While I was away at the SEPnet meeting yesterday a story broke in the press broke about the discovery of a large underdensity in the distribution of galaxies. The discovery is described in a paper by Szapudi et al. in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The claim is that this structure in the galaxy distribution can account for the apresence of a mysterious cold spot in the cosmic microwave background, shown here (circled) in the map generated by Planck:
The abstract of the latest paper is here:
We use the WISE-2MASS infrared galaxy catalogue matched with Pan-STARRS1 (PS1) galaxies to search for a supervoid in the direction of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) cold spot (CS). Our imaging catalogue has median redshift z ≃ 0.14, and we obtain photometric redshifts from PS1 optical colours to create a tomographic map of the galaxy distribution. The radial profile centred on the CS shows a large low-density region, extending over tens of degrees. Motivated by previous CMB results, we test for underdensities within two angular radii, 5°, and 15°. The counts in photometric redshift bins show significantly low densities at high detection significance, ≳5σ and ≳6σ, respectively, for the two fiducial radii. The line-of-sight position of the deepest region of the void is z ≃ 0.15–0.25. Our data, combined with an earlier measurement by Granett, Szapudi & Neyrinck, are consistent with a large Rvoid = (220 ± 50) h−1 Mpc supervoid with δm ≃ −0.14 ± 0.04 centred at z = 0.22 ± 0.03. Such a supervoid, constituting at least a ≃3.3σ fluctuation in a Gaussian distribution of the Λ cold dark matter model, is a plausible cause for the CS.
The result is not entirely new: it has been discussed at various conferences over the past year or so (e.g this one) but this is the first refereed paper showing details of the discovery.
This gives me the excuse to post this wonderful cartoon, the context of which is described here. Was that really in 1992? That was twenty years ago!
Anyway, I just wanted to make a few points about this because some of the press coverage has been rather misleading. I’ve therefore filed this one in the category Astrophype.
First, the “supervoid” structure that has been discovered is not a “void”, which would be a region completely empty of galaxies. As the paper makes clear it is less dramatic than that: it’s basically an underdensity of around 14% in the density of galaxies. It is (perhaps) the largest underdensity yet found on such a large scale – though that depends very much on how you define a void – but it is not in itself inconsistent with the standard cosmological framework. Such large underdensities are expected to be rare, but rare things do occur if you survey a large enough volume of the universe. Large overdensities also arise as statistical fluctuations in large volumes.
Second, and probably most importantly, although this “supervoid” is in the direction of the CMB Cold Spot it cannot on its own explain the Cold Spot; the claim in the abstract that it provides a plausible explanation of the cold spot is simply incorrect. A void can affect the measured temperature of the CMB through the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect: photons travelling through such a structure are redshifted as they travel through the underdense region, so the CMB looks cooler in the direction of the void. However, even optimistic calculations of the magnitude of the effect suggest that this particular “void” can only account for about 10% of the signal associated with the Cold Spot. This is a reasonably significant contribution but it does not account for the signal on its own.
This is not to say however that it is irrelevant. It could well be that the supervoid actually sits in front of a region of the CMB sky that was already cold, as a result of a primordial fluctuation rather than a line-of-sight effect. Such an effect could well arise by chance, at least with some probability. If the original perturbation were a “3σ” temperature fluctuation then the additional effect of the supervoid would turn it into a 3.3σ effect. Since this pushes the event further out into the tail of the probability distribution it makes a reasonably uncommon feature look less probable. Because the tail of a Gaussian distribution drops off very quickly this has quite a large effect on the probability. For example, a fluctuation of 3.3σ or greater has a probability of 0.00048 whereas one of 3.0σ has a probability of 0.00135, about a factor of 2.8 larger. That’s an effect, but not a large one.
In summary, I think the discovery of this large underdensity is indeed interesting but it is not a plausible explanation for the CMB Cold Spot. Not, that is, unless there’s some new physical process involved in the propagation of light that we don’t yet understand.
Now that would be interesting…Follow @telescoper