Big Bang Acoustics

It’s National Science and Engineering Week this week and as part of the programme of events in Cardiff we have an open evening at the School of Physics & Astronomy tonight. This will comprise a series of public talks followed by an observing session using the School’s Observatory. I’m actually giving a (short) talk myself, which means it will be a long day, so I’m going to save time by recycling the following from an old blog post on the subject of my talk.

As you probably know the Big Bang theory involves the assumption that the entire Universe – not only the matter and energy but also space-time itself – had its origins in a single event a finite time in the past and it has been expanding ever since. The earliest mathematical models of what we now call the  Big Bang were derived independently by Alexander Friedman and George Lemaître in the 1920s. The term “Big Bang” was later coined by Fred Hoyle as a derogatory description of an idea he couldn’t stomach, but the phrase caught on. Strictly speaking, though, the Big Bang was a misnomer.

Friedman and Lemaître had made mathematical models of universes that obeyed the Cosmological Principle, i.e. in which the matter was distributed in a completely uniform manner throughout space. Sound consists of oscillating fluctuations in the pressure and density of the medium through which it travels. These are longitudinal “acoustic” waves that involve successive compressions and rarefactions of matter, in other words departures from the purely homogeneous state required by the Cosmological Principle. The Friedman-Lemaitre models contained no sound waves so they did not really describe a Big Bang at all, let alone how loud it was.

However, as I have blogged about before, newer versions of the Big Bang theory do contain a mechanism for generating sound waves in the early Universe and, even more importantly, these waves have now been detected and their properties measured.

The above image shows the variations in temperature of the cosmic microwave background as charted by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe about a decade years ago. The average temperature of the sky is about 2.73 K but there are variations across the sky that have an rms value of about 0.08 milliKelvin. This corresponds to a fractional variation of a few parts in a hundred thousand relative to the mean temperature. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is evidence for the existence of primordial acoustic waves and therefore of a Big Bang with a genuine “Bang” to it.

A full description of what causes these temperature fluctuations would be very complicated but, roughly speaking, the variation in temperature you see in the CMB corresponds directly to variations in density and pressure arising from sound waves.

So how loud was it?

The waves we are dealing with have wavelengths up to about 200,000 light years and the human ear can only actually hear sound waves with wavelengths up to about 17 metres. In any case the Universe was far too hot and dense for there to have been anyone around listening to the cacophony at the time. In some sense, therefore, it wouldn’t have been loud at all because our ears can’t have heard anything.

Setting aside these rather pedantic objections – I’m never one to allow dull realism to get in the way of a good story- we can get a reasonable value for the loudness in terms of the familiar language of decibels. This defines the level of sound (L) logarithmically in terms of the rms pressure level of the sound wave Prms relative to some reference pressure level Pref

L=20 log10[Prms/Pref]

(the 20 appears because of the fact that the energy carried goes as the square of the amplitude of the wave; in terms of energy there would be a factor 10).

There is no absolute scale for loudness because this expression involves the specification of the reference pressure. We have to set this level by analogy with everyday experience. For sound waves in air this is taken to be about 20 microPascals, or about 2×10-10 times the ambient atmospheric air pressure which is about 100,000 Pa.  This reference is chosen because the limit of audibility for most people corresponds to pressure variations of this order and these consequently have L=0 dB. It seems reasonable to set the reference pressure of the early Universe to be about the same fraction of the ambient pressure then, i.e.

Pref~2×10-10 Pamb

The physics of how primordial variations in pressure translate into observed fluctuations in the CMB temperature is quite complicated, and the actual sound of the Big Bang contains a mixture of wavelengths with slightly different amplitudes so it all gets a bit messy if you want to do it exactly, but it’s quite easy to get a rough estimate. We simply take the rms pressure variation to be the same fraction of ambient pressure as the averaged temperature variation are compared to the average CMB temperature,  i.e.

Prms~ a few ×10-5Pamb

If we do this, scaling both pressures in logarithm in the equation in proportion to the ambient pressure, the ambient pressure cancels out in the ratio, which turns out to be a few times 10-5

With our definition of the decibel level we find that waves corresponding to variations of one part in a hundred thousand of the reference level  give roughly L=100dB while part in ten thousand gives about L=120dB. The sound of the Big Bang therefore peaks at levels just a bit less than  120 dB. As you can see in the Figure to the left, this is close to the threshold of pain,  but it’s perhaps not as loud as you might have guessed in response to the initial question. Many rock concerts are actually louder than the Big Bang, so I suspect any metalheads in the audience will be distinctly unimpressed.

A useful yardstick is the amplitude  at which the fluctuations in pressure are comparable to the mean pressure. This would give a factor of about 1010 in the logarithm and is pretty much the limit that sound waves can propagate without distortion. These would have L≈190 dB. It is estimated that the 1883 Krakatoa eruption produced a sound level of about 180 dB at a range of 100 miles. By comparison the Big Bang was little more than a whimper.

PS. If you would like to read more about the actual sound of the Big Bang, have a look at John Cramer’s webpages. You can also download simulations of the actual sound. If you listen to them you will hear that it’s more of  a “Roar” than a “Bang” because the sound waves don’t actually originate at a single well-defined event but are excited incoherently all over the Universe.

PPS. If you would like to hear a series of increasingly sophisticated computer simulations showing how our idea of the sounds accompanying the start of the Universe has evolved over the past few years, please take a look at the following video. It’s amazing how crude the 1995 version seems, compared with that describing the new era of precision cosmology.

8 Responses to “Big Bang Acoustics”

  1. Extremely loud noises though are measured, as everyone knows, on a base-11 scale.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Hmmmm. If the pressure waves have wavelengths “up to about 200,000 light years” are they really anything like sound? I can’t convert this wavelength into a frequency because I don’t know the temperature to calculate the sound speed (the epoch isn’t specified above). However, surely, the inverse of the frequency is many, many years? Is that really sound?

    • telescoper Says:

      If it’s an acoustic wave, it’s sound. Sort of.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I suppose the periodicities in the acoustic waves mean there are some similarities to normal sound. We wouldn’t call the pressure changes as low pressure systems sweep across Britain sound, and they’re certainly not acoustic waves; those pressure changes have periods of a few days.

      • telescoper Says:

        Those are not waves because they’re not oscillations described by a wave equation, unlike the cosmological example…

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        No, moving pressure systems are absolutely not waves. I’m fishing for odd examples to test the idea of sound.

  3. [...] forgot to mention that, at the end of my talk on Monday evening,  a gentleman in the audience who is apparently a regular reader of this blog [...]

  4. I can’t quite make out the small print (is that one foot from the microphone?) but surely in the case of a “strong rock vocal” it is the distance from the speakers of the PA system which is relevant, not the distance from the microphone.

    I suspect that some other singers (buskers, opera singers etc) often sing louder than rock singers, since the latter almost always use microphones (and if they don’t, then they don’t sing loudly either) whereas others often perform before a large audience without microphones. The introduction of the microphone brought with it a new style of singing, known as crooning (not that most rock singers are crooners, though).

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