Archive for B-mode

LiteBIRD Newsflash

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 23, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the space mission LiteBIRD has been selected as the next major mission by the Japanese Space Agency JAXA and  Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).

LiteBIRD (which stands for `Lite (Light) satellite for the studies of B-mode polarization and Inflation from cosmic background Radiation Detection’) is a planned space observatory that aims to detect the footprint of the primordial gravitational waves on the cosmic microwave background (CMB) in a form of a B-mode polarization pattern. This is the signal that BICEP2 claimed to have detected five years ago to much excitement, but was later shown to be a caused by galactic dust.

It’s great news for a lot of CMB people all round the world that this mission has been selected – include some old friends from Cardiff University. Congratulations to all of them!

I’m not sure when the launch date will be, but the mission will last three years and will be at Earth-Sun Lagrange point known as L2.It will be a very difficult task to extract the B-mode signal from foregrounds and instrumental artifacts so although there’s joy that it has been selected, the real work starts now!

Remembering Clover

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by telescoper

I was tidying up some papers in my desk yesterday and came across a clipping dated April 9th 2009, i.e. exactly nine years ago to the day. Amazed by this coincidence, I resolved to post it on here but was unable to work out how to use the new-fangled scanner in the Data Innovation Institute office so had to wait until I could get expert assistance this morning:

Sorry it’s a bit crumpled, but I guess that demonstrates the authenticity of its provenance.

The full story, as it appeared in the print edition of the Western Mail, can also be found online here. By the way it’s me on the stepladder, pretending to know something about astronomical instrumentation.

I wrote at some length about the background to the cancellation of the Clover experiment here. In a nutshell, however, Clover involved the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester and was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff from Nottingham almost a decade ago, 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. It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had already spent a large amount (£4.5M) on Clover, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M) and cancel the experiment. I was very disappointed, but that’s nothing compared to Paolo (shown in the picture) who lost his job as a result of the decision and took his considerable skills and knowledge abroad.

We will never know for sure, but if Clover had gone ahead it might well have detected the same signal found five years later by BICEP2, which was announced in 2014. Working at three different frequencies (95, 150 and 225GHz) Clover would have had a better capability than BICEP2 in distinguishing the primordial signal from contamination from Galactic dust emission (which, as we now know, is the dominant contribution to the BICEP2 result; see thread here), although that still wouldn’t have been easy because of sensitivity issues. As it turned out, the BICEP2 signal turned out to be a false alarm so, looking on the bright side, perhaps at least the members of the Clover team avoided making fools of themselves on TV!

P.S. Note also that I moved to Cardiff in mid-2007, so I had not spent 5 years working on the Clover project by the time it was cancelled as discussed in the newspaper article, but many of my Cardiff colleagues had.

BICEP3 Cometh…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by telescoper

Back in the office after the Christmas and New Year break, with a mountain of stuff to work through..

Anyway, I saw this paper on the arXiv yesterday and thoought I’d share it here. It’s from a paper by Wu et al. entitled Initial Performance of BICEP3: A Degree Angular Scale 95 GHz Band Polarimeter.  The abstract follows:

BICEP3 is a 550 mm aperture telescope with cold, on-axis, refractive optics designed to observe at the 95 GHz band from the South Pole. It is the newest member of the BICEP/Keck family of inflationary probes specifically designed to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at degree-angular scales. BICEP3 is designed to house 1280 dual-polarization pixels, which, when fully-populated, totals to 9× the number of pixels in a single Keck 95 GHz receiver, thus further advancing the BICEP/Keck program’s 95 GHz mapping speed. BICEP3 was deployed during the austral summer of 2014-2015 with 9 detector tiles, to be increased to its full capacity of 20 in the second season. After instrument characterization measurements were taken, CMB observation commenced in April 2015. Together with multi-frequency observation data from Planck, BICEP2, and the Keck Array, BICEP3 is projected to set upper limits on the tensor-to-scalar ratio to r 0.03 at 95% C.L..

It all looks very promising, with science results likely to appear later this year, but who will win the race to find those elusive primordial B-modes?


Published BICEP2 paper admits “Unquantifiable Uncertainty”..

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the BICEP2 results that excited so much press coverage earlier this year have now been published in Physical Review Letters. A free PDF version of the piece can be found here.  The published version incorporates a couple of important caveats that have arisen since the original release of the results prior to peer review. In particular, in the abstract (discussing models of the dust foreground emission:

However, these models are not sufficiently constrained by external public data to exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal. Cross correlating BICEP2 against 100 GHz maps from the BICEP1 experiment, the excess signal is confirmed with 3σ significance and its spectral index is found to be consistent with that of the CMB, disfavoring dust at 1.7 σ.

Since the primary question-mark over the original result was whether the signal was due to dust or CMB, this corresponds to an admission that the detection is really at very low significance. I’ll set aside my objection to the frequentist language used in this statement!

There is an interesting comment in the footnotes too:

In the preprint version of this paper an additional DDM2 model was included based on information taken from Planck conference talks. We noted the large uncertainties on this and the other dust models presented. In the Planck dust polarization paper [96] which has since appeared the maps have been masked to include only regions “where the systematic uncertainties are small, and where the dust signal dominates total emission.” This mask excludes our field. We have concluded the information used for the DDM2 model has unquantifiable uncertainty. We look forward to performing a cross-correlation analysis against the Planck 353 GHz polarized maps in a future publication.

The emphasis is mine. The phrase made me think of this:


The paper concludes:

More data are clearly required to resolve the situation. We note that cross-correlation of our maps with the Planck 353 GHz maps will be more powerful than use of those maps alone in our field. Additional data are also expected from many other experiments, including Keck Array observations at 100 GHz in the 2014 season.

In other words, what I’ve been saying from the outset.


BICEP2: Is the Signal Cosmological?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2014 by telescoper

I have a short gap in my schedule today so I thought I would use it to post a short note about the BICEP2 results announced to great excitement on Monday.

There has been a great deal of coverage in the popular media about a “Spectacular Cosmic Discovery” and this is mirrored by excitement at a more technical level about the theoretical implications of the BICEP2 results. Having taken a bit of time out last night to go through the discovery paper, I think I should say that I think all this excitement is very premature. In that respect I agree with the result of my straw poll.

First of all let me make it clear that the BICEP2 experiment is absolutely superb. It was designed and built by top-class scientists and has clearly functioned brilliantly to improve its sensitivity so much that it has gone so far ahead of so many rivals:

Polarization detections

Notice that the only other detection of the elusive B-mode signal is by POLARBEAR, but that is actually accounted for by gravitational lensing effects rather than being evidence of a primordial gravitational wave contribution.

The B-mode signal is so weak that it is to mind absolutely amazing that an experiment can get anywhere near measuring it. There’s no denying the fact that BICEP2 team have done heroic work.

But – and it’s a big “but” – we have to ask the question “How confident can we be that the signal detected by BICEP2 is, in fact, the imprint of primordial gravitational waves on the cosmic microwave background that cosmologists were hoping for?”

The answer to this question will depend on the individual, but I would say that to convince me the absolute minimum would be a detection of the signal in more than one frequency band. A primordial signal should not vary as a function of frequency, whereas foreground emission (likely to be from dust) would be frequency dependent.

Now BICEP2 only operates at one frequency, 150GHz, so the experiment on its own can’t satisfy this criterion but it could through cross-correlation with the original BICEP1 instrument which worked at 100 GHz and 150 GHz. In the discovery paper we find the

Additionally, cross-correlating BICEP2 against 100GHz maps from the BICEP1 experiment, the excess signal is confirmed with 3sigma significance and its spectral index is found to be consistent with that of the CMB.

Here is the relevant plot, Figure 7 from the paper,


Well, the correct though the statement in the paper might be,  it is clear from this (rather ratty) cross-correlation that there is actually no firm detection of the B-modes at all at 100GHz. In other words, the 100 GHz BICEP1 data may be consistent with BICEP2 but they are also consistent with zero. (NOTE ADDED: I am ready to rescind this statement when I see a full analysis of these cross-correlations; at face value the scatter looks strange and certainly consistent with a null detection). In any case a positive cross-correlation does not exclude the possibility that the signal in common across the two channels is dust. If we only have a detection at one frequency we have no compelling evidence at all that the signal is cosmological.

When asked on Tuesday about this by Physics World I stated that I wasn’t convinced:

It seems to me though that there’s a significant possibility of some of the polarization signal in E and B [modes] not being cosmological. This is a very interesting result, but I’d prefer to reserve judgement until it is confirmed by other experiments. If it is genuine, then the spectrum is a bit strange and may indicate something added to the normal inflationary recipe.

My scepticism was then derived primarily from the distribution of the points around l=200 in the first figure: they look too high compared to the expected gravitational lensing contribution (which seems to have been pinned down by the POLARBEAR measurements to the right of the plot):

My concern: the three data points circles in blue are all higher than they should be, by about 0.01, which is the same height as the points to their left.  But the prediction of gravitational waves from inflation, circles in green, is that there should be very little contribution here --- which is why these points should lie closer to the solid red "lensing" prediction.  So the model of lensing for the right-hand part of the data + gravitational waves from inflation for the left-hand part of the data does not seem to be a very convincing fit.

I’ve taken this plot from the post I reblogged yesterday. The errors in the measurements ringed in blue are probably correlated so the fact that all three lie well above the red curve may not be as significant as it first seems, but note that the vertical scale is logarithmic. If some sort of systematic error has indeed bumped these points up then the amount of power involved could easily account for all the signal in the points to the left; the fit to the primordial B-mode (red dashed) part of the curve could then be fortuitous.

One possible systematic, apart from foreground contamination by dust, is leakage between E and B modes in the spherical harmonic decomposition. This arises because the spherical harmonic modes are only orthogonal over a complete sphere; BICEP2 does not map the whole sky, so the modes get mixed and separating them becomes extremely messy. Since the E-mode signal is so much larger, the worry is that some of it might leak into the B-mode.

UPDATE: 20/3/2014

I noticed a post on the BICEP2 Facebook Page from Hans Kristian Eriksen pointing another oddity:


The above plot is one of many showing jackknife estimates relating to various aspects of the polarization signal. What is strange is that all the blue dots lie so close to zero. Statistically speaking this is extremely unlikely and it may suggest that the noise levels have been over-estimated underestimated; roughly one in three data points should be further away than one sigma from zero if sigma is estimated correctly.

Taking all this together I have to say that I stick to the point of view I took when I first saw the results. They are very  interesting, but it is far too earlier to even claim that they are cosmological, let alone to start talking about providing evidence for or against particular models of the early Universe. No doubt I’ll be criticized for trying to put a wet blanket over the whole affair, but this is a measurement of such potential importance that I think we have to set the bar very high indeed when it comes to evidence. If I were running a book on this, I would put it at no better than even money that this is a cosmological signal.

Of course the rush to embrace these results as “definitive proof” of something is a product of human nature and the general level of excitement this amazing experiment has generated. That’s entirely understandable and basically a very good thing. It reminds those of us working in cosmology how lucky we are that we work in a field in which such momentous discoveries do actually happen. This is no doubt why so many budding scientists are drawn into cosmology in the first place. Let’s not forget, however, that there is a thing called the scientific method and often after years of hard work there remain more questions than answers. For the time being, that’s where we are with gravitational waves.

Some B-Mode Background

Posted in Astrohype, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by telescoper

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 polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

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.

Newsflash: Direct Detection of B-mode Polarization

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2013 by telescoper

I’m not meant to be blogging these days but I thought I’d break radio silence to draw attention to a new paper 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. One of the main aims of experiments such as this is to measure the so-called “B-mode” of polarization (the “curl” component of the polarization signal, which possesses a handedness) because this holds the key to direct detection of a number of interesting cosmological phenomena such as the existence of primordial gravitational waves.  However, primordial effects aren’t  the only way to generate B-mode polarization. Other “foreground” effects can do the job too, especially gravitational lensing can also generate a signal of this form. These “late-time” effects have to be understood before the primordial contribution can be isolated.

Before today there was no direct measurement of B-mode polarization at all, primordial nor not.

The abstract basically says it all:

Gravitational lensing of the cosmic microwave background generates a curl pattern in the observed polarization. This “B-mode” signal provides a measure of the projected mass distribution over the entire observable Universe and also acts as a contaminant for the measurement of primordial gravity-wave signals. In this letter we present the first detection of gravitational lensing B modes, using first-season data from the polarization-sensitive receiver on the South Pole Telescope (SPTpol). We construct a template for the lensing B-mode signal by combining E-mode polarization measured by SPTpol with estimates of the lensing potential from a Herschel-SPIRE map of the cosmic infrared background. We compare this template to the B modes measured directly by SPTpol, finding a non-zero correlation at 7.7 sigma significance. The correlation has an amplitude and scale-dependence consistent with theoretical expectations, is robust with respect to analysis choices, and constitutes the first measurement of a powerful cosmological observable.

This measurement is not unexpected. Indeed, the B-mode contribution from lensing by the known distribution of galaxies can be calculated fairly straightforwardly because the physics is well understood; failure to find the expected signal would therefore have been somewhat embarrassing.  It’s a different story for the primordial B-mode because that depends strongly on what is going on in the very early universe, and that is much less certain. Although the new result doesn’t itself tell us anything new about the very early Universe it is definitely an important step on the way, and it’s a fairly safe prediction that there will be a great deal of activity and interest in CMB polarization over the next few years, including next year’s planned release of polarization data from Planck.

I’ll also note the use of Herschel-SPIRE images in tracing the galaxy images, in deference to my former colleagues in Cardiff who played a key role in developing that instrument!