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The Cosmic Backgrounds

What is magic, and how did it come to be? Can it be distilled to hold in the hands, or is it an unextractable facet of an object, like colour or temperature? A true understanding of the very essence of magic and its properties has long been sought after, and many believe uncovering its origins can lead to full mastery.

The Ether Hypothesis

For many hundreds of years, magic was considered a fluid-like substance. Whilst attempts had been made to separate and trap magic (using hokum ‘magic nets’ raked through barriers, exploding charmed objects, or by attempting to boil it out of potions), no one had been successful in isolating a single, fixed property of magic itself. It was therefore postulated that magic may exist as a magical ‘ether’ instead – a kind of fabric permeating the entire Universe, with magic’s influence being felt and observed only when invoked or when an object or living being had strong ties to this ether.

Astronomers inferred that if the ether were real, tiny flecks of magic would arise spontaneously throughout the Universe; not enough to necessarily have a strong effect (and thus not explaining ever-wandering socks), but hypothetically detectable. No one could devise an experiment sensitive enough to test the ether hypothesis until 1964, when magical theoretician and charms expert Oleksandr Dawn had an epiphany and drew up plans. He proceeded to near-kidnap his student Maximillian Livingstone to travel to the Gobi desert, considered one of the least magically quiet places on Earth, to test the theory.

The Cosmic Magical Background

Dawn’s experiment to find these minute and fleeting bubbles of magic was constructed as follows: an uncalibrated Probity Probe (that would, as a consequence, detect all magic and not just signs of concealment) was rested on a pivot pointing North to South. The instrument was placed on a glass sheet, and a glass dome was placed over it. Although the construction would have been simpler if the probe was suspended in a sphere with charms, this was opted against as the relatively powerful magic from the charms would have overwhelmed any spontaneous blips of magic from within the dome. Powerful shield charms were applied to the outside of the dome, one for each magical influence (like the Sun, Moon, and planets, for example). Finally, a further blanket shield charm was applied to rule out any incoming magic from a Muggle village twenty miles away where Dawn and Livingstone bought supplies. The probe recorded any magic detected within the dome, and Dawn or Livingstone removed both the charms and dome each day to retrieve the full results.

The first few months returned a disappointing nothing. No magic at all was detected in the dome from the ether, never mind at the predicted rate, and Dawn lost his fervour. Due to the harsh working conditions in the desert, Dawn fully handed over the experiment to Livingstone to continue – alone – for the rest of the year. Most students would have rejected such a ‘kind’ offer but as a Muggle-born, Livingstone felt the need to prove themselves to their mentor and the academic establishment. So, for the following six months, Livingstone diligently tended to the experiment – despite a recurring fever due to the extreme in temperatures. Eventually, the fever got the better of their wits, and as they reset the experiment one morning they cast a slow-spinning charm on the probe instead of the blanket shield charm. They sadly did not notice their error until the afternoon. Disappointed, they nearly scrapped the day’s results until they noticed a faint, magical signal, the first one to appear.

Instead of chalking this up to a background signal from the village and continuing the experiment with the correct charms, Livingstone ran many more trials with this new spinning setup. After two weeks of observations (and, thankfully, recovery from fever), Livingstone was able to deduce that the signal was not from some magical ether contained within the dome, but from outside – from outer space itself.

The magic was from every direction and (after taking into account the Earth’s movement around the Sun) was a constant background ‘hum’ from the sky, night and day. They called it the Cosmic Magical Background and received full credit for their mysterious discovery, much to the annoyance of Dawn, who had by that time all but submitted a paper saying ‘his student’s’ experiment had been a failure.

The Cosmic Microwave Background

At the same time in New Jersey, USA, two Muggle Astronomers named Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson were developing instruments to hunt for sources of microwaves, a form of low-energy light. They had made a preposterously large, ear horn-like metal instrument that funneled down microwaves onto their own Probe. The pair found a constant background hiss interfering with their work however, no matter where they pointed the horn. At first, they believed it to be from nearby New York City, but much like Livingstone observed with the ‘nearby’ village in their own experiment, that was not the source of the signal. A pair of pigeons were then found nesting in the horn which seemed a reasonable explanation for the signal. But even after transporting them to the other side of the country and sweeping away the bird excrement coating the inside (and finally dispatching the birds – they were homing pigeons and their return sealed their fate), the hiss remained.

Scratching their heads, they analysed the hiss and, accounting for the Earth’s movement around the Sun, Penzias and Wilson concluded that in the absence of any other reasonable explanation there must be a Cosmic Microwave Background to the Univers, with an equivalent temperature of 2.73K (Kelvin), -454.76F, or 4.91F above Absolute Zero. Penzias and Wilson shared the Nobel prize (a prestigious Muggle award) for their discovery in 1978.

Hubble’s Law and The Big Bang

These two mysterious background sources of light and magic from space would remain completely unexplainable if it were not for the work of Edwin Hubble. In 1929, Hubble was able to measure distances and speeds of Cepheid Variables, a type of pulsating star that repeatedly brightens and dims over time proportional to its maximal brightness. By knowing how long it took one of these stars to change from dimmest to brightest, and then comparing how bright they looked in the sky to how bright they theoretically should be, Hubble could work out how far away these stars were. He found all these stars were located millions of light years away in other galaxies.

He also observed a colour-shift in the light – the starlight appeared redder than it should. This occurs when an object emitting light is moving away from the person seeing it and the light wave becomes stretched out. In contrast, if the light were bluer, the object would be moving towards the person. This phenomenon is known as redshift. Hubble inferred that these stars, and therefore the galaxies in which they resided, must be moving away from Earth. In addition, the farther away the galaxies were, the faster they were moving, following a very tight trend. Hubble concluded that the galaxies were not flying away from us as though shot from a cannon, but the very space between them was getting larger, blowing up like a balloon. His initial value for this expansion rate was approximately 100 mi/s/Megaparsec (about 100 miles per second per 3.26 million light years of distance), although current astronomers believe the best estimate of the expansion rate is about 45 mi/s/Megaparsec. In something vaguely understandable, this translates to a bubble of deep space the size of the Earth growing near one inch every thirty years. A small change for sure, but there is a – pardon the pun – astronomical amount of space out there. The rate of the Universe’s expansion at this moment in time is referred to as the Hubble Constant.

Hubble reasoned that if the Universe is getting bigger now, then it must have been far smaller in the past. This is one argument behind the “Big Bang” – the hypothesis that the Universe started extremely small and hot – a suggestion first put forward by a Belgian Catholic priest (a type of Muggle holy man) and astronomer named George Lemaître. Not only does Hubble’s work give this hypothesis real weight, but the rate of expansion Hubble observed can be used to calculate the age of the Universe itself. Muggle astronomers now know the rate of expansion has changed over time so the equations get rather complicated and are beyond the scope of your studies, but the above cited value of the Hubble Constant should give you near enough the right answer. Nowadays, we know the age of the Universe to be 13.75 billion years old to within one percent.

Origins of the Cosmic Backgrounds

What does this startling revelation mean for both the Cosmic Backgrounds observed in 1964? Not much is understood about the Cosmic Magical Background due to the elusive nature of magic, but understanding the Cosmic Microwave Background may give us some clues.

For about twenty years, Muggle cosmologists attempted to calculate the exact physics behind the first few moments and years in a Universe expanding and cooling over time. If the Universe was much smaller once upon a time, they argued, it must have been very hot, so hot at one point that atoms did not exist, just their constituent parts alongside lots of very energetic light-like x-rays and gamma rays. If two particles came together to form, say, a hydrogen atom, the Universe would be so hot the atom would soon shake itself apart. As a result, light could not travel very far in this denser Universe. If we had been floating in it, the Universe would have appeared a very hot, bright fog.

As the Universe inflated, the light-waves were stretched out, making them lose energy. Eventually, the Universe reached such a size and the light so weak in energy that atoms were able to form without the light breaking them apart. Instead this light was free to travel across the Universe. Cosmologists were able to calculate that this ‘free-streaming’ of light would have occurred when the Universe was 360,000 years old, and the light would be an equivalent temperature of 6,740F. Over billions of years, this light would have been stretched out along with space and would have continued to lose energy. Thus, if the Universe has evolved as described by the Big Bang hypothesis starting nearly 14 billion years ago, we should see some sort of “Cosmic Background” of low-energy microwave light today.

For Magic Folk who live with Muggle home comforts, try tuning an old television set to an empty analogue channel. A few percent of the ‘snow’ visible on the screen is from when the Universe was a less than a million years old, the afterglow of the Big Bang process. In analogy for the Cosmic Magical Background, the story of the mysterious microwaves and their origin could give some indication of where the magical background came from. Could it be from the first moments of the Universe, magic permeating every part of our existence even before life itself arose? Or structure that arose later?

Today’s Work on the Cosmic Backgrounds

Penzias and Wilson could not detect them at the time, but there are fluctuations in the background light of only millionths of a degree. These tiny changes across the sky are thought to exist as some parts of the Universe were, by chance, denser than others in the early Universe. These marginally over-dense regions are thought to be the seeds of the first galaxies and galaxy clusters. In effect, the Cosmic Microwave Background can tell us something about the primeval structure of the Universe itself.

Muggle astronomers have sent telescopes into space to map these regions in high detail. The latest iteration is with a telescope called Planck, and should have results in early 2013. Wizard astronomers were able to include their own instrument on Planck, a more refined version of the now-called Livingstone Dome. Usually, the magic in such an instrument would upset the Muggle technology; however, the shield charms used on the dome are now so precise that this is no longer an issue. This satellite marks a new era in Muggle and Wizarding astronomical cooperation. If wizard astronomers can perform their own mapping of the sky and compare the patterns they find to Planck’s, they may be able to determine whether the Cosmic Magical Background came from the first moments after the Universe began or much later with the first stars, giving clues to the fundamental, magical nature of the Universe.


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