Some B-Mode Background
Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, the cosmology rumour mill has gone into overdrive this weekend primarily concerning the possibility that an experiment known as BICEP (an acronym formed from Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). These rumours have been circulating since it was announced last week that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference on Monday, March 17th, to announce “a major discovery”. The grapevine is full of possibilities, but it seems fairly clear that the “major discovery” is related to one of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists, namely to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.
Anyway, I thought I’d add a bit of background on here to help those interested make sense of whatever is announced on Monday evening.
Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch). However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.
The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).
The B-mode is therefore (at least in principle) a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it. To be convinced that what is being measured is cosmological rather than some sort of contaminant one would have to see the signal repeated across a range of different wavelengths.
Moreover, primordial gravitational waves are not the only way that a cosmological B-mode signal could be generated. Less than a year ago, a paper appeared on the arXiv by Hanson et al. from SPTpol, an experiment which aims to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background using the South Pole Telescope. The principal result of this paper was to demonstrate a convincing detection of the so-called “B-mode” of polarization from gravitational lensing of the microwave background photons as they pass through the gravitational field generated by the matter distributed through the Universe. Gravitational lensing can produce the same kind of shearing effect that gravitational waves generate, so it’s important to separate this “line-of-sight” effect from truly primordial signals.
So we wait with bated breath to see exactly what is announced on Monday. In particular, it will be extremely interesting to see whether the new results from BICEP are consistent with the recently published conclusions from Planck. Although Planck has not yet released the analysis of its own polarization data, analysis of the temperature fluctuations yields a (somewhat model-dependent) conclusion that the ratio of tensor to scalar contributions to the CMB pattern is no more than about 11 per cent, usually phrased in the terms, i.e. R<0.11. A quick (and possibly inaccurate) back-of-the-envelope calculation using the published expected sensitivity of BICEP suggests that if they have made a detection it might be above that limit. That would be really interesting because it might indicate that something is going on which is not consistent with the standard framework. The limits on R arising from temperature studies alone assume that both scalar and tensor perturbations are generated by a relatively simple inflationary model belonging to a class in which there is a direct relationship between the relative amplitudes of the two modes (and the shape of the perturbation spectrum). So far everything we have learned from CMB analysis is broadly consistent with this simplifying assumption being correct. Are we about to see evidence that the early Universe was more complex than we thought? We'll just have to wait and see…
Incidentally, once upon a time there was a British experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) which was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.
The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff in 2007, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output. Unfortunately, however, none of that actually happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already, STFC decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M) and cancelled the Clover experiment. Had it gone ahead it would probably have had two years’ data in the bag by now.
It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race to detect the B-mode cosmological polarization, but it’s a real shame it was withdrawn as a non-starter. C’est la vie.Follow @telescoper