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Science: Possible Cosmic Defect May Be a Window into the Early Universe
The figure shows a random collection of textures taken from high-resolution, supercomputer simulations. Red indicates a positive twist in the topological charge density and blue a negative twist.
[Image courtesy of V. Travieso and N. Turok]
An unusual cold spot in the oldest radiation in the universe, the cosmic microwave background, may be caused by a cosmic defect created just after the Big Bang, a Spanish and U.K. research team reports in Science Express.
Although these findings need confirmation with further research, they may provide cosmologists with long-sought clues about how the infant universe evolved.
"These findings open up the possibility of looking for cosmic defects, similar to crystal defects, in the fabric of the universe," said Joanne Baker, associate editor at Science. "Although their existence has been proposed by theorists for decades, no defects have been seen. The jury is still out on the cold spot's origin, but this surprising finding will be testable and may lead to new views of the cosmos in its infancy in years to come.
"Science is honored to be publishing this important research, and it seems fitting that an international collaboration between Spanish and British scientists be presented the same week that Spain is celebrating the importance of scientific achievement, through the Prince of Asturias Awards," Baker added.
The new research was presented at a news briefing in Spain held in conjunction with the award ceremonies. Science was named one of this year's winners of the prestigious award in the category recognizing excellence in science communications.
This illustration shows how cosmic textures lead to hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background radiation, as the microwave radiation passing through an unwinding texture receives a blue- or red-shift. The Wilkinson-MAP satellite (top) receives cosmic microwave radiation emitted from the very early universe. In the diagram, time runs vertically and space horizontally. Radiation released from the hot plasma of the early universe (shown as the lower ellipse) traveled through space to us at the speed of light. As the universe expands, textures of ever increasing scale form, collapse and unwind.
[Image courtesy of V. Travieso and N. Turok, included WMAP image courtesy NASA]
The Spanish-U.K. research team, led by Marcos Cruz of the Instituto de Física de Cantabria, in Santander, Spain, was careful to say that they have not definitively discovered a defect. Rather, they have found evidence in the cosmic microwave background—the frozen map of the early universe from the time when the first atoms formed and became separate from photons, hundreds of thousands of years after the Big Bang—that could be explained by the presence of a defect.
Because defects would have formed at extremely high temperatures, at particle energies far in excess of those achievable at laboratory accelerators, their properties would provide physicists with powerful clues as to the fundamental nature of elementary particles and forces.
"It will be very interesting to see whether this tentative observation firms up in coming years," said Neil Turok of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who is a coauthor of the Science study. "If it does, the implications will be extraordinary. The properties of the defect will provide an absolutely unique window onto the unification of particles and forces."
Shortly after the Big Bang, the universe began to cool and expand, undergoing a variety of phase transitions—more exotic versions of the gas-liquid-solid transitions that matter experiences on Earth.
In both the early universe and the average kitchen freezer, when matter changes phase, it does so irregularly. In an ice cube, for example cloudy spots mark defects that formed as the water crystallized.
In the mid-1970s, particle physicists realized that different sorts of defects should also have developed as various particles separated from the infant universe's hot plasma. One such defect, known as a texture, is "a three-dimensional object like a blob of energy. But within the blob the energy fields making up the texture are twisted up," according to Turok.
Textures and other defects should be detectable as temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background.
"The cosmic microwave background is the most ancient image we have of the universe," Cruz said, "and therefore it's one of the most valuable tools to understand the universe's origins. If this spot is a texture, it would allow us to discriminate among different theories that have been proposed for how the universe evolved."
Evolution of the universe, with time running from left to right. The oldest light is measured by the WMAP satellite. This radiation contains signatures of objects such as cosmic textures that encounters on its way to us.
[Image courtesy Marcos Cruz, included timeline image courtesy NASA]
When Turok and his colleagues first described cosmic texture and showed how it might be detected, the cosmic microwave background hadn't been mapped accurately enough to detect them. But since 2001, the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, also known as WMAP, has provided a detailed survey of the temperature changes across the cosmic microwave background.
The Science study began with Cruz and his colleagues at the Instituto de Física de Cantabria puzzling over an unusual cold spot in the WMAP data and trying to figure out what could have caused it. When the problem defied all explanations other than a defect, they brought their problem to Turok.
The research team then analyzed WMAP data and determined that the cold spot had the properties that would be expected if it had been caused by a cosmic texture.
"Now, here is an example where this exotic theory trumps more mundane ones," said Baker.
"We're not certain this is a texture by any means," Turok said. "The probability that it's just a random fluctuation is about 1%. But what makes this so interesting is that there are a number of follow-up checks which can now be done. So the texture hypothesis is actually very testable."
"A Feature in the Cosmic Background Radiation Consistent with a Cosmic Texture," by M. Cruz, P. Vielva and E. Martínez-González of the Instituto de Física de Cantabria (CSIC, Univ. Cantabria) , in Santander, Spain; N. Turok of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK; and M. Hobson of Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, UK. This research was supported by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia.
This study was published by the journal Science at its Science Express Web site on 25 October 2007. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
25 October 2007