Archive for February, 2014

Inflationary Opinion Poll

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by telescoper

Compare and contrast this abstract of a paper on the arXiv from Guth et al. from last year:

Models of cosmic inflation posit an early phase of accelerated expansion of the universe, driven by the dynamics of one or more scalar fields in curved spacetime. Though detailed assumptions about fields and couplings vary across models, inflation makes specific, quantitative predictions for several observable quantities, such as the flatness parameter (Ωk=1−Ω) and the spectral tilt of primordial curvature perturbations (ns−1=dlnPR/dlnk), among others—predictions that match the latest observations from the Planck satellite to very good precision. In the light of data from Planck  as well as recent theoretical developments in the study of eternal inflation and the multiverse, we address recent criticisms of inflation by Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb. We argue that their conclusions rest on several problematic assumptions, and we conclude that cosmic inflation is on a stronger footing than ever before.

and this one, just out,  by Ijjas et al.:

Classic inflation, the theory described in textbooks, is based on the idea that, beginning from typical initial conditions and assuming a simple inflaton potential with a minimum of fine-tuning, inflation can create exponentially large volumes of space that are generically homogeneous, isotropic and flat, with nearly scale-invariant spectra of density and gravitational wave fluctuations that are adiabatic, Gaussian and have generic predictable properties. In a recent paper, we showed that, in addition to having certain conceptual problems known for decades, classic inflation is for the first time also disfavored by data, specifically the most recent data from WMAP, ACT and Planck2013. Guth, Kaiser and Nomura and Linde have each recently published critiques of our paper, but, as made clear here, we all agree about one thing: the problematic state of classic inflation. Instead, they describe an alternative inflationary paradigm that revises the assumptions and goals of inflation, and perhaps of science generally.

I’m not sure how much of a “schism” (to use Ijjas et al.’s word) there actually is, but it seems like an appropriate subject for a totally unscientific Friday lunchtime opinion poll:

The faces of highly followed astronomers on Twitter

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 28, 2014 by telescoper

On Twitter? Looking for an astronomer or astrophysicist to follow? Here’s a Rogues Gallery…



Sussex University – the Place for Undergraduate Physics Research!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Here’s a little video made by the University that features Sophie Williamson, who is currently in her second year (and who also in the class to whom I’m currently teaching a module on Theoretical Physics:

This week we had some very good news about another of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is now in the final year of her MPhys degree, and is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

Congratulations to Talitha for her prizewinning project! I’m sure her outstanding success will inspire future generations of Sussex undergraduates too!

Galaxies, Glow-worms and Chicken Eyes

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by telescoper

I just came across a news item based on a research article in Physical Review E by Jiao et al. with the abstract:

Optimal spatial sampling of light rigorously requires that identical photoreceptors be arranged in perfectly regular arrays in two dimensions. Examples of such perfect arrays in nature include the compound eyes of insects and the nearly crystalline photoreceptor patterns of some fish and reptiles. Birds are highly visual animals with five different cone photoreceptor subtypes, yet their photoreceptor patterns are not perfectly regular. By analyzing the chicken cone photoreceptor system consisting of five different cell types using a variety of sensitive microstructural descriptors, we find that the disordered photoreceptor patterns are “hyperuniform” (exhibiting vanishing infinite-wavelength density fluctuations), a property that had heretofore been identified in a unique subset of physical systems, but had never been observed in any living organism. Remarkably, the patterns of both the total population and the individual cell types are simultaneously hyperuniform. We term such patterns “multihyperuniform” because multiple distinct subsets of the overall point pattern are themselves hyperuniform. We have devised a unique multiscale cell packing model in two dimensions that suggests that photoreceptor types interact with both short- and long-ranged repulsive forces and that the resultant competition between the types gives rise to the aforementioned singular spatial features characterizing the system, including multihyperuniformity. These findings suggest that a disordered hyperuniform pattern may represent the most uniform sampling arrangement attainable in the avian system, given intrinsic packing constraints within the photoreceptor epithelium. In addition, they show how fundamental physical constraints can change the course of a biological optimization process. Our results suggest that multihyperuniform disordered structures have implications for the design of materials with novel physical properties and therefore may represent a fruitful area for future research.

The point made in the paper is that the photoreceptors found in the eyes of chickens possess a property called disordered hyperuniformity which means that the appear disordered on small scales but exhibit order over large distances. Here’s an illustration:


It’s an interesting paper, but I’d like to quibble about something it says in the accompanying news story. The caption with the above diagram states

Left: visual cell distribution in chickens; right: a computer-simulation model showing pretty much the exact same thing. The colored dots represent the centers of the chicken’s eye cells.

Well, as someone who has spent much of his research career trying to discern and quantify patterns in collections of points – in my case they tend to be galaxies rather than photoreceptors – I find it difficult to defend the use of the phrase “pretty much the exact same thing”. It’s notoriously difficult to look at realizations of stochastic point processes and decided whether they are statistically similar or not. For that you generally need quite sophisticated mathematical analysis.  In fact, to my eye, the two images above don’t look at all like “pretty much the exact same thing”. I’m not at all sure that the model works as well as it is claimed, as the statistical analysis presented in the paper is relatively simple: I’d need to see some more quantitative measures of pattern morphology and clustering, especially higher-order correlation functions, before I’m convinced.

Anyway, all this reminded me of a very old post of mine about the difficulty of discerning patterns in distributions of points. Take the two (not very well scanned)  images here as examples:


You will have to take my word for it that one of these is a realization of a two-dimensional Poisson point process (which is, in a well-defined sense completely “random”) and the other contains spatial correlations between the points. One therefore has a real pattern to it, and one is a realization of a completely unstructured random process.

I sometimes show this example in popular talks and get the audience to vote on which one is the random one. The vast majority usually think that the one on the right is the one that is random and the left one is the one with structure to it. It is not hard to see why. The right-hand pattern is very smooth (what one would naively expect for a constant probability of finding a point at any position in the two-dimensional space) , whereas the  left one seems to offer a profusion of linear, filamentary features and densely concentrated clusters.

In fact, it’s the left picture that was generated by a Poisson process using a Monte Carlo random number generator. All the structure that is visually apparent is imposed by our own sensory apparatus, which has evolved to be so good at discerning patterns that it finds them when they’re not even there!

The right process is also generated by a Monte Carlo technique, but the algorithm is more complicated. In this case the presence of a point at some location suppresses the probability of having other points in the vicinity. Each event has a zone of avoidance around it; the points are therefore anticorrelated. The result of this is that the pattern is much smoother than a truly random process should be. In fact, this simulation has nothing to do with galaxy clustering really. The algorithm used to generate it was meant to mimic the behaviour of glow-worms (a kind of beetle) which tend to eat each other if they get too close. That’s why they spread themselves out in space more uniformly than in the random pattern. In fact, the tendency displayed in this image of the points to spread themselves out more smoothly than a random distribution is in in some ways reminiscent of the chicken eye problem.

The moral of all this is that people are actually pretty hopeless at understanding what “really” random processes look like, probably because the word random is used so often in very imprecise ways and they don’t know what it means in a specific context like this. The point about random processes, even simpler ones like repeated tossing of a coin, is that coincidences happen much more frequently than one might suppose. By the same token, people are also pretty hopeless at figuring out whether two distributions of points resemble each other in some kind of statistical sense, because that can only be made precise if one defines some specific quantitative measure of clustering pattern, which is not easy to do.

A John Arlott Century

Posted in Cricket with tags , , , on February 25, 2014 by telescoper

With no disrespect at all to the current presenters of Test Match Special, I don’t think listening to cricket on the radio has been quite the same since September 2nd 1980, the day that John Arlott gave his last commentary:

This brief post is just to point out that John Arlott was born on 25th February 1914, i.e. one hundred years ago today. He died in 1991 at his home in Alderney, but is remembered fondly not only for his wonderful gift for evocative descriptions of cricket, but for the warmth and humanity that shone through in his commentaries.

How should mathematics be taught to non-mathematicians?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by telescoper

This post from the estimable “Gowers’s Weblog” passed me by when it was originally published in 2012, but I saw the link on Twitter and decided to repost it here because it’s still topical..

Gowers's Weblog

Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, has expressed a wish to see almost all school pupils studying mathematics in one form or another up to the age of 18. An obvious question follows. At the moment, there are large numbers of people who give up mathematics after GCSE (the exam that is usually taken at the age of 16) with great relief and go through the rest of their lives saying, without any obvious regret, how bad they were at it. What should such people study if mathematics becomes virtually compulsory for two more years?

A couple of years ago there was an attempt to create a new mathematics A-level called Use of Mathematics. I criticized it heavily in a blog post, and stand by those criticisms, though interestingly it isn’t so much the syllabus that bothers me as the awful exam questions. One might…

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From Real Time to Imaginary Time

Posted in Brighton, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday, after yet another Sunday afternoon in my office on the University of Sussex campus, I once again encountered the baffling nature of the “real time boards” at the bus-stop at Falmer Station (just over the road from the University). These boards are meant to show the expected arrival times of buses; an example can be seen on the left of the picture below, taken at Churchill Square (in the City Centre).


The real-time board system works pretty well in central Brighton, but it’s a very different story at Falmer, especially for the Number 23 which is my preferred bus home. Yesterday provided a typical illustration of the problem: the time of the first bus on the list, a No. 23, was shown as “1 min” when I arrived at the stop. It then quickly moved to “due” (a word which I’ll comment about later). It then moved back to “2 mins” for about 5 minutes and then back to “due” again. It stayed like that for over 10 minutes at which point the bus that was second on the list (a No. 28 from Lewes) appeared. Rather than risk waiting any longer for the 23 I got on the 28 and had a slightly longer walk home from the stop at the other end. Just as well I did because the 23 vanished entirely from the screen as soon as I boarded the other bus. This apparent time-travel isn’t unusual at Falmer, although I’ve never really understood why.

By sheer coincidence when I got to the bus stop to catch a bus to campus this morning there was a chap from Brighton and Hove buses there. He was explaining what sometimes goes wrong with the real time boards to a lady, so I joined in the conversation and asked him if he knew why Falmer is so unreliable. He was happy to oblige. It turns out that the way the real-time boards work depends on each bus having a GPS system that communicates to a central computer via a radio link. If the radio link drops out for some reason – as it apparently does quite often up at Falmer (mobile phone connectivity is poor here also) – the system looks up the expected time of the bus after the one that it has lost contact with. Thus it is that a bus can apparently be “due” and then apparently go back in time. Also, if a bus has to divert from the route programmed into the GPS tracker then it is also removed from the real-time boards.

However, there is another system in operation alongside the GPS tracker. When a bus actually stops at a stop and opens its doors the onboard computer communicates this to the central system at the same time as the location signs inside the bus are updated. At this point the real-time boards are reset.

The unreliability I’ve observed at Falmer is in fact caused by two problems: (i) the patchy radio coverage as the bus wanders around the hilly environs of Falmer campus; and (ii) the No. 23 is on a new route around the back of campus which means that it vanishes from the system entirely when it wanders off the old route, as would happen if the bus were to break down.

Mystery solved then, in a sense, but it means there’s a systematic problem that isn’t going to be fixed in the short-term. Would it be better to switch off the boards than have them show inaccurate information? Perhaps, but only if it were always wrong. In fact the boards seem to work OK for the more frequent bus, the No. 25. My strategy is therefore never to rely on the information provided concerning the No. 23 and just get the first bus that comes. It’s not a problem anyway during the week because there’s a bus every few minutes, but on a Sunday evening it is quite irksome to see apparently random times on the screens.

All this talk about real-time boards reminds me of a question I was asked in a lecture last week. I was starting a new section of my Theoretical Physics module for 2nd Year students on Complex Analysis: the Cauchy-Riemann equations, Conformal Transformations, Contour Integrals and all that Jazz. To start the section I went on a bit of a ramble about the ubiquity of complex numbers in physics and whether this means that imaginary numbers are, in some sense, real. You can find an enjoyable polemic on this subject, given the answer “no” to the question here.

Anyway, I got the class to suggest examples of the use of complex numbers in physics. The things you’d expect came up such as circuit theory, wave propagation etc. Then somebody mentioned that somewhere they had heard of imaginary time. The context had probably been provided Stephen Hawking who mentioned this in his book A Brief History of Time. In fact the trick of introducing imaginary time is called a Wick Rotation and the basic idea is simple. In special relativity we deal with four-dimensional space-time intervals of the form

ds^2 = -c^2dt^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2,

i.e. the metric describing Minkowski space. The minus sign in front of the time bit is essential to the causal structure of space-time but it causes quite a few mathematical difficulties. However if we make the substitution

\tau \rightarrow i c t

then the metric becomes

ds^2 = d\tau^2 + dx^2 + dy^2 +dz^2,

which corresponds to a four-dimensional Euclidean space which is in many situations much easier to handle mathematically.

Complex variables and complex functions provide the theoretical physicist with a host of extremely elegant techniques for solving tricky problems. But does that mean they are somehow “built in” to nature? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Brighton & Hove Bus company uses imaginary time on its display boards either, although it does sometimes seem that way.


POSTSCRIPT. I forgot to include my planned rant about the use of the word “due”. The boards displaying train times at railway stations usually give the destination and planned departure time of the train, e.g. “Brighton 11.15”. If things are running to schedule this information is supplemented by the phrase “On Time”. If not, which is sadly a more likely contingency in the UK, this changes to “due 11.37” or some such. This really annoys me.: the train is due at 11.15. If it doesn’t come until after then, it’s overdue or, in other words, late.