Archive for January 11, 2018

Who’s worried about the Hubble Constant?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 11, 2018 by telescoper

One of the topics that is bubbling away on the back burner of cosmology is 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.

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.

About 18 months I blogged about a “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, hinting at a discrepancy somewhere around the 3 sigma level depending on precisely which determination you use. A news item on the BBC hot off the press reports that a more recent analysis by the same group is stubbornly sitting around the same value of the Hubble constant, with a slight smaller error so that the discrepancy is now about 3.4σ. On the other hand, the history of this type of study provides grounds for caution because the systematic errors have often turned out to be much larger and more uncertain than the statistical errors…

Nevertheless, 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.

Anyway, since polls seem to be quite popular these days, so let me resurrect this old one and see if opinions have changed!



Two hundred years of Ozymandias

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on January 11, 2018 by telescoper

The sonnet Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is so famous that it really needs no introduction, especially because I’ve posted it before, but I couldn’t help marking the fact that it was first published in the to the literary magazine The Examiner exactly two hundred years ago today, on January 11th  1818:


Here’s the poem in more legible form:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

What you may not know, however, is that Shelley’s poem was one of a pair with the same title on the same theme; the  other, composed by Shelley’s friend Horace Smith, appeared about three weeks later on February 1st 2018. The two friends had written their poems as a sort of competition. Here’s the other Ozymandias:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows.
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of kings: this mighty city shows
The wonders of my hand.” The city’s gone!
Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.