Cosmology is the study of the organization and evolution of the universe. The universe is expanding, and this is one of the key observational starting points for modern cosmological theories. Modern observations show that the rate of expansion has not been constant throughout the life of the universe. Initially, when galaxies were close together, the effects of gravity were stronger than the effects of dark energy, and the expansion rate gradually slowed. As galaxies moved farther apart, the influence of gravity on the expansion rate weakened. Measurements of distant supernovae show that when the universe was about half its current age, dark energy began to dominate the rate of expansion and caused it to speed up. In order to estimate the age of the universe, we must allow for changes in the rate of expansion. After allowing for these effects, astronomers estimate that all of the matter within the observable universe was concentrated in an extremely small volume 13.8 billion years ago, a time we call the Big Bang.
For describing the large-scale properties of the universe, a model that is isotropic and homogeneous (same everywhere) is a pretty good approximation of reality. The universe is expanding, which means that the universe undergoes a change in scale with time; space stretches and distances grow larger by the same factor everywhere at a given time. Observations show that the mass density of the universe is less than the critical density. In other words, there is not enough matter in the universe to stop the expansion. With the discovery of dark energy, which is accelerating the rate of expansion, the observational evidence is strong that the universe will expand forever. Observations tell us that the expansion started about 13.8 billion years ago.
Lemaître, Alpher, and Gamow first worked out the ideas that are today called the Big Bang theory. The universe cools as it expands. The energy of photons is determined by their temperature, and calculations show that in the hot, early universe, photons had so much energy that when they collided with one another, they could produce material particles. As the universe expanded and cooled, protons and neutrons formed first, then came electrons and positrons. Next, fusion reactions produced deuterium, helium, and lithium nuclei. Measurements of the deuterium abundance in today’s universe show that the total amount of ordinary matter in the universe is only about 5% of the critical density.
When the universe became cool enough to form neutral hydrogen atoms, the universe became transparent to radiation. Scientists have detected the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation from this time during the hot, early universe. Measurements with the COBE satellite show that the CMB acts like a blackbody with a temperature of 2.73 K. Tiny fluctuations in the CMB show us the seeds of large-scale structures in the universe. Detailed measurements of these fluctuations show that we live in a critical-density universe and that the critical density is composed of 31% matter, including dark matter, and 69% dark energy. Ordinary matter—the kinds of elementary particles we find on Earth—make up only about 5% of the critical density. CMB measurements also indicate that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.
Twenty-seven percent of the critical density of the universe is composed of dark matter. To explain so much dark matter, some physics theories predict that additional types of particles should exist. One type has been given the name of WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), and scientists are now conducting experiments to try to detect them in the laboratory. Dark matter plays an essential role in forming galaxies. Since, by definition, these particles interact only very weakly (if at all) with radiation, they could have congregated while the universe was still very hot and filled with radiation. They would thus have formed gravitational traps that quickly attracted and concentrated ordinary matter after the universe became transparent, and matter and radiation decoupled. This rapid concentration of matter enabled galaxies to form by the time the universe was only 400–500 million years old.
The Big Bang model does not explain why the CMB has the same temperature in all directions. Neither does it explain why the density of the universe is so close to critical density. These observations can be explained if the universe experienced a period of rapid expansion, which scientists call inflation, about 10–35 second after the Big Bang. New grand unified theories (GUTs) are being developed to describe physical processes in the universe before and at the time that inflation occurred.
Recently, many cosmologists have noted that the existence of humans depends on the fact that many properties of the universe—the size of density fluctuations in the early universe, the strength of gravity, the structure of atoms—were just right. The idea that physical laws must be the way they are because otherwise we could not be here to measure them is called the anthropic principle. Some scientists speculate that there may be a multiverse of universes, in which ours is just one.