There are two basic approaches to cosmology: start at redshift zero and work outwards in space, or start at the beginning of time and work forward. The latter approach is generally favored by theorists, as much of the physics of the early universe follows a “clean” thermal progression, cooling adiabatically as it expands. The former approach is more typical of observers who start with what we know locally and work outwards in the great tradition of Hubble, Sandage, Tully, and the entire community of extragalactic observers that established the paradigm of the expanding universe and measured its scale. This work had established our current concordance cosmology, ΛCDM, by the mid-90s.*
Both approaches have taught us an enormous amount. Working forward in time, we understand the nucleosynthesis of the light elements in the first few minutes, followed after a few hundred thousand years by the epoch of recombination when the universe transitioned from an ionized plasma to a neutral gas, bequeathing us the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at the phenomenally high redshift of z=1090. Working outwards in redshift, large surveys like Sloan have provided a detailed map of the “local” cosmos, and narrower but much deeper surveys provide a good picture out to z = 1 (when the universe was half its current size, and roughly half its current age) and beyond, with the most distant objects now known above redshift 7, and maybe even at z > 11. JWST will provide a good view of the earliest (z ~ 10?) galaxies when it launches.
This is wonderful progress, but there is a gap from 10 < z < 1000. Not only is it hard to observe objects so distant that z > 10, but at some point they shouldn’t exist. It takes time to form stars and galaxies and the supermassive black holes that fuel quasars, especially when starting from the smooth initial condition seen in the CMB. So how do we probe redshifts z > 10?
It turns out that the universe provides a way. As photons from the CMB traverse the neutral intergalactic medium, they are subject to being absorbed by hydrogen atoms – particularly by the 21cm spin-flip transition. Long anticipated, this signal has recently been detected by the EDGES experiment. I find it amazing that the atomic physics of the early universe allows for this window of observation, and that clever scientists have figured out a way to detect this subtle signal.
So what is going on? First, a mental picture. In the image below, an observer at the left looks out to progressively higher redshift towards the right. The history of the universe unfolds from right to left.
Pritchard & Loeb give a thorough and lucid account of the expected sequence of events. As the early universe expands, it cools. Initially, the thermal photon bath that we now observe as the CMB has enough energy to keep atoms ionized. The mean free path that a photon can travel before interacting with a charged particle in this early plasma is very short: the early universe is opaque like the interior of a thick cloud. At z = 1090, the temperature drops to the point that photons can no longer break protons and electrons apart. This epoch of recombination marks the transition from an opaque plasma to a transparent universe of neutral hydrogen and helium gas. The path length of photons becomes very long; those that we see as the CMB have traversed the length of the cosmos mostly unperturbed.
Immediately after recombination follows the dark ages. Sources of light have yet to appear. There is just neutral gas expanding into the future. This gas is mostly but not completely transparent. As CMB photons propagate through it, they are subject to absorption by the spin-flip transition of hydrogen, a subtle but, in principle, detectable effect: one should see redshifted absorption across the dark ages.
After some time – perhaps a few hundred million years? – the gas has had enough time to clump up enough to start to form the first structures. This first population of stars ends the dark ages and ushers in cosmic dawn. The photons they release into the vast intergalactic medium (IGM) of neutral gas interacts with it and heats it up, ultimately reionizing the entire universe. After this time the IGM is again a plasma, but one so thin (thanks to the expansion of the universe) that it remains transparent. Galaxies assemble and begin the long evolution characterized by the billions of years lived by the stars the contain.
This progression leads to the expectation of 21cm absorption twice: once during the dark ages, and again at cosmic dawn. There are three temperatures we need to keep track of to see how this happens: the radiation temperature Tγ, the kinetic temperature of the gas, Tk, and the spin temperature, TS. The radiation temperature is that of the CMB, and scales as (1+z). The gas temperature is what you normally think of as a temperature, and scales approximately as (1+z)2. The spin temperature describes the occupation of the quantum levels involved in the 21cm hyperfine transition. If that makes no sense to you, don’t worry: all that matters is that absorption can occur when the spin temperature is less than the radiation temperature. In general, it is bounded by Tk < TS < Tγ.
The radiation temperature and gas temperature both cool as the universe expands. Initially, the gas remains coupled to the radiation, and these temperatures remain identical until decoupling around z ~ 200. After this, the gas cools faster than the radiation. The radiation temperature is extraordinarily well measured by CMB observations, and is simply Tγ = (2.725 K)(1+z). The gas temperature is more complicated, requiring the numerical solution of the Saha equation for a hydrogen-helium gas. Clever people have written codes to do this, like the widely-used RECFAST. In this way, one can build a table of how both temperatures depend on redshift in any cosmology one cares to specify.
This may sound complicated if it is the first time you’ve encountered it, but the physics is wonderfully simple. It’s just the thermal physics of the expanding universe, and the atomic physics of a simple gas composed of hydrogen and helium in known amounts. Different cosmologies specify different expansion histories, but these have only a modest (and calculable) effect on the gas temperature.
Wonderfully, the atomic physics of the 21cm transition is such that it couples to both the radiation and gas temperatures in a way that matters in the early universe. It didn’t have to be that way – most transitions don’t. Perhaps this is fodder for people who worry that the physics of our universe is fine-tuned.
There are two ways in which the spin temperature couples to that of the gas. During the dark ages, the coupling is governed simply by atomic collisions. By cosmic dawn collisions have become rare, but the appearance of the first stars provides UV radiation that drives the Wouthuysen–Field effect. Consequently, we expect to see two absorption troughs: one around z ~ 20 at cosmic dawn, and another at still higher redshift (z ~ 100) during the dark ages.
Observation of this signal has the potential to revolutionize cosmology like detailed observations of the CMB did. The CMB is a snapshot of the universe during the narrow window of recombination at z = 1090. In principle, one can make the same sort of observation with the 21cm line, but at each and every redshift where absorption occurs: z = 16, 17, 18, 19 during cosmic dawn and again at z = 50, 100, 150 during the dark ages, with whatever frequency resolution you can muster. It will be like having the CMB over and over and over again, each redshift providing a snapshot of the universe at a different slice in time.
The information density available from the 21cm signal is in principle quite large. Before we can make use of any of this information, we have to detect it first. Therein lies the rub. This is an incredibly weak signal – we have to be able to detect that the CMB is a little dimmer than it would have been – and we have to do it in the face of much stronger foreground signals from the interstellar medium of our Galaxy and from man-made radio interference here on Earth. Fortunately, though much brighter than the signal we seek, these foregrounds have a different frequency dependence, so it should be possible to sort out, in principle.
Saying a thing can be done and doing it are two different things. This is already a long post, so I will refrain from raving about the technical challenges. Lets just say it’s Real Hard.
Many experimentalists take that as a challenge, and there are a good number of groups working hard to detect the cosmic 21cm signal. EDGES appears to have done it, reporting the detection of the signal at cosmic dawn in February. Here some weasel words are necessary, as the foreground subtraction is a huge challenge, and we always hope to see independent confirmation of a new signal like this. Those words of caution noted, I have to add that I’ve had the chance to read up on their methods, and I’m really impressed. Unlike the BICEP claim to detect primordial gravitational waves that proved to be bogus after being rushed to press release before refereering, the EDGES team have done all manner of conceivable cross-checks on their instrumentation and analysis. Nor did they rush to publish, despite the importance of the result. In short, I get exactly the opposite vibe from BICEP, whose foreground subtraction was obviously wrong as soon as I laid eyes on the science paper. If EDGES proves to be wrong, it isn’t for want of doing things right. In the meantime, I think we’re obliged to take their result seriously, and not just hope it goes away (which seems to be the first reaction to the impossible).
Here is what EDGES saw at cosmic dawn:
The unbelievable aspect of the EDGES observation is that it is too strong. Feeble as this signal is (a telescope brightness decrement of half a degree Kelvin), after subtracting foregrounds a thousand times stronger, it is twice as much as is possible in ΛCDM.
I made a quick evaluation of this, and saw that the observed signal could be achieved if the baryon fraction of the universe was high – basically, if cold dark matter did not exist. I have now had the time to make a more careful calculation, and publish some further predictions. The basic result from before stands: the absorption should be stronger without dark matter than with it.
The reason for this is simple. A universe full of dark matter decelerates rapidly at early times, before the acceleration of the cosmological constant kicks in. Without dark matter, the expansion more nearly coasts. Consequently, the universe is relatively larger from 10 < z < 1000, and the CMB photons have to traverse a larger path length to get here. They have to go about twice as far through the same density of hydrogen absorbers. It’s like putting on a second pair of sunglasses.
Quantitatively, the predicted absorption, both with dark matter and without, looks like:
The predicted absorption is consistent with the EDGES observation, within the errors, if there is no dark matter. More importantly, ΛCDM is not consistent with the data, at greater than 95% confidence. At cosmic dawn, I show the maximum possible signal. It could be weaker, depending on the spectra of the UV radiation emitted by the first stars. But it can’t be stronger. Taken at face value, the EDGES result is impossible in ΛCDM. If the observation is corroborated by independent experiments, ΛCDM as we know it will be falsified.
There have already been many papers trying to avoid this obvious conclusion. If we insist on retaining ΛCDM, the only way to modulate the strength of the signal is to alter the ratio of the radiation temperature to the gas temperature. Either we make the radiation “hotter,” or we make the gas cooler. If we allow ourselves this freedom, we can fit any arbitrary signal strength. This is ad hoc in the way that gives ad hoc a bad name.
We do not have this freedom – not really. The radiation temperature is measured in the CMB with great accuracy. Altering this would mess up the genuine success of ΛCDM in fitting the CMB. One could postulate an additional source, something that appears after recombination but before cosmic dawn to emit enough radio power throughout the cosmos to add to the radio brightness that is being absorbed. There is zero reason to expect such sources (what part of `cosmic dawn’ was ambiguous?) and no good way to make them at the right time. If they are primordial (as people love to imagine but are loathe to provide viable models for) then they’re also present at recombination: anything powerful enough to have the necessary effect will likely screw up the CMB.
Instead of magically increasing the radiation temperature, we might decrease the gas temperature. This seems no more plausible. The evolution of the gas temperature is a straightforward numerical calculation that has been checked by several independent codes. It has to be right at the time of recombination, or again, we mess up the CMB. The suggestions that I have heard seem mostly to invoke interactions between the gas and dark matter that offload some of the thermal energy of the gas into the invisible sink of the dark matter. Given how shy dark matter has been about interacting with normal matter in the laboratory, it seems pretty rich to imagine that it is eager to do so at high redshift. Even advocates of this scenario recognize its many difficulties.
For those who are interested, I cite a number of the scientific papers that attempt these explanations in my new paper. They all seem like earnest attempts to come to terms with what is apparently impossible. Many of these ideas also strike me as a form of magical thinking that stems from ΛCDM groupthink. After all, ΛCDM is so well established, any unexpected signal must be a sign of exciting new physics (on top of the new physics of dark matter and dark energy) rather than an underlying problem with ΛCDM itself.
The more natural interpretation is that the expansion history of the universe deviates from that predicted by ΛCDM. Simply taking away the dark matter gives a result consistent with the data. Though it did not occur to me to make this specific prediction a priori for an experiment that did not yet exist, all the necessary calculations had been done 15 years ago.
Using the same model, I make a genuine a priori prediction for the dark ages. For the specific NoCDM model I built in 2004, the 21cm absorption in the dark ages should again be about twice as strong as expected in ΛCDM. This seems fairly generic, but I know the model is not complete, so I wouldn’t be upset if it were not bang on.
I would be upset if ΛCDM were not bang on. The only thing that drives the signal in the dark ages is atomic scattering. We understand this really well. ΛCDM is now so well constrained by Planck that, if right, the 21cm absorption during the dark ages must follow the red line in the inset in the figure. The amount of uncertainty is not much greater than the thickness of the line. If ΛCDM fails this test, it would be a clear falsification, and a sign that we need to try something completely different.
Unfortunately, detecting the 21cm absorption signal during the dark ages is even harder than it is at cosmic dawn. At these redshifts (z ~ 100), the 21cm line (1420 MHz on your radio dial) is shifted beyond the ionospheric cutoff of the Earth’s atmosphere at 30 MHz. Frequencies this low cannot be observed from the ground. Worse, we have made the Earth itself a bright foreground contaminant of radio frequency interference.
Undeterred, there are multiple proposals to measure this signal by placing an antenna in space – in particular, on the far side of the moon, so that the moon shades the instrument from terrestrial radio interference. This is a great idea. The mere detection of the 21cm signal from the dark ages would be an accomplishment on par with the original detection of the CMB. It appears that it might also provide a decisive new way of testing our cosmological model.
There are further tests involving the shape of the 21cm signal, its power spectrum (analogous to the power spectrum of the CMB), how structure grows in the early ages of the universe, and how massive the neutrino is. But that’s enough for now.
Most likely beer. Or a cosmo. That’d be appropriate. I make a good pomegranate cosmo.
*Note that a variety of astronomical observations had established the concordance cosmology before Type Ia supernovae detected cosmic acceleration and well-resolved observations of the CMB found a flat cosmic geometry.