Should we worry about the Hubble Constant?

One of the topics that came up in the discussion sessions at the meeting I was at over the weekend was the possible tension between cosmological parameters, especially relating to the determination of the Hubble constant (H0) by Planck and by “traditional” methods based on the cosmological distance ladder; see here for an overview of the latter. Coincidentally, I found this old preprint while tidying up my office yesterday:


Things have changed quite a bit since 1979! Before getting to the point I should explain that Planck does not determine H0 directly, as it is not one of the six numbers used to specify the minimal model used to fit the data. These parameters do include information about H0, however, so it is possible to extract a value from the data indirectly. In other words it is a derived parameter:


The above summary shows that values of the Hubble constant obtained in this way lie around the 67 to 68  km/s/Mpc mark, with small changes if other measures are included. According to the very latest Planck paper on cosmological parameter estimates the headline determination is H0 = (67.8 +/- 0.9) km/s/Mpc.

Note however that a recent “direct” determination of the Hubble constant by Riess et al.  using Hubble Space Telescope data quotes a headline value of (73.24+/-1.74) km/sec/Mpc. Had these two values been obtained in 1979 we wouldn’t have worried because the errors would have been much larger, but nowadays the measurements are much more precise and there does seem to be a hint of a discrepancy somewhere around the 3 sigma level depending on precisely which determination you use. On the other hand the history of Hubble constant determinations is one of results being quoted with very small “internal” errors that turned out to be much smaller than systematic uncertainties.

I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a consensus as to how seriously to take this apparent “tension”. I certainly can’t see anything wrong with the Riess et al. result, and the lead author is a Nobel prize-winner, but I’m also impressed by the stunning success of the minimal LCDM model at accounting for such a huge data set with a small set of free parameters. If one does take this tension seriously it can be resolved by adding an extra parameter to the model or by allowing one of the fixed properties of the LCDM model to vary to fit the data. Bayesian model selection analysis however tends to reject such models on the grounds of Ockham’s Razor. In other words the price you pay for introducing an extra free parameter exceeds the benefit in improved goodness of fit. GAIA may shortly reveal whether or not there are problems with the local stellar distance scale, which may reveal the source of any discrepancy. For the time being, however, I think it’s interesting but nothing to get too excited about. I’m not saying that I hope this tension will just go away. I think it will be very interesting if it turns out to be real. I just think the evidence at the moment isn’t convincing me that there’s something beyond the standard cosmological model. I may well turn out to be wrong.

It’s quite interesting to think  how much we scientists tend to carry on despite the signs that things might be wrong. Take, for example, Newton’s Gravitational Constant, G. Measurements of this parameter are extremely difficult to do, but different experiments do seem to be in disagreement with each other. If Newtonian gravity turned out to be wrong that would indeed be extremely exciting, but I think it’s a wiser bet that there are uncontrolled experimental systematics. On the other hand there is a danger that we might ignore evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our theory. It’s sometimes a difficult judgment how seriously to take experimental results.

Anyway, I don’t know what cosmologists think in general about this so there’s an excuse for a poll:






21 Responses to “Should we worry about the Hubble Constant?”

  1. telescoper Says:

    Yes, it’s annoying. It seems the wordpress link to Polldaddy (which does the polls) isn’t working.

  2. telescoper Says:

    In fact I can’t see any of the previous polls on any of the posts on this site.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      You could conduct a poll to determine whether people can see the poll …

      • telescoper Says:

        Can you see it? Some must be able to as there are ten votes showing on the polldaddy site.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, I can see it. It didn’t appear this morning, but I refreshed the page later on and it was visible then. It’s still visible now after another refresh.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’m using Chrome, but the poll failed to show in Chrome this morning.

      It doesn’t show in Firefox, but I’ve got an extension that disables scripts which may be responsible for that (Firefox has CPU usage problems with some webpage scripts, including Radio 3 schedules recently).

      The poll also shows with Opera, Chromium and Midori. This is all under Ubuntu Linux.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      By the way, I voted Remain.

    • George Jones Says:

      I see it in Firefox.

  3. Regarding the variations in G – I wrote a comment on the paper that the article linked to mentions in which I performed Bayesian model comparison between their sinusoidally-varying G model and just adding an additional unknown systematic noise component to the measurements. I found that the latter model was favoured by a factor of ~exp(30).

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…

  5. Toffeenose Says:

    There are simple heuristic reasons to think that the Hubble Constant should be congruent with a Dark Energy Density equal to 2/3 of the Friedmann Critical Density. Moreover, the Kottler Metric in General Relativity (a spherically symmetric solution that includes both Mass and a Cosmological Constant) suggests that these bounds for Dark Energy Density are not in conflict with this prediction.

  6. […] as yet – there isn’t any evidence of major problems, but it’s early days. The “tension” between “direct” estimates of the Hubble constant and those from P… remains […]

  7. […] few months ago I blogged about the apparent “tension” between different measurements of the Hubble constant. Here is […]

  8. […] There has been some hand-wringing of late about the tension between the value of the expansion rate of the universe – the famous Hubble constant, H0, measured directly from observed redshifts and distances, and that obtained by multi-parameter fits to the cosmic microwave background. Direct determinations consistently give values in the low to mid-70s, like Riess et al. (2016): H0 = 73.24 ± 1.74 km/s/Mpc while the latest CMB fit from Planck gives H0 = 67.8 ± 0.9 km/s/Mpc. These are formally discrepant at a modest level: enough to be annoying, but not enough to be conclusive. […]

  9. […] from other methods, which appear to be in (slight) tension; you can read more about this here. Clearly the new result from GW170817 yields a fairly broad range for H0 but, as I said in my […]

  10. I can’t tell if you are being serious by the comment” If Newtonian Gravity turned out to be wrong” or not. Clearly, it is wrong and superseded by general relativity, or am I missing something here.

    • telescoper Says:

      Newtonian gravity is extremely accurate in most everyday situations, where it is the limiting case of general relativity. What I meant to say in the post was ‘if Newtonian gravity turns out to be wrong in a situation for which we think it should work’ then it would be interesting…

  11. […] since polls seem to be quite popular these days, so let me resurrect this old one and see if opinions have […]

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