Big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN) describes the production of the lightest elements in the first minutes of cosmic time. We review the physics of cosmological element production, and the observations of the primordial element abundances. The comparison between theory and observation has heretofore provided our earliest probe of the universe, and given the best measure of the cosmic baryon content. However, BBN has now taken a new role in cosmology, in light of new precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Recent CMB anisotropy data yield a wealth of cosmological parameters; in particular, the ba.ryon-to-photon ratio η = nB/n gamma;, is measured to high precision. The confrontation between the BBN and CMB "baryometers" poses a new and stringent test of the standard cosmology; the status of this test is discussed. Moreover, it is now possible to recast the role of BBN by using the CMB to fix the baryon density and even some light element abundances. This strategy sharpens BBN into a more powerful probe of early universe physics, and of galactic nucleosynthesis processes. The impact of the CMB results on particle physics beyond the Standard Model, and on non-standard cosmology, are illustrated. Prospects for improvement of these bounds via additional astronomical observations and nuclear experiments are discussed, as is the lingering "lithium problem.".
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Nuclear and High Energy Physics