Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: May 2010

Primordial nucleosynthesis


The primordial abundances of deuterium, helium-3, helium-4, and lithium-7 probe the baryon density of the Universe only a few minutes after the Big Bang. Of these relics from the early Universe, deuterium is the baryometer of choice. After reviewing the current observational status of the relic abundances (a moving target!), the baryon density determined by big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN) is derived. The temperature fluctuation spectrum of the cosmic background radiation (CBR), established several hundred thousand years later, probes the baryon density at a completely different epoch in the evolution of the Universe. The excellent agreement between the BBN- and CBR-determined baryon densities provides impressive confirmation of the standard model of cosmology, permitting the study of extensions of the standard model. In combination with the BBN- and/or CBR-determined baryon density, the relic abundance of 4He provides an excellent chronometer, constraining those extensions of the standard model which lead to a nonstandard early-Universe expansion rate.


As the hot, dense, early Universe rushed to expand and cool, it briefly passed through the epoch of big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN), leaving behind as relics the first complex nuclei: deuterium, helium-3, helium-4, and lithium-7. The abundances of these relic nuclides were determined by the competition between the relative densities of nucleons (baryons) and photons and, by the universal expansion rate. In particular, while deuterium is an excellent baryometer, He provides an accurate chronometer.