoch being partially understood, the GUT epoch being speculative, and the TOE epoch being highly speculative since it involves an unknown single superforce.
    • The transition from GUT to electroweak is called spontaneous symmetry breaking. It released energy that caused the inflationary scenario, which in turn explains the smoothness of the CMBR.


    Big Bang
    a gigantic explosion that threw out matter a few billion years ago
    cosmic microwave background
    the spectrum of microwave radiation of cosmic origin
    cosmological red shift
    the photon wavelength is stretched in transit from the source to the observer because of the expansion of space itself
    the study of the character and evolution of the universe
    electroweak epoch
    the stage before 10−11 back to 10−34 after the Big Bang
    GUT epoch
    the time period from 10−43 to 10−34 after the Big Bang, when Grand Unification Theory, in which all forces except gravity are identical, governed the universe
    Hubble constant
    a central concept in cosmology whose value is determined by taking the slope of a graph of velocity versus distance, obtained from red shift measurements
    inflationary scenario
    the rapid expansion of the universe by an incredible factor of 10−50 for the brief time from 10−35 to about 10−32s
    spontaneous symmetry breaking
    the transition from GUT to electroweak where the forces were no longer unified
    hypothetical unified force in TOE epoch
    TOE epoch
    before 10−43 after the Big Bang


    Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).