By this point in my life, when I attend a large-ish conference like this one the chances are good that I’m older than the average participant. Certainly true here. It’s a great chance to hear energetic young people tackling the hard problems, and I certainly have the feeling that the field is in very good hands. It’s also a good reminder that we old people need to resist the temptation to fall into a rut, churning out tiny variations on the research we’ve been doing for years now. It’s easy to get left behind!
Still, it’s also nice to hear a talk on a perennial topic, especially when you hear something you didn’t know. Yvonne Wong gave a very nice talk on “hot relics” — particles that were moving close to the speed of light in the early universe. (They may have slowed down by now, or maybe not.) Neutrinos, of course, are the classic example here; they are known to exist, and were certainly relativistic at early times. If the neutrinos have masses of order 10 electron volts, they would contribute enough density to be the dark matter. But that doesn’t quite work in the real world; “hot dark matter” tends to wipe out structure on small scales, in a way that is dramatically incompatible with the world we actually observe. Also, ground-based measurements point to neutrino masses less than 0.1 electron volt — not for sure, since what we directly measure are the differences in mass between different kinds of neutrinos, rather than the masses themselves, but that seems to be the most comfortable possibility.
Of course, we know about three kinds of neutrinos (associated with electrons, muons, and taus), but there could be more. So it’s fun to use cosmology to see if we can constrain that possibility. An extra neutrino species, even if it were very light, would slightly affect the expansion rate of the early universe, which works to damp structure on small scales. This is something you can look for in the cosmic microwave background, and the WMAP team has diligently been doing so. Interestingly — the best fit is for four neutrinos, not for three! Here’s a plot from Komatsu et al.’s analysis of the WMAP seven-year data, showing the likelihood as a function of the effective number of neutrino species. (“Effective” because a massive neutrino counts a little less than a massless one.)
Now, maybe this isn’t worth getting too excited about. There’s a nice discussion of this possibility in a recent paper by Zhen Hou, Ryan Keisler, Lloyd Knox, Marius Millea, and Christian Reichardt. I’m not sure how a new neutrino could affect the CMB in this way without being ruled out by primordial nucleosynthesis, but I haven’t looked at it carefully. Regardless, it’s best not to just trust any one measurement, but do every measurement we can think of and make sure they are consistent. Certainly something worth keeping an eye on as CMB measurements improve.