Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thermal equilibrium recap

The last post is rather long and involved, so I will try and recap in briefer terms. The early universe was very hot, so that everything was in thermal equilibrium. In particular, because reactions were constantly taking place, the universe was strongly "ionized" or charged. Therefore, photons were constantly scattering off the charged particles.

Eventually the universe began expanding and cooling.* As it did so, the ions and free electrons "recombined" (during the time romantically referred to as the era or epoch of recombination) to form neutral atoms, after which photons no longer scattered (romantically referred to as the "surface of last scattering," a phrase that always puts me in mind [for whatever reason] of the "Last Homely House" in the Lord of the Rings [yes, I am a physicist and I love Tolkein and I write a blog for my mom]). Those photons remain unmolested since that time.

*Aside: my mom asks in a comment "why did the universe cool?" The short answer to that is because it expanded. Temperature is in some sense a measure of how many collisions occur in a space [recall my analogy about money in the last post] - at high temperature, there are lots of collisions. Suppose we expanded the space, but kept the number of particles the same. All of a sudden, the number of collisions would go down, because the particles wouldn't be able to find each other to collide. Therefore the temperature drops. Many [if not all] refrigerators operate this way, by allowing a compressed gas to expand rapidly and thereby drop in temperature. A follow-up question is then "why did the universe expand?" and I have a less satisfactory answer to that. My best explanation is that there was a lot of energy released in the big bang, and it was that energy that drove the expansion. We may have more to say on this subject at later times).

1 comment:

  1. I suppose that if we don't take care the planet we were living in a cold place because or definitely we will be burn because the climate changes actually are inconstant.