Archive for the Cosmic Anomalies Category

Dark Horizons

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2010 by telescoper

Last Tuesday night I gave a public lecture as part of  Cardiff University’s contribution to National Science and Engineering Week. I had an audience of about a hundred people, although more than half were students from the School of Physics & Astronomy rather than members of the public. I’d had a very full day already by the time it began (at 7pm) and I don’t mind admitting I was pretty exhausted even before I started the talk. I’m offering that as an excuse for struggling to get going, although I think I got better as I got into it. Anyway, I trotted out the usual stuff about the  Cosmic Web and it seemed to go down fairly well, although I don’t know about that because I wasn’t really paying attention.

At the end of the lecture, as usual, there was a bit of time for questions and no shortage of hands went up. One referred to something called Dark Flow which, I’ve just noticed, has actually got its own wikipedia page. It was also the subject of a recent Horizon documentary on BBC called Is Everything we Know about the Universe Wrong? I have to say I thought the programme was truly terrible, but that’s par for the course for Horizon these days I’m afraid. It used to be quite an interesting and informative series, but now it’s full of pointless special effects, portentous and sensationalising narration, and is repetitive to the point of torture. In this case also, it also portrayed a very distorted view of its subject matter.

The Dark Flow is indeed quite interesting, but of all the things that might threaten the foundations of the Big Bang theory this is definitely not it. I certainly have never lost any sleep worrying about it. If it’s real and not just the result of a systematic error in the data – and that’s a very big “if” – then the worst it would do would be to tell us that the Universe was a bit more complicated than our standard model. The same is true of the other cosmic anomalies I discuss from time to time on here.  

But we know our standard model leaves many questions unanswered and, as a matter of fact, many questions unasked. The fact that Nature may present us with a few surprises doesn’t mean the whole framework is wrong. It could be wrong, of course. In fact I’d be very surprised if our standard view of cosmology survives the next few decades without major revision. A healthy dose of skepticism is good for cosmology. To some extent, therefore, it’s good to have oddities like the Dark Flow out in the open.

However, that shouldn’t divert our attention from the fact that the Big Bang model isn’t just an arbitrary hypothesis with no justification. It’s the result of almost a century of  vigorous interplay between theory and observation, using an old-fashioned thing called the scientific method. That’s probably too dull for the producers of  Horizon, who would rather portray it as a kind of battle of wills between individuals competing for the title of next Einstein.

Anyway, just to emphasize the fact that I think questioning the Big Bang model is a good thing to do, here is a list of fundamental questions that should trouble modern cosmologists. Most of them are fundamental,  and we do not have answers to them. 

Is General Relativity right?

Virtually everything in the standard model depends on the validity of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (or theory of general relativity…). In a sense we already know that the answer to this question is “no”.

At sufficiently high energies (near the Planck scale) we expect classical relativity to be replaced by a quantum theory of gravity. For this reason, a great deal of interest is being directed at cosmological models inspired by superstring theory. These models require the existence of extra dimensions beyond the four we are used to dealing with. This is not in itself a new idea, as it dates back to the work of Kaluza and Klein in the 1920s, but in older versions of the idea the extra dimensions were assumed to be wrapped up so small as to be invisible. In “braneworld models”, the extra dimensions can be large but we are confined to a four-dimensional subset of them (a “brane”). In one version of this idea, dubbed the Ekpyrotic Universe, the origin of our observable universe lies in the collision between two branes in a higher-dimensional “bulk”. Other models are less dramatic, but do result in the modification of the Friedmann equations at early times.

 It is not just in the early Universe that departures from general relativity are possible. In fact there are many different alternative theories on the market. Some are based on modifications of Newton’s gravitational mechanics, such as MOND, modifications of Einstein’s theory, such as the Brans-Dicke theory, as well as those theories involving extra dimensions, such as braneworld theory, and so on

There remain very few independent tests of the validity of Einstein’s theory, particularly in the limit of strong gravitational fields. There is very little independent evidence that the curvature of space time on cosmological scales is related to the energy density of matter. The chain of reasoning leading to the cosmic concordance model depends entirely this assumption. Throw it away and we have very little to go on.

What is the Dark Energy?

In the standard cosmology, about 75% of the energy density of the Universe is in a form we do not understand. Because we’re in the dark about it, we call it Dark Energy. The question here is twofold. One part is whether the dark energy is of the form of an evolving scalar field, such as quintessence, or whether it really is constant as in Einstein’s original version. This may be answered by planned observational studies, but both of these are at the mercy of funding decisions. The second part is to whether dark energy can be understood in terms of fundamental theory, i.e. in understanding why “empty space” contains this vacuum energy.  I think it is safe to say we are still very far from knowing how vacuum energy on a cosmological scale arises from fundamental physics. It’s just a free parameter.


What is the Dark Matter?

Around 25% of the mass in the Universe is thought to be in the form of dark matter, but we don’t know what form it takes. We do have some information about this, because the nature of the dark matter determines how it tends to clump together under the action of gravity. Current understanding of how galaxies form, by condensing out of the primordial explosion, suggests the dark matter particles should be relatively massive. This means that they should move relatively slowly and can consequently be described as “cold”. As far as gravity is concerned, one cold particle is much the same as another so there is no prospect for learning about the nature of cold dark matter (CDM) particles through astronomical means unless they decay into radiation or some other identifiable particles. Experimental attempts to detect the dark matter directly are pushing back the limits of technology, but it would have to be a long shot for them to succeed when we have so little idea of what we are looking for.

Did Inflation really happen?

The success of concordance cosmology is largely founded on the appearance of “Doppler peaks” in the fluctuation spectrum of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). These arise from acoustic oscillations in the primordial plasma that have particular statistical properties consistent owing to their origin as quantum fluctuations in the scalar field driving a short-lived period of rapid expansion called inflation. This is strong circumstantial evidence in favour of inflation, but perhaps not strong enough to obtain a conviction. The smoking gun for inflation is probably the existence of a stochastic gravitational wave background. The identification and extraction of this may be possible using future polarisation-sensitive CMB studies even before direct experimental probes of sufficient sensitivity become available. As far as I am concerned, the jury will be out for a considerable time.

Despite these gaps and uncertainties, the ability of the standard framework to account for such a diversity of challenging phenomena provides strong motivation for assigning it a higher probability than its competitors. Part of this  is that no other theory has been developed to the point where we know what predictions it can make. Some of the alternative  ideas  I discussed above are new, and consequently we do not really understand them well enough to know what they say about observable situations. Others have adjustable parameters so one tends to disfavour them on grounds of Ockham’s razor unless and until some observation is made that can’t be explained in the standard framework.

Alternative ideas should be always explored. The business of cosmology, however,  is not only in theory creation but also in theory testing. The great virtue of the standard model is that it allows us to make precise predictions about the behaviour of the Universe and plan observations that can test these predictions. One needs a working hypothesis to target the multi-million-pound investment that is needed to carry out such programmes. By assuming this model we can make rational decisions about how to proceed. Without it we would be wasting taxpayers’ money on futile experiments that have very little chance of improving our understanding. Reasoned belief  in a plausible working hypothesis is essential to the advancement of our knowledge.

 Cosmologists may appear a bit crazy (especially when they appear on TV), but there is method in their madness. Sometimes.

The Seven Year Itch

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 27, 2010 by telescoper

I was just thinking last night that it’s been a while since I posted anything in the file marked cosmic anomalies, and this morning I woke up to find a blizzard of papers on the arXiv from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team. These relate to an analysis of the latest data accumulated now over seven years of operation; a full list of the papers is given here.

I haven’t had time to read all of them yet, but I thought it was worth drawing attention to the particular one that relates to the issue of cosmic anomalies. I’ve taken the liberty of including the abstract here:

A simple six-parameter LCDM model provides a successful fit to WMAP data, both when the data are analyzed alone and in combination with other cosmological data. Even so, it is appropriate to search for any hints of deviations from the now standard model of cosmology, which includes inflation, dark energy, dark matter, baryons, and neutrinos. The cosmological community has subjected the WMAP data to extensive and varied analyses. While there is widespread agreement as to the overall success of the six-parameter LCDM model, various “anomalies” have been reported relative to that model. In this paper we examine potential anomalies and present analyses and assessments of their significance. In most cases we find that claimed anomalies depend on posterior selection of some aspect or subset of the data. Compared with sky simulations based on the best fit model, one can select for low probability features of the WMAP data. Low probability features are expected, but it is not usually straightforward to determine whether any particular low probability feature is the result of the a posteriori selection or of non-standard cosmology. We examine in detail the properties of the power spectrum with respect to the LCDM model. We examine several potential or previously claimed anomalies in the sky maps and power spectra, including cold spots, low quadrupole power, quadropole-octupole alignment, hemispherical or dipole power asymmetry, and quadrupole power asymmetry. We conclude that there is no compelling evidence for deviations from the LCDM model, which is generally an acceptable statistical fit to WMAP and other cosmological data.

Since I’m one of those annoying people who have been sniffing around the WMAP data for signs of departures from the standard model, I thought I’d comment on this issue.

As the abstract says, the  LCDM model does indeed provide a good fit to the data, and the fact that it does so with only 6 free parameters is particularly impressive. On the other hand, this modelling process involves the compression of an enormous amount of data into just six numbers. If we always filter everything through the standard model analysis pipeline then it is possible that some vital information about departures from this framework might be lost. My point has always been that every now and again it is worth looking in the wastebasket to see if there’s any evidence that something interesting might have been discarded.

Various potential anomalies – mentioned in the above abstract – have been identified in this way, but usually there has turned out to be less to them than meets the eye. There are two reasons not to get too carried away.

The first reason is that no experiment – not even one as brilliant as WMAP – is entirely free from systematic artefacts. Before we get too excited and start abandoning our standard model for more exotic cosmologies, we need to be absolutely sure that we’re not just seeing residual foregrounds, instrument errors, beam asymmetries or some other effect that isn’t anything to do with cosmology. Because it has performed so well, WMAP has been able to do much more science than was originally envisaged, but every experiment is ultimately limited by its own systematics and WMAP is no different. There is some (circumstantial) evidence that some of the reported anomalies may be at least partly accounted for by  glitches of this sort.

The second point relates to basic statistical theory. Generally speaking, an anomaly A (some property of the data) is flagged as such because it is deemed to be improbable given a model M (in this case the LCDM). In other words the conditional probability P(A|M) is a small number. As I’ve repeatedly ranted about in my bad statistics posts, this does not necessarily mean that P(M|A)- the probability of the model being right – is small. If you look at 1000 different properties of the data, you have a good chance of finding something that happens with a probability of 1 in a thousand. This is what the abstract means by a posteriori reasoning: it’s not the same as talking out of your posterior, but is sometimes close to it.

In order to decide how seriously to take an anomaly, you need to work out P(M|A), the probability of the model given the anomaly, which requires that  you not only take into account all the other properties of the data that are explained by the model (i.e. those that aren’t anomalous), but also specify an alternative model that explains the anomaly better than the standard model. If you do this, without introducing too many free parameters, then this may be taken as compelling evidence for an alternative model. No such model exists -at least for the time being – so the message of the paper is rightly skeptical.

So, to summarize, I think what the WMAP team say is basically sensible, although I maintain that rummaging around in the trash is a good thing to do. Models are there to be tested and surely the best way to test them is to focus on things that look odd rather than simply congratulating oneself about the things that fit? It is extremely impressive that such intense scrutiny over the last seven years has revealed so few oddities, but that just means that we should look even harder..

Before too long, data from Planck will provide an even sterner test of the standard framework. We really do need an independent experiment to see whether there is something out there that WMAP might have missed. But we’ll have to wait a few years for that.

So far it’s WMAP 7 Planck 0, but there’s plenty of time for an upset. Unless they close us all down.

Talked Out

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cosmic Anomalies with tags , , , on November 20, 2009 by telescoper

My trip to Bath yesterday turned out to be very enjoyable and entirely free of aqueous complications. The train ran on time from Cardiff to Bath Spa, although it was hideously overcrowded. About an hour later I was met at the station by Gary Mathlin and taken to the University campus  in his car. I didn’t get to see much of the city because it was already dark, but parts of it are very beautiful in a very Jane-Austen type of way. The University of Bath campus is a very different kettle of fish, a 1960s modernist construction in which I would have got completely lost had I not had a guide. Quite smart though. Better than most of its ilk.

The talk itself was in quite a large and swish lecture theatre. I’m not sure how many turned up but it might have been close to a hundred or so. Very mixed too, with quite a few students and some much older types.

I thought it went down quite well, but you’ll really have to ask the audience about that! I answered a few questions at the end and then there was  a very generous vote of thanks and I was given a gift of a very interesting book published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Thereafter I was whisked off to dinner, which I hadn’t realised was going to happen. I had the chance to chat to various people, including students and members  of the William Herschel Society, all of whom were very friendly and convivial after a few glasses of wine. Fortunately, Gary Mathlin lives in Cardiff so he gave me a lift home afterwards so I didn’t get back too late.

This morning I had to head straight to London without going into work in order to get to Imperial College to give a lunchtime seminar at the Theoretical Physics group, which is based in the Huxley building. I think it is named after T.H. rather than Aldous, because I wasn’t offered any Mescalin. Of course seminars like this have a much smaller audience and are much more technical than public lectures, but I still found myself having flashbacks to the previous evening’s lecture. I talked about various bits and pieces arising from work I’ve been doing with various people about the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about from time to time.

After this we went to a local pizzeria for a late lunch (and a couple of glasses of wine). I would have liked to stay longer to chat with the folks there, but I wanted to get back to Cardiff at a reasonable hour so I left in time for the 4.15 train.

Walking back home from Cardiff station along the side of the River Taff I was struck by its rather sinister appearance. Still high after the recent rains, and lit only by the lights of the city, it glistened like thick black oil as it flowed very quickly down towards the Bay.  I felt more than a hint of menace in the sheer volume of water streaming past in the darkness.

So far we’ve escaped the worst of the season’s bad weather. The fells of Cumbria, in the far north-west of England, have had 14 inches of rain in 2 days, which is a record. If that happened in South Wales I’m not sure even Cardiff’s formidable flood defences would cope! The  forecast for this weekend is terrible so I don’t think I’ll be doing anything very much outdoors. That suits me, in fact, as all this travelling about has left me well and truly knackered. Time for an early night, I think!

Another take on cosmic anisotropy

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 22, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday we had a nice seminar here by Antony Lewis who is currently at Cambridge, but will be on his way to Sussex in the New Year to take up a lectureship there. I thought I’d put a brief post up here so I can add it to my collection of items concerning cosmic anomalies. I admit that I had missed the paper he talked about (by himself and Duncan Hanson) when it came out on the ArXiv last month, so I’m very glad his visit drew this to my attention.

What Hanson & Lewis did was to think of a number of simple models in which the pattern of fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation across the sky might have a preferred direction. They then construct optimal estimators for the parameters in these models (assuming the underlying fluctuations are Gaussian) and then apply these estimators to the data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). Their subsequent analysis attempts to answer the question whether the data prefer these anisotropic models to the bog-standard cosmology which is statistically isotropic.

I strongly suggest you read their paper in detail because it contains a lot of interesting things, but I wanted to pick out one result for special mention. One of their models involves a primordial power spectrum that is intrinsically anisotropic. The model is of the form

P(\vec{ k})=P(k) [1+a(k)g(\vec{k})]

compared to the standard P(k), which does not depend on the direction of the wavevector. They find that the WMAP measurements strongly prefer this model to the standard one. Great! A departure from the standard cosmological model! New Physics! Re-write your textbooks!

Well, not really. The direction revealed by the best-choice parameter fit to the data is shown in the smoothed picture  (top). Underneath it are simulations of the sky predicted by their  model decomposed into an isoptropic part (in the middle) and an anisotropic part (at the bottom).


You can see immediately that the asymmetry axis is extremely close to the scan axis of the WMAP satellite, i.e. at right angles to the Ecliptic plane.

This immediately suggests that it might not be a primordial effect at all but either (a) a signal that is aligned with the Ecliptic plane (i.e. something emanating from the Solar System) or (b) something arising from the WMAP scanning strategy. Antony went on to give strong evidence that it wasn’t primordial and it wasn’t from the Solar System. The WMAP satellite has a number of independent differencing assemblies. Anything external to the satellite should produce the same signal in all of them, but the observed signal varies markedly from one to another. The conclusion, then, is that this particular anomaly is largely generated by an instrumental systematic.

The best candidate for such an effect is that it is an artefact of a asymmetry in the beams of the two telescopes on the satellite. Since the scan pattern has a preferred direction, the beam profile may introduce a direction-dependent signal into the data. No attempt has been made to correct for this effect in the published maps so far, and it seems to me to be very likely that this is the root of this particular anomaly.

We will have to see the extent to which beam systematics will limit the ability of Planck to shed further light on this issue.

Another Day at the ArXiv..

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 8, 2009 by telescoper

Every now and again I remember that this is supposed to be some sort of science blog. This happened again this morning after three hours of meetings with my undergraduate project students. Dealing with questions about simulating the cosmic microwave background, measuring the bending of light during an eclipse, and how to do QCD calculations on a lattice reminded me that I’m supposed to know something about stuff like that.

Anyway, looking for something to post about while I eat my lunchtime sandwich, I turned to the estimable arXiv and turned to the section marked astro-ph, and to the new submissions category, for inspiration.

I’m one of the old-fashioned types who still gets an email every day of the new submissions. In the old days there were only a few, but today’s new submissions were 77 in number, only about half-a-dozen of which seemed directly relevant to things I’m interested in. It’s always a bit of a struggle keeping up and I often miss important things. There’s no way I can read as widely around my own field as I would like to, or as I used to in the past, but that’s the information revolution for you…

Anyway, the thing that leapt out at me first was an interesting paper by Dikarev et al (accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal) that speculates about the possibility that dust grains in the solar system might be producing emission that messes up measurements of the cosmic microwave background, thus possibly causing the curious cosmic anomalies seen by WMAP I’ve blogged about on more than one previous occasion.

Their abstract reads:

Analyses of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation maps made by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have revealed anomalies not predicted by the standard inflationary cosmology. In particular, the power of the quadrupole moment of the CMB fluctuations is remarkably low, and the quadrupole and octopole moments are aligned mutually and with the geometry of the Solar system. It has been suggested in the literature that microwave sky pollution by an unidentified dust cloud in the vicinity of the Solar system may be the cause for these anomalies. In this paper, we simulate the thermal emission by clouds of spherical homogeneous particles of several materials. Spectral constraints from the WMAP multi-wavelength data and earlier infrared observations on the hypothetical dust cloud are used to determine the dust cloud’s physical characteristics. In order for its emissivity to demonstrate a flat, CMB-like wavelength dependence over the WMAP wavelengths (3 through 14 mm), and to be invisible in the infrared light, its particles must be macroscopic. Silicate spheres from several millimetres in size and carbonaceous particles an order of magnitude smaller will suffice. According to our estimates of the abundance of such particles in the Zodiacal cloud and trans-neptunian belt, yielding the optical depths of the order of 1E-7 for each cloud, the Solar-system dust can well contribute 10 microKelvin (within an order of magnitude) in the microwaves. This is not only intriguingly close to the magnitude of the anomalies (about 30 microKelvin), but also alarmingly above the presently believed magnitude of systematic biases of the WMAP results (below 5 microKelvin) and, to an even greater degree, of the future missions with higher sensitivities, e.g. PLANCK.

I haven’t read the paper in detail yet, but will definitely do so. In the meantime I’d be interested to hear the reaction to this claim from dusty experts!

Of course we know there is dust in the solar system, and were reminded of this in spectacular style earlier this week by the discovery (by the Spitzer telescope) of an enormous new ring around Saturn.

That tenuous link gives me an excuse to include a gratuitous pretty picture:

It may look impressive, but I hope things like that are not messing up the CMB. Has anyone got a vacuum cleaner?

Lessening Anomalies

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 15, 2009 by telescoper

An interesting paper caught my eye on today’s ArXiv and I thought I’d post something here because it relates to an ongoing theme on this blog about the possibility that there might be anomalies in the observed pattern of temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB). See my other posts here, here, here, here and here for related discussions.

One of the authors of the new paper, John Peacock, is an occasional commenter on this blog. He was also the Chief Inquisitor at my PhD (or rather DPhil) examination, which took place 21 years ago. The four-and-a-half hours of grilling I went through that afternoon reduced me to a gibbering wreck but the examiners obviously felt sorry for me and let me pass anyway. I’m not one to hold a grudge so I’ll resist the temptation to be churlish towards my erstwhile tormentor.

The most recent paper is about the possible  contribution of  the integrated Sachs-Wolfe (ISW) effect to these anomalies. The ISW mechanism generates temperature variations in the CMB because photons travel along a line of sight through a time-varying gravitational potential between the last-scattering surface and the observer. The integrated effect is zero if the potential does not evolve because the energy shift falling into a well exactly balances that involved in climbing out of one. If in transit the well gets a bit deeper, however, there is a net contribution.

The specific thing about the ISW effect that makes it measurable is that the temperature variations it induces should correlate with the pattern of structure in the galaxy distribution, as it is these that generate the potential fluctuations through which CMB photons travel. Francis & Peacock try to assess the ISW contribution using data from the 2MASS all-sky survey of galaxies. This in itself contains important cosmological clues but in the context of this particular question it is a nuisance, like any other foreground contamination, so they subtract it off the maps obtained from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in an attempt to get a cleaner map of the primordial CMB sky.

The results are shown in the picture below which presents  the lowest order spherical harmonic modes, the quadrupole (left) and octopole (right) for the  ISW component (top) , WMAP data (middle) and at the bottom we have the cleaned CMB sky (i.e. the middle minus the top). The ISW subtraction doesn’t make a huge difference to the visual appearance of the CMB maps but it is enough to substantially reduce to the statistical significance of at least some of the reported anomalies I mentioned above. This reinforces how careful we have to be in analysing the data before jumping to cosmological conclusions.


There should also be a further contribution from fluctuations beyond the depth of the 2MASS survey (about 0.3 in redshift).  The actual ISW effect could therefore  be significantly larger than this estimate.

The Cold Spot

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 16, 2009 by telescoper

Musing yesterday about the rapidly approaching restart of the academic year reminded me that I really ought to get on and finish the bunch of papers sitting on my desk and on various computers. I’ve also got a book to finish before October so I’d better get cracking with that too.

More importantly, however, it reminded me to congratulate my PhD student Rockhee Sung who has just had her first paper published (in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity). The paper is available online here and it’s free to download for a month even if you don’t have a personal or institutional subscription to the journal.

The idea of this paper came a while ago but it has taken us a long time to get everything in place to start writing it up. In the meantime other papers have been written on the subject, but Rockhee and I have done this our own way – or rather she has, as she put most of the hard work into actually doing the calculations.

About four years ago, during the course of careful statistical analysis of data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), a group based in Santander (Spain) published a paper drawing attention to the existence of an anomalous “Cold Spot” in the data. This phenomenon has now acquired its own Wikipedia entry (here), so I won’t repeat all the details except to say that it is about 5° across and that it is colder than one would expect if the temperature fluctuations are Gaussian, as is predicted in the simplest models of the early Universe involving cosmological inflation. The spot is to the bottom right, and is marked with an arrow on the picture below.

It’s worth digressing a little here to explain that a fluctuating field of course contains both hot spots and cold spots. Because there CMB temperature fluctuations comprise a wide range of wavelengths there are also spots on different scales. Assessing the statistical significance of a single isolated feature like the cold spot is not particularly easy. Based on the brute force method of simulating skies according to the Gaussian hypothesis and then repeating the approach that led to the original discovery, the result is that around 1% of Gaussian CMB skies have a cold spot as cold as that observed in the real data. Before the non-Bayesians among you get too excited, I’ll remind you that this means that the probability of a Cold spot given the standard model is about 1%, i.e. P(Cold Spot | Standard Model)=0.01. This is NOT the same as saying that the probability of the standard model being correct is 0.01…

A probability of 1% is an in-between kind of level: not too small to be decisive, and not too large to be instantly dismissed as just being a chance fluctuation. My personal opinion is that the Cold Spot is an interesting feature that deserves to be investigated further, but is not something that in itself should cause anyone to doubt the standard model. I include it among the list of cosmological anomalies that I’ve blogged about before (for example, here, here and here). I find them interesting but don’t lose sleep worrying that the standard model is about to fall to pieces. Not yet, anyway.

Not all theorists are as level-headed as me, however, and within weeks of the discovery of the cold spot suggestions were already being put forward as to how it could be “explained” theoretically. Some of these are described in the Wikipedia entry, so I won’t rehash the list. However, one suggestion not included there was the idea that the anomalous cold spot might be there because the Universe were not isotropic, i.e. if the Cosmological Principle were violated.

Way back when I was a lad doing my own PhD, my supervisor John Barrow had been interested in globally anisotropic (but nevertheless homogeneous) cosmologies. These are models in which any observer sees different things in different directions, but the pattern seen by observers in different places is always the same. I never worked on these at the time – they seemed a bit too esoteric even for me – but I remembered bits and pieces about them from conversations.

A complete classification of all the space-times  possessing this property was completed over a hundred years ago (before General Relativity was invented) by the Italian mathematician Luigi Bianchi, and cosmological models based on them are called the Bianchi models.

This isn’t the place to go into detail about the Bianchi models: the classification is based on the mathematical properties of Lie groups, which would take me ages to explain. However, it is worth pointing out that only five Bianchi types actually contain the cosmologically principled Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker universe as a special case: I, V, VII0 ,VIIh and IX. If you really want to know what the classes are you’ll have to look them up! Since we know our Universe is very close to being homogeneous and isotropic, it seems reasonable to look at those models capable of describing small departures from that case so the above list provides a useful subset of the models to explore.

Rockhee’s PhD project was to explore  the patterns of cosmic microwave background  fluctuations that can arise in that set of Bianchi cosmologies, not just in the temperature (which had been done before) but also in polarization (which hadn’t). I’ve already posted some of the temperature patterns Rockhee computed here.

The reason for extending wanting to extend this work to include polarization was the following. The microwave background radiation is partly linearly polarized because of the way radiation is scattered by electrons. If an electron is immersed in a radiation bath which is isotropic there is no net polarization, but if the radiation field is anisotrpic – in particular if it varies on an angular scale of 90º (i.e. a quadrupole) – then the scattered radiation will be partly polarized. In the standard cosmology the variations in the radiation field are random fluctuations so each electron “sees” a different quadupole. The net polarization field is therefore produced incoherently, by adding stochastic contributions. In  a  Bianchi model the situation is different. Each electron in this case sees the same quadupole. The polarization pattern produced is therefore coherent. Not only do anisotropic universes produce characteristic radiation patterns, they also produce a corresponding pattern in polarization.

So what does this all have to do with the Cold Spot? Well, in anisotropic spaces that are also curved, it is possible for light rays to get focussed in such a way that the entire pattern of flucuations present at least-scattering winds up concentrated in a small patch of the sky as seen by a late-time observer. for this to happen the space has to be negatively curved. Only two of the Bianchi types can do this, as there are only two that are both near-FLRW and negatively curved: V and VIIh. Both of these models could, in principle, therefore produce a cold spot by geometrical, rather than stochastic means. In the little figure below, taken from our paper, you can see examples of Bianchi VIIh (top) and Bianchi V (bottom) showing the temperature (left) and polarization (right) in each case. We’ve oriented the model to put the cold spot in approximately the right location as the observed one.




The point is that there is a pretty heavy price to be paid for producing the cold spot in this way: an enormous, coherent signal in the polarized radiation field.

As often happens in such situations, somebody else had the idea to investigate these models and we were scooped to a large extent by Andrew Pontzen and Anthony Challinor from Cambridge, who recently published a paper showing that the polarization produced in these models is already excluded by experimental upper limits. They concentrated on the Bianchi VIIh case, as this appears to have a more general structure than V and it was the model first advocated as an explanation of the cold spot. In this model the combined effect of vorticity and shear introduces a swirly pattern into the radiation field that you can see clearly in the top two panels of the figure as well as focussing it into a small patch. Bianchi V doesn’t produce the same kind of pattern either in temperature or polarization: it looks more like a simple quadrupole squeezed into a small part of the sky. A particularly interesting aspect of this is that the Bianchi VIIh case clearly has a definite “handedness” while the Bianchi V one doesn’t.

The moral of all this is that the polarization of the cosmic microwave background provides key additional information that could prove decisive in eliminating (or perhaps even confirming) models of the Universe more exotic than the standard one. That’s one of the areas in which  we expect Planck to produce the goods!

In the meantime Rockhee and I will be submitting a couple of much larger papers in due course, one containing a wider discussion of the possible pattern morphologies that can be produced in these models, and another about their detailed statistical properties.

The Axle of Elvis

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on August 6, 2009 by telescoper

An interesting paper on the arXiv yesterday gave me a prod to expand a little on one of the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about before.

Before explaining what this is all about, let me just briefly introduce a bit of lingo. The pattern of variations fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) across the sky, such as is revealed by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), is usually presented in terms of the behaviour of its spherical harmonic components. The temperature as a function of position is represented as a superposition of spherical harmonic modes labelled by two numbers, the degree l and the order m. The degree basically sets the characteristic angular scale of the mode (large  scales have low l, and small scales have high l). For example the dipole mode has l=1 and it corresponds to variation across the sky on a scale of 180 degrees; the quadrupole (l=2) has a scale of 90 degrees, and so on. For a fixed l the order m runs from -l to +l and each order represents a particular pattern with that given scale.

The spherical harmonic coefficients that tell you how much of each mode is present in the signal are generally  complex numbers having real and imaginary parts or, equivalently, an amplitude and a phase.  The exception to this are the modes with m=0, the zonal modes, which have no azimuthal variation: they vary only with latitude, not longitude. These have no imaginary part so don’t really have a phase. For the other modes, the phase controls the variation with azimuthal angle around the axis of the chosen coordinate system, which in the case of the CMB is usually taken to be the Galactic one.

In the simplest versions of cosmic inflation, each of the spherical harmonic modes should be statistically independent and randomly distributed in both amplitude and phase. What this really means is that the harmonic modes are in a state of maximum statistical disorder or entropy. This property also guarantees that the temperature fluctuations over the sky should be described by  a Gaussian distribution.

That was perhaps a bit technical but the key idea is that if you decompose the overall pattern of fluctuations into its spherical harmonic components the individual mode patterns should look completely different. The quadrupole and octopole, for example, shouldn’t line up in any particular way.

Evidence that this wasn’t the case started to emerge when WMAP released its first set of data in 2003 with indications of an alignment between the modes of low degree. In their  analysis, Kate Land and Joao Magueijo dubbed this feature The Axis of Evil; the name has stuck.They concluded that there was a statistically significant alignment (at 99.9% confidence) between the multipoles of low degree (l=2 and 3), meaning that the measured alignment is only expected to arise by chance in one in a thousand simulated skies. More recently, further investigation of this effect using subsequent releases of data from the WMAP experiment and a more detailed treatment of the analysis (including its stability with respect to Galactic cuts) suggested that the result is not quite as robust as had originally been claimed. .

Here are the low-l modes of the WMAP data so you see what we’re talking about. The top row of the picture contains the modes for l=2 (quadrupole) and l=3 (octopole) and the bottom shows l=4 and l=5.


The two small red blobs mark the two ends of the preferred axis of each mode. The orientation of this axis is consistent across all the modes shown but the statistical significance is much stronger for the ones with lower l.

It’s probably worth mentioning a couple of neglected aspects of this phenomenon. One is that the observed quadrupole and octopole appear not only to be aligned with each other but also appear to be dominated by sectoral orders, i.e those with m=l. These are the modes which are, in a sense, opposite to the zonal modes in that they vary only with longitude and not with latitude. Here’s what the sectoral mode of the quadrupole looks like:


Changing the phase of this mode would result in the pattern moving to the left or right, i.e. changing its origin, but wouldn’t change the orientation. Which brings me to the other remarkable thing, namely that the two lowest modes also have  correlated phases. The blue patch to the right of Galactic centre is in the same place for both these modes. You can see the same feature in the full-resolution map (which involves modes up to l~700 or so):

I don’t know whether there is really anything anomalous about the low degree multipoles, but I hope this is a question that Planck (with its extra sensitivity, better frequency coverage and different experimental strategy) will hopefully shed some light on. It could be some sort of artifact of the measurement process or it could be an indication of something beyond the standard cosmology. It could also just be a fluke. Or even the result of an over-active imagination, like seeing Elvis in your local Tesco.

On its own I don’t think this is going to overthrow the standard model of cosmology. Introducing extra parameters to a model in order to explain a result with a likelihood that is only marginally low in a simpler model does not make sense, at least not to a proper Bayesian who knows about model selection…

However, it is worth mentioning that the Axis of Evil isn’t the only cosmic anomaly to have been reported. If an explanation is found with relatively few parameters that can account for all of these curiosities in one fell swoop then it would stand a good chance of convincing us all that there is more to the Universe than we thought. And that would be fun.

Ecliptic Anomalies

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 12, 2009 by telescoper

Once a week the small band of cosmologists at Cardiff University have a little discussion group during which we look at an interesting and topical subject. Today my PhD student Rockhee chose an interesting paper by Diego et al entitled “WMAP anomalous signal in the ecliptic plane”. I thought I’d mention it here because it relates to an ongoing theme of mine, and I’ll refrain from commenting on the poor grammatical construction of the title.

The WMAP referred to is of course the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and I’ve blogged before about the tantalising evidence it suggests of some departures from the standard cosmological theory. These authors do something very simple and the result is extremely interesting.

In order to isolate the cosmic microwave background from foreground radiation produced in our own Galaxy, the WMAP satellite is equipped with receivers working at different frequencies. Galactic dust and free-free emission dominate the microwave sky temperature at high frequencies and Galactic synchotron takes over at low frequencies. The cosmic microwave background has the same temperature at all frequencies (i.e. it has a thermal spectrum) so it should be what’s left when the frequency-dependent bits are cleaned out.

What Diego et al. did was to make a map by combining the cleaned sky maps obtained at different frequencies obtained by WMAP in such a way as to try to eliminate the thermal (CMB) component. What is left when this is done should be just residual noise, as it should contain neither known foreground or CMB. The map they get is shown here.ecliptic

What is interesting is that the residual map doesn’t look like noise that is uniformly distributed over the sky: there are two distinct peaks close to the Ecliptic plane delineated by the black tramlines. Why the residuals look like this is a mystery. The peaks are both very far from the Galactic plane so it doesn’t look like they are produced by Galactic foregrounds.

One suggestion is that the anomalous signal is like an infra-red extension of the Zodiacal light (which is produced inside the Solar System and therefore is too local to be confined to the Galactic plane). The authors show, however, that a straightforward extrapolation of the known Zodiacal emission (primarily measured by the IRAS satellite) does not account for the signal seen in WMAP. If this is the explanation, then, there has to be a new source of Zodiacal emission that is not seen by IRAS but kicks in at WMAP frequencies.

Another possibility is that it is extragalactic. This is difficult to exclude, but is disfavoured in my mind because there is no a priori reason why it should be concentrated in the Ecliptic plane. Coincidences like this make me a bit uncomfortable. Some turn out to be real coincidences, but more often than not they are clues to something important. Agatha Christie would have agreed:

“Any coincidence,” said Miss Marple to herself, “is always worth noting. You can throw it away later if it is only a coincidence.”

On the other hand, the dipole asymmetry of the CMB (thought to be caused by our motion through a frame in which it is isotropic) is also lined up in roughly the same direction:

The dipole has a hot region and a cold region in places where the residual map has two hot regions and anyway it’s also a very large scale feature so the chances of it lining up by accident with the ecliptic plane to the accuracy seen is actually not small. Coincidences definitely do happen, and the rougher they are the more commonly they occur.

Obviously, I don’t know what’s going on, but  I will mention another explanation that might fit. As I have already blogged, the WMAP satellite scans the sky in a way that is oriented exactly at right angles to the Ecliptic plane. If there is an as yet unknown systematic error in the WMAP measurements, which is related in some way to the motion of the satellite, it could at least in principle produce an effect with a definite orientation with respect to the Ecliptic.

The only way we can rule out this (admittedly rather dull) explanation is by making a map using a different experiment. It’s good, then, that the Planck satellite is going to be launched in only a few weeks’ time (April 16th 2009). Fingers crossed that we can solve this riddle soon.

A Lop-sided Universe?

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 9, 2008 by telescoper

Over on cosmic variance, I found an old post concerning the issue of whether there might be large-scale anomalies in the cosmic microwave background sky. I blogged about this some time ago, under the title of Is there an Elephant in the Room?, so it’s interesting to see a different take on it. Interest in this issue has been highlighted by a recent paper by Groeneboom & Eriksen that claims to have detected asymmetry in the distribution of fluctuations in the data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) inconsistent with the predictions of the standard cosmological model. If this feature is truly of primordial origin then it is an extremely important discovery as it will (probably) require the introduction of new physics into our understanding of cosmology, and that will be exciting.

It is the job of theorists to invent new theories, and it is not at all a problem that these bits of evidence have generated a number of speculative ideas. Who knows? One of them may be right. I think it is the job of theoreticians to think as radically as possible about things like this. On the other hand, it is the observational evidence that counts in the end and we should be very conservative in how we treat that. This is what bothers me about this particular issue.

elongatedThe picture on the left shows a processed version of the WMAP fluctuation pattern designed to reveal the asymmetry, with the apparent preferred direction shown in red. This map shows the variation of the across the whole sky, and the claimed result is that the fluctuations are a bit larger around the red dots (which are 180 degrees apart) than in the regions at right angles to them.

It’s a slight effect, but everything in the picture is a slight effect as the CMB is extremely smooth to start with, the fluctuations in temperature being only about one part in a hundred thousand. The statistical analysis looks to me to be reasonably solid, so lets suppose that the claim is correct.scan

The picture on the right (courtesy of NASA/WMAP Science Team) shows the scan strategy followed by the WMAP satellite on the same projection of the sky. The experiment maps the whole sky by spinning its detectors in such a way that they point at all possible positions. The axis of this spin is chosen in a particular way so that it is aligned with the ecliptic poles (out of the plane of the solar system). It is in the nature of this procedure that it visits some places more than others (those at the ecliptic poles are scanned more often than those at the equator), hence the variation in signal-to-noise shown in the map. You can see that effect graphically in the picture: the regions near the North and South ecliptic poles have better signal to noise than the others.

The axis found by Groeneboom & Eriksen is not perfectly aligned with the ecliptic plane but it is pretty close. It seems a reasonable (if conservative) interpretation of this that the detected CMB anomaly could be due to an unknown systematic that has something to do either with the solar system (such as an unknown source of radiation, like cold dust) or the way the satellite scans. The WMAP team have worked immensely hard to isolate any such systematics so if this is such an effect then it must be very subtle to have escaped their powerful scrutiny. They’re all clever people and it’s a fabulous experiment, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible that they have missed something.

Many of the comments that have been posted on cosmic variance relating to this question the statistical nature of the result. Of course we have only one sky available, so given the “randomness” of the fluctuations it is possible that freakish configurations occur by chance. This misses the essentially probabilistic nature of all science which I tried to describe in my book on probability From Cosmos to Chaos. We are always limited by noise and incompleteness but that doesn’t invalidate the scientific method. In cosmology these problems are writ large because of the nature of the subject, but there is no qualitative difference in the interplay between science and theory in cosmology compared with other sciences. It’s just less easy to get the evidence.

So the issue here, which is addressed only partially by Groeneboom % Eriksen, is whether a lop-sided universe is more probable than an isotropic one given the WMAP measurements. They use a properly consistent Bayesian argument to tackle this issue and form a reasonably strong conclusion that the answer is yes. As far as it goes, I think this is (probably) reasonable.

However, now imagine I don’t believe in anistropic cosmologies but instead have an idea that this is caused by an unknown systematic relating in some way to the ecliptic plane. Following the usual Bayesian logic I think it is clear that, although both can account for the data, my hypothesis must be even more probable than a lop-sided universe. There is no reason why a primordial effect should align so closely with the ecliptic plane, so there is one unexplained coincidence in the lop-sided-universe model, whereas my model neatly accounts for that fact without any freedom to adjust free parameters. Ockham’s razor is on my side.

So what can we do about this? The answer might be not very much. It is true that, soon, the Planck Surveyor will be launched and it will map the CMB sky againat higher resolution and sensitivity. On the other hand, it will not solve the problem that we only have one sky. The fact that it is a different experiment may yield clues to any residual systematics in the WMAP results, but if it has a similar scan strategy to WMAP, even Planck might not provide definitive answers.

I think this one may run and run!