Cosmic Microwave Background

John Mather, Gary Hinshaw, Lyman Page

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Scopus citations


The cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the relic of the early phases of the expanding universe, is bright, full of information, and difficult to measure. Along with the recession of galaxies and the primordial nucleosynthesis, it is one of the strongest signs that the Hot Big Bang Model of the universe is correct. It is brightest around 2 mm wavelength, has a temperature of Tcmb=2.72548±0.00057 K, and has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million. Its spatial fluctuations (around 0.01% on 1∘�scales) are possibly the relics of quantum mechanical processes in the early universe, modified by processes up to the decoupling at a redshift of about 1,000 (when the primordial plasma became mostly transparent). In the cold dark matter (DM) model with cosmic acceleration CDM), the fluctuation statistics are consistent with the model of inflation and can be used to determine other parameters within a few percent, including the Hubble constant, the constant, the densities of baryonic and dark matter, and the primordial fluctuation amplitude and power spectrum slope. In addition, the polarization of the fluctuations reveals the epoch of reionization at a redshift approximately twice that determined from the Gunn-Peterson trough due to optically thick Lyman absorption in QSO spectra. It is of historic importance, and a testament to the unity of theory and experiment, that we now have a standard model of cosmology that is consistent with all of the observations.Current observational challenges include (1) improvement of the spectrum distortion measurements, especially at long wavelengths, where the measured background is unexpectedly bright; (2) the search for the B-mode polarization (the divergence-free part of the polarization map), arising from propagating gravitational waves; and (3) the extension of fluctuation measurements to smaller angular scales. Much more precise spectrum observations near 2 mm are likely and would test some very interesting theories. Current theoretical challenges include explanation of the dark matter and dark energy; understanding, estimating, and removing the interference of foreground sources that limit the measurements of the CMB; detailed understanding of the influence of nonequilibrium processes on the decoupling and reionization phases; and searches for signs of the second order or exotic processes (e.g., isocurvature fluctuations, cosmic strings, non-Gaussian fluctuations). At this writing, we await the cosmological results of the Planck mission.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPlanets, Stars and Stellar Systems
Subtitle of host publicationVolume 6: Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages76
ISBN (Electronic)9789400756090
ISBN (Print)9789400756083
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Physics and Astronomy


  • Alpher
  • Anisotropy
  • Big Bang Theory
  • Blackbody
  • Bose-Einstein
  • CMB
  • COBE
  • Cold dark matter
  • Compton distortion
  • Cosmic microwave background radiation
  • DMR
  • Decoupling
  • Dicke
  • Foregrounds
  • Galactic emission
  • Herman
  • Lensing
  • Penzias
  • Planck
  • Polarization
  • Silk damping
  • Spectrum distortion
  • Standard model
  • Steady State Theory
  • Sunyaev-Zel’dovich
  • WMAP
  • Wilson


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