Cold Matters

Our current best estimate for the age of the universe (as we know it) is 13.799 Gyr ± 21 Myr. The Great Flaring Forth (GFF) occurred 13.8 billion years ago, and the universe has been expanding and cooling ever since.

The background temperature of the universe is today 2.72548 ± 0.00057 K. “K” stands for Kelvin, a unit of temperature named after William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907) – Lord Kelvin – who championed the idea of an “absolute thermometric scale”. A temperature in Kelvin is equivalent to the number of Celsius degrees above absolute zero. Put into terms we may be more familiar with, the cosmic background temperature is -270.42452° C, or -454.764136° F. While in the absence of nearby stars or other energy sources, the universe is certainly cold, scientists have artificially produced temperatures as low as 100 pK (1 picoKelvin = 10-12 K).

Using Wien’s displacement law, we can calculate the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation where the background universe is brightest.

\lambda _{max}=\frac{2.8977729\ \pm \ 0.0000017\ mm\cdot K}{T_{K}}=\frac{2.8977729\ \pm \ 0.0000017\ mm\cdot K}{2.72548\ \pm\ 0.00057 K}=\\1.0632\pm0.0002\ mm

So, we see here that the background universe is “brightest” in the microwave part of the radio spectrum, at a peak wavelength around 1 mm. Using the relationship between frequency and wavelength, c = νλ, we can determine the microwave frequency where the background universe is brightest.

\nu =\frac{c}{\lambda }=\frac{299,792,458\ m/s}{1.0632\times 10^{-3}\ m}=281.97\pm 0.05\ GHz

Microwaves at this frequency are in the extremely high frequency (EHF) radio band, above all our allocated communications bands (275-3000 GHz is unallocated).

Of course, a significant amount of emission occurs either side of the peak, particularly at longer wavelengths and lower frequencies. (The background universe radiates with an almost perfect blackbody spectrum.)

There are several ways to define the wavelength/frequency of maximum brightness. The above is one. Depending on the method we choose, the peak wavelength lies between 1.0623 and 3.313 mm, and the peak frequency between 90.5 and 282.0 GHz.

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