Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Where exactly does CMB come from. I've seen it in documentaries as a huge sphere with Earth in the middle. But if all this radiation was ejected from the start of the universe some time after the big bang; why can we see it? Surely the radiation should be travelling away from us? Just like every galaxy is?

share|cite|improve this question
up vote 16 down vote accepted

The radiation was "produced" about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and it was produced at every point of the Universe. From the very beginning, it's been (almost) uniform (the same at all places) and isotropic (the same in all directions). Since that time, the radiation was moving in all directions, essentially without any interactions.

The cosmic microwave radiation "decoupled" - separated - from the rest of the matter in the Universe in this era we call "decoupling". Before the decoupling, the temperature of the Universe was so high that electrons and protons were largely separated in a plasma filling the Universe. Plasma carries a lot of random electric charge that severely interacts with photons all the time - so the plasma was opaque for the radiation.

However, after the "decoupling", the atoms were formed for the first time - mostly Hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms are neutral and their interactions with the photons are much weaker so the Universe became essentially transparent. The photons - and everything else in the Universe - at the moment of decoupling had a certain high temperature (thermal equilibrium, about 3000 Kelvin) which means that their spectrum was Planck's black-body thermal spectrum corresponding to the temperature.

From that moment, photons were moving without any interactions and their wavelength was increasing proportionally to the size of the Universe. That also means that the energy of each photon was decreasing by the same factor; the temperature of the black body radiation did the same thing. That's why the current CMB temperature is just 2.7 Kelvin. You may see that the Universe's linear dimensions expanded about 1,000 times from the decoupling.

(Note that 13.73 billion years over 380,000 years is substantially more than 1,000. That's because in the early stages, the expansion of the Universe was "decelerating" as a function of time. Only in recent few billions of years, the expansion got actually accelerating because of dark energy that gradually became important.)

When the WMAP probe detects a photon of the cosmic microwave background, this collision with the telescope is the first interaction of this photon since the moment when the Universe was 380,000 years old. This fact allows you to to deduce how far is the point when the photon was born - or when it last interacted with another object. The birth place is clearly a point in the direction where the photon is coming from. The distance is always the same so all the photons we see here today had to be produced at a particular spherical shell in spacetime. The center of the shell is "our place in the past" and the radius is such that the photons from the shell, when travelling inwards, exactly needed those 13.7 billion years of the cosmic time to get here.

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.