Abstract: We calculate the relaxation rate of a scalar field in a plasma of other scalars and fermions with gauge interactions using thermal quantum field theory. It yields the rate of cosmic reheating, which determines the temperature of the “hot big bang” in inflationary cosmology. The total rate originates from various processes, including decays and inverse decays as well as Landau damping by scatterings. We pay special attention to the temperature dependence of the phase space due to the modified dispersion relations in the plasma. We find that it can have a drastic effect on the efficiency of perturbative reheating, which depends on the way particles in the primordial plasma interact. For some interactions thermal masses can effectively close the phase space for the dominant dissipative processes and thereby impose an upper bound on the reheating temperature. In other cases they open up new channels of dissipation, hence increase the reheating temperature. At high temperatures we find that the universe can even be heated through couplings to fermions, which are often assumed to be negligible due to Pauli-blocking.
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