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‘Surface of last screaming’

This has nothing to do with anything in the news. I was reading up about the Big Bang for a blog post when I came across this lucid explanation – so good it’s worth sharing for that reason alone – for the surface of last scattering, the site of an important event in the history of the universe. A lot happens by this moment, even if it happens only 379,000 year after the bang, and it’s easy to get lost in the details. But as the excerpt below shows, coming at it from the PoV of phase transitions considerably simplifies the picture (assuming of course that you’re comfortable with phase transitions).

To visualise how this effect arises, imagine that you are in a large field filled with people screaming. You are screaming too. At some time t = 0 everyone stops screaming simultaneously. What will you hear? After 1 second you will still be able to hear the distant screaming of people more than 330 metres away (the speed of sound in air, v, is about 330 m/s). After 3 seconds you will be able to hear distant screams from people more than 1 kilometre away (even though those distant people stopped screaming when you did). At any time t, assuming a suitably heightened sense of hearing, you will hear some faint screams, but the closest and loudest will be coming from people a distance v*t away. This distance defines the ‘surface of last screaming’ and this surface is receding from you at the speed of sound. …

When something is hot and cools down it can undergo a phase transition. For example, hot steam cools down to become water, and when cooled further it becomes ice. The Universe went through similar phase transitions as it expanded and cooled. One such phase transition … produced the last scattering surface. When the Universe was cool enough to allow the electrons and protons to fall together, they ‘recombined’ to form neutral hydrogen. […] photons do not interact with neutral hydrogen, so they were free to travel through the Universe without being scattered. They decoupled from matter. The opaque Universe then became transparent.

Imagine you are living 15 billion years ago. You would be surrounded by a very hot opaque plasma of electrons and protons. The Universe is expanding and cooling. When the Universe cools down below a critical temperature, the fog clears instantaneously everywhere. But you would not be able to see that it has cleared everywhere because, as you look into the far distance, you would be seeing into the opaque past of distant parts of the Universe. As the Universe continues to expand and cool you would be able to see farther, but you would always see the bright opaque fog in the distance, in the past. That bright fog is the surface of last scattering. It is the boundary between a transparent and an opaque universe and you can still see it today, 15 billion years later.