Oldest Photo in the World – The Image of our Universe

The oldest photo in the world cover image

Like we have old pictures of ourselves when we were children. Everything looks different in the picture and we don’t look very similar to our miniature forms. Like us, there is a picture of the baby universe. It is the first picture of the Universe and also the oldest picture ever! It was taken way back in time, around 300,000 years after the Big Bang! This baby picture is called the Cosmic Microwave background. It wasn’t easy to get a picture and scientists had to work hard for it. Let’s see how it was discovered and how it shows that one small difference would have left the universe barren. Take a look at the oldest photo in the world.

How did we find the Cosmic Microwave Background

Cosmic microwave background - the oldest photo in the world
The CMB. Image credits : NASA

It is rather a tale of fruitful coincidence, defining serendipity. Scientists had two different models to describe the origin of the Universe. First they had the steady-state model which stated that the Universe had always been the way it is and always will be, which is infinite. The other was the more familiar, Big Bang theory. This theory stated that the Universe had somewhat of a beginning. An explosive commencement, a Big Bang. These assumptions led to speculations about an ‘afterglow’ of the huge explosion that must be present even today. The difficult thing was to find out this elusive radiation. This was of course the Cosmic Microwave background radiation.

A coincidence.

a radio wave detector in the 1960s
The radio wave detector. Image credits : NASA

In Bell Labs, in 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson had created a supersensitive radio detector antenna to detect radio waves bounced off Echo Balloon Satellite. After switching the detector on, they noticed a faint humming, a constant interference. They tried every measure, both scientific and practical like removing bird nesting, cooling down the temperature, etc. But the humming continued as if it was omnipresent. They experimented with the interference and concluded that it wasn’t coming from Earth, or the Sun, or even our galaxy. But it baffled them as to where could the source be?

Another Team around them 

Just 60 km away from them, Robert H Dicke, Jim Peebles, and David Wilkinson at Princeton University were working on the afterglow of the Big Bang as mentioned before. When a friend of Penzias heard about it, he immediately informed Penzias and the radio wave detector team contacted Dicke to get an unprinted paper about the research. After reading, he invited Dicke’s team to see the data. It was confirmed that what Penzias and the team had found was indeed the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. Two teams unknown to each other stumbled upon something revolutionary. Serendipity.

What is the Cosmic Microwave Background

Cosmic microwave background - the oldest photo in the world
Image by COBE satellite showing different regions of the CMB. Image credits : NASA

When the universe began (according to Big Bang), for about 300,000 years, it was too hot to form anything. The Photons were so energetic that they did not allow protons and electrons to coalesce and form hydrogen. Like a toaster becomes orangish due to the heat, the Universe was also orange in color at that time. But nothing was visible because it was filled with plasma. However the inflation of the Universe caused in the increment of the size of it. As the size increased, the photons lost energy, and at that moment, at around 300,000 years after the Bang, electron, and protons coalesced and the Universe became transparent.

Articles you may like:

The First Picture 

Since now everything was transparent, light could travel freely now, without any interfering electron around. This created the last flash of light, like the flash when you take a picture. This is the flash which today we call the Cosmic Microwave Background. This took the picture of the Universe, the baby universe and as the universe kept expanding, the like kept traveling. But since the Universe has expanded a lot and space has formed, the light is no longer in the visible spectrum due to stretching. This is what happens in the Doppler effect. The elongation of the radiation has now put it into the microwave part of the spectrum and hence the name.

Seeing the picture was not easy.

We knew that there is an afterglow, but the glare of the sun and the galaxies made it really difficult to see the Cosmic Microwave Background. After multiple iterations of satellites and detectors, the Planck satellite took multiple scans of the surrounding sky, creating a spherical map of the universe. After the data was collected, it needed to be filtered. Since we know the frequency of the radiation of stars and galaxies and quasars, etc, we filtered everything out. The result was astonishing. We had obtained a nearly smooth image of the Universe with a peak temperature of 2.7 K. This was something astonishing because it showed some underlying property of the universe.

The Clumps and Plains

If you look at the Cosmic Microwave Background, you can see regions of blue and orange indicating the temperature difference. These temperature differences are in the order of factors of a hundred thousand!. The whole image shows smoothness. But the unevenness that you see is not due to atoms or molecules, but it is a very intrinsic property of the Universe itself and it was crucial for the formation of everything you see! The clumps are a result of quantum fluctuations in the fabric of the Universe. This unevenness allowed atoms to coalesce together to form molecules and then stars, galaxies, and cars and iPhones…everything that you see was due to this. The Universe is to form us and everything around us.

What a time to live

The Cosmic Microwave Background is not just a scientific data or just a statical picture of the temperature difference of the Universe. It is a time machine, taking us back into the very beginning of the Universe. It shows us something that people before us could never see. Granted it is not taken that seriously by common people or even with great awe but it truly is magnificent to see the baby Universe. Maybe one day we will see the birth of the Universe. And one day, we will see the universe’s parents. Who knows.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *