As far back in time as astronomers have been able to see, the universe has had some trace of heavy elements, such as carbon and oxygen. These elements, originally churned from the explosion of massive stars, formed the building blocks for planetary bodies, and eventually for life on Earth.
Now researchers at MIT, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California at San Diego have peered far back in time, to the era of the first stars and galaxies, and found matter with no discernible trace of heavy elements. To make this measurement, the team analyzed light from the most distant known quasar, a galactic nucleus more than 13 billion light-years from Earth. These quasar observations provide a snapshot of our universe during its infancy, a mere 750 million years after the initial explosion that created the universe. Analysis of the quasar's light spectrum provided no evidence of heavy elements in the surrounding gaseous cloud—a finding that suggests the quasar dates to an era nearing that of the universe's first stars. "The first stars will form in different spots in the universe … it's not like they flashed on at the same time," says Robert Simcoe, an associate professor of physics at MIT. "But this is the time that it starts getting interesting."
Based on numerous theoretical models, most scientists agree on a general sequence of events during the universe's early development: Nearly 14 billion years ago, an immense explosion, now known as the Big Bang, threw off massive amounts of matter and energy, creating a rapidly expanding universe. In the minutes following the explosion, protons and neutrons collided in nuclear fusion reactions to form hydrogen and helium. Eventually, the universe cooled to a point where fusion stopped generating these basic elements, leaving hydrogen as the dominant constituent of the universe. Heavier elements, such as carbon and oxygen, would not form until the first stars appeared.