24in x 16in acrylic & hodgepodge on wood
An artistic interpretation of the Progenote and the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.
In cosmology, cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation (also CMBR, CBR, MBR, and relic radiation) is thermal radiation filling the observable universe almost uniformly.
With a traditional optical telescope, the space between stars and galaxies (the background) is completely dark. However, a sufficiently sensitive radio telescope shows a faint background glow, almost exactly the same in all directions, that is not associated with any star, galaxy, or other object. This glow is strongest in the microwave region of the radio spectrum. The CMB's serendipitous discovery in 1964 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s, and earned them the 1978 Nobel Prize.
Cosmic background radiation is well explained as radiation left over from an early stage in the development of the universe, and its discovery is considered a landmark test of the Big Bang model of the universe. When the universe was young, before the formation of stars and planets, it was smaller, much hotter, and filled with a uniform glow from its white-hot fog of hydrogen plasma. As the universe expanded, both the plasma and the radiation filling it grew cooler. When the universe cooled enough, protons and electrons could form neutral atoms. These atoms could no longer absorb the thermal radiation, and the universe became transparent instead of being an opaque fog. Cosmologists refer to the time period when neutral atoms first formed as the recombination epoch, and the event shortly after of photons starting to travel freely through space rather than constantly scattering with electrons and protons in plasma is referred to as photon decoupling. The photons that existed at the time of photon decoupling have been propagating ever since, though growing fainter and less energetic, since the expansion of space causes their wavelength to increase over time (and wavelength is inversely proportional to energy according to Planck's relation). This is the source for the alternate term relic radiation. The surface of last scattering refers to the set of points in space at the right distance from us so that we would just now be receiving photons originally emitted from those points at the time of photon decoupling.
Precise measurements of cosmic background radiation are critical to cosmology, since any proposed model of the universe must explain this radiation. The CMBR has a thermal black body spectrum at a temperature of 2.725 K, which peaks at the microwave range frequency of 160.2 GHz, corresponding to a 1.873 mm wavelength. This holds if measured per unit frequency, as in Planck's law. If measured instead per unit wavelength, using Wien's law, the peak is at 1.06 mm corresponding to a frequency of 283 GHz.
The glow is very nearly uniform in all directions, but the tiny remaining variations show a very specific pattern equal to that expected of a fairly uniformly distributed hot gas that has expanded to the current size of the universe. In particular, the spatial power spectrum (how much difference is observed versus how far apart the regions are on the sky) contains small anisotropies, or irregularities, which vary with the size of the region examined. They have been measured in detail, and match what would be expected if small thermal variations, generated by quantum fluctuations of matter in a very tiny space, had expanded to the size of the observable universe we see today. This is still a very active field of study, with scientists seeking both better data (for example, the Planck spacecraft) and better interpretations of the initial conditions of expansion.