First Light on the Cosmological Dark Ages
Siang Peng Oh, University of California, Santa Barbara
The pace of discovery in cosmology has accelerated tremendously in recent years. Thanks to cosmic microwave background experiments, we now have precision measurements of many basic cosmological parameters such as the age, geometry and mass density of the universe, as well as images of the universe in its infancy---when it was merely 380,000 years ago. At the same time, galaxy surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have mapped out the local universe in exquisite detail. However, there remains a epoch of the universe which is still shrouded in mystery---the cosmological dark ages from which no light has been seen, leading up to the birth of the first stars and galaxies, which heated and ionized the intergalactic medium. At present, most of our knowledge of this era has been largely indirect. However, a number of observatories in the coming decade should shed new light on this era: radio observatories in remote regions in Australia, Netherlands, China and India, which will observe the intergalactic medium, and the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will directly observe the first galaxies. Theoretical advances---often fueled by the ability of present-day computers to perform calculations hitherto considered intractable---have made a number of predictions which can be tested with these instruments. I will review the status of this exciting field and describe prospects for understanding this mysterious period in the history of our universe.
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