Temperature of the Universe

Black Body Curve of the Cosmic Microwave Background

13.75 billion years ago, the Universe was much smaller and hotter. In the 1960s, Robert Dicke predicted a remnant “glow” from the Big Bang. In 1965 at the Bell Labs, radio astronomers Amo Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered that glow, named the cosmic microwave background radiation. The CBR was seen in all directions in empty space, with a black body curve (temperature ~3K in every direction). About 1 second after the Big Bang, the Universe was very hot, at ~1 billion K. At 3 minutes, protons and neutrons combine to form the nuclei of atoms. As space cooled, material condensed and atomic particles, then elements, molecules, stars, and galaxies formed. The hydrogen/ helium ratio (3:1) found today is about the same as what’s expected after the Big Bang. Atoms were “ionized” with electrons roaming free without being bound. At 300,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe becomes transparent with a temperature of 3,000K. Light red-shifted by a factor of 1000, and the expansion of the Universe ensued.

Today, the Universe is 2.73K, or 2.73°C above absolute zero, but at the beginning of space and time, the Big Bang, the Universe reached over one billion degrees. From a single pinpoint, the Universe emerged as a scorching hot primordial soup of subatomic particles moving at high velocities. As the Universe expanded, the temperature cooled as more space was created and density decreased. The Universe is continuously cooling as it expands.

Measuring the temperature isn’t as simple as sticking a thermometer in space and waiting until it stabilizes at a certain temperature. Instead, scientists measure indirectly using the cosmic microwave background, or leftover radiation emitted by hot plasma 38,000 years after the Big Bang. As the Universe expanded, the electromagnetic waves of the CMR elongated and decreased in energy, leading to cooler temperatures. Using Planck’s law, scientists measured the black body radiation of the Universe. Planck’s law states that every object radiates electromagnetic energy according to temperature. Black body curves are lopsided, with the curve peaking at different wavelengths depending on the object. In fact, space has a nearly perfect black body curve, since physical objects tend to absorb and reflect light in certain wavelengths.


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