Cosmic fingerprints at Trinity College Dublin

I was back in my alma mater Trinity College Dublin on Monday evening in order to catch a superb public lecture, ‘ Fingerprinting the Universe’ , by Andrew Liddle, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. The talk was presented by Astronomy Ireland, Ireland’s largest astronomy club and there was a capacity audience (despite the threat of snow) in the famous Schrödinger lecture theatre in the Fitzgerald Building, Trinity’s physics department.


Professor Liddle was introduced by David Moore, Chairman of Astronomy Ireland, who also presented an update of the club’s recent activities  (David and I participated in a discussion of the life and science of Sir Isaac Newton on NEWSTALK radio station the evening before, you can hear a podcast of the show here). Anyone with an interest in cosmology will be familiar with Andrew Liddle’s seminal textbook ‘ An Introduction to Modern Cosmology’, (not to mention several other books) and the ensuing lecture certainly didn’t disappoint.


Starting with a tribute to the work of both Schrödinger and Fitzgerald, Andrew gave a brief outline of today’s cosmology, showing how it has moved from a rather speculative subject to a mature field of study. He attributed this progress to key advances in three main areas: precision observations by satellite, sophisticated theoretical models and high performance computing for both analysis and simulation.

He then described five specific challenges that any successful model of the cosmos must address –  the expanding universe;  the formation of structure (galaxies etc);  the age of the universe; the composition of the universe (baryonic matter, radiation, neutrinos, dark matter and dark energy);  a consistent description of the very early universe (cosmic inflation or alternatives).

As ever, many in the audience were surprised to hear that, while dark energy is estimated to make up about 73% of the mass-energy content of the universe, we have very little idea of the nature of this phenomenon!

In the second part of the lecture, Andrew focused on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), explaining how the study of this ‘fossil radiation’  gives precious information on the early universe,  and in particular describing how tiny non-uniformities (or anisotropies) imprinted on the radiation formed the seeds of today’s galaxies (‘cosmic finger-printing’). There followed a swift description of results of CMB studies by the COBE and WMAP satellite missions, with a reminder that more recent measurements by the European Space Agency’s   PLANCK Satellite Observatory  will be announced next week. He also reminded us how, amongst other triumphs, the theory of inflation gives a very satisfactory explanation for the origin of the variations in the background radiation terms of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. This link between inflation and galaxy formation is often under-stated in the popular literature; in answer to a query from me question time, Andrew confirmed that non-inflationary explanations for the origins of the observed variations in the microwave background have not been very successful. It’s pretty impressive that inflation can give an explanation for the origin of structure, given that this was not part of the original motivation for the theory.

ESA's Planck mission

The ESA’s PLANCK Satellite will report new measurements of the cosmic microwave background on March 21st this month

All in all, a fantastic talk, well worth the trip; afterwards, we all repaired to a nearby pub for sandwiches and further discussion of the universe over hot ports and Guinness…

P.S. In his discussion of the discovery of the expanding universe, I was pleased to see Professor Liddle refer to the work of Vesto Slipher; it seems that recent historical work on the important contribution of Slipher is finding its way into the mainstream community.

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Filed under Cosmology (general), History and philosophy of science

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