According to standard cosmology theory, Lithium, together with hydrogen and helium, is one of three elements to have been synthesized in the Big Bang. Therefore, we should see a uniform abundance of Lithium throughout the universe. However, we don’t. By experimental observation, the older stars seem to have less Lithium than they should (by a factor of 2 or 3), and some younger stars have far more. This discrepancy regarding the uniform abundance of Lithium and experimental analysis of older stars is one of the most distressing discrepancies with the Big Bang theory. In science, one significant discrepancy can dispute a theory. Therefore, this raised serious questions regarding the validity of the Big Bang theory and cast doubt on the accuracy of the experimental measurements.

In 2006, astronomers Andreas Korn of Uppsala University in Sweden and colleagues in Denmark, France and Russia made an important discovery regarding the Lithium cosmic discrepancy. Using a spectrometer on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, Korn and co-workers studied 18 stars in a distant globular cluster called NGC 6397, which formed roughly a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Using their experimental data along with theoretical models of how nuclei behave in the atmospheres of stars, they put forward a new model. They hypothesized that the lithium diffuses into the interiors of stars over time, where it is burnt up at temperatures of over 2.5 million Kelvin. Their model suggested that these stars originally contained 78% more lithium than we observe today. In other words, the predicted initial amount of Lithium agrees with predictions from the Big Bang theory.

Even after Korn’s (and colleagues) discovery in 2006, some cosmologists continued to entertained a competing theory, namely that axions, hypothetical subatomic particles, may have absorbed protons and reduced the amount of Lithium created in the period just after the Big Bang. The axion particle was postulated by the Peccei–Quinn theory in 1977 to resolve the “strong CP problem” (CP standing for charge parity). In theoretical physics, quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of strong interactions, predicted there could be a violation of CP symmetry in the strong interactions (the mechanism responsible for the strong nuclear force that holds the nucleus of the atom together). However, there is no experimentally known violation of the CP-symmetry in strong interactions. In effect, cosmologists forwarding the axion theory to explain the cosmological Lithium discrepancy are attempting to explain one mystery (i.e., the cosmological Lithium discrepancy) with another mystery (hypothetical axions). Although, the strong CP problem continues to remain one of the most important unsolved problems in physics, axions appear to be a far less plausible solution to the cosmological Lithium discrepancy. If we apply Occam’s razor (i.e., the simplest of competing theories is preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities), Korn’s (and colleagues) model triumphs.

If we accept Korn’s (and colleagues) model, one of the great cosmological mysteries is resolved and questions regarding the Big Bang model  and the experimental measurements are resolved. However, in science old paradigms seem to only die when the scientists holding them die. In my judgement, Korn and his colleagues have resolved the missing Lithium question and are potential candidates for the Nobel Prize.

Image: The Very Large Telescope is a telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile