Cosmic microwave gives us a peek at the young universe

The anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background as observed by the Planck satellite

The anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background as observed by the Planck satellite


How do you find out about something that happened almost 14 billion years ago? Researchers looking at the growth of the early universe are piecing together clues using radiation that dates back to that time and is still measurable today.

Such “relic radiation” is an important trove of information, according to Dr Créidhe O’Sullivan, who will give a free, public talk in Dublin this evening about cosmology.

She is interested in measuring cosmic microwave background radiation, which is thought to have burst when the universe was a mere 380,000 years old or so. “This radiation is still travelling through space and we can detect it,” says O’Sullivan, who is a lecturer in physics at NUI Maynooth.

Researchers at Maynooth helped to develop instruments aboard the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite to map patterns of radiation across the universe, and O’Sullivan says that the space telescope did “an excellent job”.

But Planck isn’t the only gig in town: earlier this year the Bicep2 experiment reported possibly finding even earlier imprints of the young universe in gravitational waves using data from a ground-based telescope.

If valid, the results would provide evidence for extremely rapid growth of the universe in the moments after the Big Bang. However, the finding has since been questioned.

O’Sullivan, who was not involved in the Bicep2 experiment, explains that further data from the Planck space telescope may help to clarify the situation. “It will be interesting to see what comes out with the next Planck data release,” she says. “And this released data will also help the Bicep2 team to re-analyse their findings.”

The Cosmic Microwave Background: New Views of the Early Universe is at 7.30pm this evening at the JM Synge Lecture Theatre in Trinity College Dublin. To book, go to and search for ‘cosmic microwave’

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