34.1 Cosmology and particle physics

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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Discuss the expansion of the universe.
• Explain how the Big Bang gave rise to the universe we see today.

Look at the sky on some clear night when you are away from city lights. There you will see thousands of individual stars and a faint glowing background of millions more. The Milky Way, as it has been called since ancient times, is an arm of our galaxy of stars—the word galaxy coming from the Greek word galaxias , meaning milky. We know a great deal about our Milky Way galaxy and of the billions of other galaxies beyond its fringes. But they still provoke wonder and awe (see [link] ). And there are still many questions to be answered. Most remarkable when we view the universe on the large scale is that once again explanations of its character and evolution are tied to the very small scale. Particle physics and the questions being asked about the very small scales may also have their answers in the very large scales.

As has been noted in numerous Things Great and Small vignettes, this is not the first time the large has been explained by the small and vice versa. Newton realized that the nature of gravity on Earth that pulls an apple to the ground could explain the motion of the moon and planets so much farther away. Minute atoms and molecules explain the chemistry of substances on a much larger scale. Decays of tiny nuclei explain the hot interior of the Earth. Fusion of nuclei likewise explains the energy of stars. Today, the patterns in particle physics seem to be explaining the evolution and character of the universe. And the nature of the universe has implications for unexplored regions of particle physics.

Cosmology is the study of the character and evolution of the universe. What are the major characteristics of the universe as we know them today? First, there are approximately ${\text{10}}^{\text{11}}$ galaxies in the observable part of the universe. An average galaxy contains more than ${\text{10}}^{\text{11}}$ stars, with our Milky Way galaxy being larger than average, both in its number of stars and its dimensions. Ours is a spiral-shaped galaxy with a diameter of about 100,000 light years and a thickness of about 2000 light years in the arms with a central bulge about 10,000 light years across. The Sun lies about 30,000 light years from the center near the galactic plane. There are significant clouds of gas, and there is a halo of less-dense regions of stars surrounding the main body. (See [link] .) Evidence strongly suggests the existence of a large amount of additional matter in galaxies that does not produce light—the mysterious dark matter we shall later discuss.

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