North of the big bang

By Anil Ananthaswamy “My exercise every morning is to try and pour cold water on my fantasies.” Don’t worry, Massimo Giovannini is not thinking of anything salacious. He’s a physicist at the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland, and Giovannini’s flights of fancy concern the gigantic and mysterious magnetic fields that stretch through space. Giovannini has good reason to fantasise: these cosmic magnetic fields, sometimes big enough to stretch across clusters of galaxies, are one of the last unexplored features of the universe, and could hone our theories about how the universe came to its present state. That’s because there is a tantalising possibility that today’s fields are the legacy of those created mere instants after the big bang. The information contained in these magnetic fields could tell us how the universe developed from the big bang into the vast cosmos around us. “Primordial magnetic fields could influence the whole history of the universe,” says Giovannini. Our best bet for studying the earliest moments of the cosmos is the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the fossil radiation of the big bang. At the moment, however, the information we can glean from it is somewhat limited. Cosmic magnetic fields – if we can get to grips with them – could offer a new, independent and extremely valuable source of cosmological data. It’s an exciting prospect, says Ruth Durrer of the University of Geneva. “Cosmology is nothing but a search for fossils,” she says,
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