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Observational Evidence Supporting the Big Bang Theory

It is generally stated that there are three observational pillars that support the Big Bang theory of cosmology. These are the Hubble-type expansion seen in the redshifts of galaxies, the detailed measurements of the cosmic microwave background, and the abundance of light elements. Additionally, the observed correlation function of Large-scale structure of the cosmos fits well with standard Big Bang theory.

Hubble's Law Expansion
Observations of distant galaxies and quasars show that these objects are redshifted, meaning that the light emitted from them has been shifted to longer wavelengths. This is seen by taking a frequency spectrum of the objects and then matching the spectroscopic pattern of emission lines or absorption lines corresponding to atoms of the elements interacting with the light. From this analysis, a redshift corresponding to a Doppler shift for the radiation can be measured which is explained by a recessional velocity. When the recessional velocities are plotted against the distances to the objects, a linear relationship, known as Hubble's law, is observed:

v = H0 D

where v is the recessional velocity, D is the distance to the object and H0 is Hubble's constant, measured to be 71 ± 4 km/s/Mpc by the WMAP probe.

The Hubble's Law observation has two possible explanations. One is that we are at the center of an explosion of galaxies, a position which is untenable given the Copernican principle. The second explanation is that the universe is uniformly expanding everywhere as a unique property of spacetime. This type of universal expansion was developed mathematically in the context of general relativity well before Hubble made his analysis and observations, and it remains the cornerstone of the Big Bang theory as developed by Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
The Big Bang theory predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation or CMB which is composed of photons emitted during baryogenesis. Because the early universe was in thermal equilibrium, the temperature of the radiation and the plasma were equal until the plasma recombined. Before atoms formed, radiation was constantly absorbed and reemitted in a process called Compton scattering: the early universe was opaque to light. However, cooling due to the expansion of the universe allowed the temperature to eventually fall below 3000 K at which point electrons and nuclei combined to form atoms and the primordial plasma turned into a neutral gas. This is known as photon decoupling. A universe with only neutral atoms allows radiation to travel largely unimpeded.

Because the early universe was in thermal equilibrium, the radiation from this time had a blackbody spectrum and freely streamed through space until today, becoming redshifted because of the Hubble expansion. This reduces the high temperature of the blackbody spectrum. The radiation should be observable at every point in the universe to come from all directions of space.

In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, while conducting a series of diagnostic observations using a new microwave receiver owned by Bell Laboratories, discovered the cosmic background radiation. Their discovery provided substantial confirmation of the general CMB predictions—the radiation was found to be isotropic and consistent with a blackbody spectrum of about 3 K —and it pitched the balance of opinion in favor of the Big Bang hypothesis. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery.

In 1989, NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite (COBE), and the initial findings, released in 1990, were consistent with the Big Bang's predictions regarding the CMB. COBE found a residual temperature of 2.726 K and determined that the CMB was isotropic to about one part in 105. During the 1990s, CMB anisotropies were further investigated by a large number of ground-based experiments and the universe was shown to be geometrically flat by measuring the typical angular size (the size on the sky) of the anisotropies.

In early 2003 the results of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy satellite (WMAP) were released, yielding what were at the time the most accurate values for some of the cosmological parameters. This satellite also disproved several specific cosmic inflation models, but the results were consistent with the inflation theory in general.

Abundance of Primordial Elements
For a more detailed treatment of this topic, see the subarticle Big Bang nucleosynthesis.

Using the Big Bang model it is possible to calculate the concentration of helium-4, helium-3, deuterium and lithium-7 in the universe as ratios to the amount of ordinary hydrogen, H. All the abundances depend on a single parameter, the ratio of photons to baryons. The ratios predicted are about 0.25 for 4He/H, about 10-3 for 2H/H, about 10-4 for 3He/H and about 10-9 for 7Li/H.

The measured abundances all agree with those predicted from a single value of the baryon-to-photon ratio. This is considered strong evidence for the Big Bang, as the theory is the only known explanation for the relative abundances of light elements. Indeed there is no obvious reason outside of the Big Bang that, for example, the universe should have more helium than deuterium or more deuterium than 3He.

Galactic Evolution and Distribution
Detail observations of the morphology and distribution of galaxies and quasars provide strong evidence for the Big Bang. A combination of observations and theory suggest that the first quasars and galaxies formed about a billion years after the big bang, and since then larger structures have been forming, such as galaxy clusters and superclusters. Populations of stars have been aging and evolving, so that distant galaxies (which are observed as they were in the early universe) appear very different from nearby galaxies (observed in a more recent state). Moreover, galaxies that formed relatively recently appear markedly different from galaxies formed at similar distances but shortly after the Big Bang. These observations are strong arguments against the steady-state model. Observations of star formation, galaxy and quasar distributions, and larger structures agree well with Big Bang simulations of the formation of structure in the universe and are helping to complete details of the theory.

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