Archive for June 22, 2011

Cosmic Clumpiness Conundra

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by telescoper

Well there’s a coincidence. I was just thinking of doing a post about cosmological homogeneity, spurred on by a discussion at the workshop I attended in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly I’m presented with a topical hook to hang it on.

New Scientist has just carried a report about a paper by Shaun Thomas and colleagues from University College London the abstract of which reads

We observe a large excess of power in the statistical clustering of luminous red galaxies in the photometric SDSS galaxy sample called MegaZ DR7. This is seen over the lowest multipoles in the angular power spectra Cℓ in four equally spaced redshift bins between 0.4 \leq z \leq 0.65. However, it is most prominent in the highest redshift band at z\sim 4\sigma and it emerges at an effective scale k \sim 0.01 h{\rm Mpc}^{-1}. Given that MegaZ DR7 is the largest cosmic volume galaxy survey to date (3.3({\rm Gpc} h^{-1})^3) this implies an anomaly on the largest physical scales probed by galaxies. Alternatively, this signature could be a consequence of it appearing at the most systematically susceptible redshift. There are several explanations for this excess power that range from systematics to new physics. We test the survey, data, and excess power, as well as possible origins.

To paraphrase, it means that the distribution of galaxies in the survey they study is clumpier than expected on very large scales. In fact the level of fluctuation is about a factor two higher than expected on the basis of the standard cosmological model. This shows that either there’s something wrong with the standard cosmological model or there’s something wrong with the survey. Being a skeptic at heart, I’d bet on the latter if I had to put my money somewhere, because this survey involves photometric determinations of redshifts rather than the more accurate and reliable spectroscopic variety. I won’t be getting too excited about this result unless and until it is confirmed with a full spectroscopic survey. But that’s not to say it isn’t an interesting result.

For one thing it keeps alive a debate about whether, and at what scale, the Universe is homogeneous. The standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

At our meeting a few weeks ago, Subir Sarkar from Oxford pointed out that the evidence for cosmological homogeneity isn’t as compelling as most people assume. I blogged some time ago about an alternative idea, that the Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension D. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius R is proportional to R^D. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then D = 3, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as R^3, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of D < 3 indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: D = 1, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as R^1, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have D=2, and so on.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then. I will do a “Part 2” to that post before long, but I’m waiting for some results I’ve heard about informally, but which aren’t yet published, before filling in the more recent developments.

We know that D \simeq 1.2 on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to D=3 is not so strong. The point is, however, at what scale would we say that homogeneity is reached. Not when D=3 exactly, because there will always be statistical fluctuations; see below. What scale, then?  Where D=2.9? D=2.99?

What I’m trying to say is that much of the discussion of this issue involves the phrase “scale of homogeneity” when that is a poorly defined concept. There is no such thing as “the scale of homogeneity”, just a whole host of quantities that vary with scale in a way that may or may not approach the value expected in a homogeneous universe.

It’s even more complicated than that, actually. When we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential \delta\Phi by \delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right), give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale \lambda reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon \sim ct. Galaxies correspond to a large \delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6 but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small to perturb the background metric significantly. Even the big clumps found by the UCL team only correspond to a small variation in the metric. The issue with these, therefore, is not so much that they threaten the applicability of the Cosmological Principle, but that they seem to suggest structure might have grown in a different way to that usually supposed.

The problem is that we can’t measure the gravitational potential on these scales directly so our tests are indirect. Counting galaxies is relatively crude because we don’t even know how well galaxies trace the underlying mass distribution.

An alternative way of doing this is to use not the positions of galaxies, but their velocities (usually called peculiar motions). These deviations from a pure Hubble flow are caused by lumps of matter pulling on the galaxies; the more lumpy the Universe is, the larger the velocities are and the larger the lumps are the more coherent the flow becomes. On small scales galaxies whizz around at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per second relative to each other, but averaged over larger and larger volumes the bulk flow should get smaller and smaller, eventually coming to zero in a frame in which the Universe is exactly homogeneous and isotropic.

Roughly speaking the bulk flow v should relate to the metric fluctuation as approximately \delta \Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right) \left(v/c\right).

It has been claimed that some observations suggest the existence of a dark flow which, if true, would challenge the reliability of the standard cosmological framework, but these results are controversial and are yet to be independently confirmed.

But suppose you could measure the net flow of matter in spheres of increasing size. At what scale would you claim homogeneity is reached? Not when the flow is exactly zero, as there will always be fluctuations, but exactly how small?

The same goes for all the other possible criteria we have for judging cosmological homogeneity. We are free to choose the point where we say the level of inhomogeneity is sufficiently small to be satisfactory.

In fact, the standard cosmology (or at least the simplest version of it) has the peculiar property that it doesn’t ever reach homogeneity anyway! If the spectrum of primordial perturbations is scale-free, as is usually supposed, then the metric fluctuations don’t vary with scale at all. In fact, they’re fixed at a level of \delta \Phi/c^2 \sim 10^{-5}.

The fluctuations are small, so the FLRW metric is pretty accurate, but don’t get smaller with increasing scale, so there is no point when it’s exactly true. So lets have no more of “the scale of homogeneity” as if that were a meaningful phrase. Let’s keep the discussion to the behaviour of suitably defined measurable quantities and how they vary with scale. You know, like real scientists do.