Archive for Cosmology

Cosmology Big Brother

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 17, 2018 by telescoper

I saw on Twitter today that the new series of Celebrity Big Brother has just started, though looking at the list of inmates housemates, I’m not sure whether the producers of this show understand the meaning of the word `celebrity’. At any rate, I’ve never heard of most of them.

I get the feeling that the Big Brother franchise may be getting a little tired, so I thought I’d pitch a new variant in order to boost the flagging ratings.

In Cosmology Big Brother a group of wannabe cosmologists live together in a specially-constructed house (with lots of whiteboards) isolated from the outside world (i.e. the arXiv). As the series progresses the furniture and rooms are gradually moved further apart, the temperature of the central heating is turned down, and the contents of the house become progressively more disordered.

Housemates are regularly voted out, at which point they have to enter the `real world’ (i.e. get a job in data science). Eventually only one person remains and whoever that is is awarded a research grant. They can then spend the rest of their life combining their study of cosmology with the usual activities of a Big Brother winner, e.g. opening supermarkets.


Nature After Planck…

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by telescoper

After last week’s short update about the last tranche of papers from the European Space Agency’s Planck Mission it’s time for another short update about a piece in Nature (by David Castelvecchi) that explains how researchers are moving to smaller projects studying different aspects of the cosmic microwave background.

In the spirit of gratuitous self-promotion I should also mention that there’s a little quote from me in that piece. My comment was hardly profound, but at least it gets Maynooth University a name check…

Much of Davide’s piece echoes discussions that were going on at the meeting I attended in India  last October, but things have moved on quite a bit since then at least as far as space experiments are concerned. In particular, the proposed Japanese mission Litebird has been shortlisted for consideration, though we will have to wait until next year (2019) at the earliest to see if it will be selected. An Indian mission, CMB-Bharat, has also emerged as a contender.

While the end of Planck closes one chapter on CMB research, several others will open. These are likely to focus on polarization, gravitational lensing and on cosmic reionization rather than refining the basic cosmological parameters still further.

Ongoing Hubble Constant Poll

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 18, 2018 by telescoper

Here are two interesting plots that I got via Renée Hložek on Twitter from the recent swathe of papers from Planck The first shows the `tension’ between Planck’s parameter estimates `direct’ measurements of the Hubble Constant (as exemplified by Riess et al. 2018); see my recent post for a discussion of the latter. Planck actually produces joint estimates for a set of half-a-dozen basic parameters from which estimates of others, including the Hubble constant, can be derived. The plot  below shows the two-dimensional region that is allowed by Planck if both the Hubble constant (H0) and the matter density parameter (ΩM) are allowed to vary within the limits allowed by various observations. The tightest contours come from Planck but other cosmological probes provide useful constraints that are looser but consistent; `BAO’ refers to `Baryon Acoustic Oscillations‘, and `Pantheon’ is a sample of Type Ia supernovae.

You can see that the Planck measurements (blue) mean that a high value of the Hubble constant requires a low matter density but the allowed contour does not really overlap with the grey shaded horizontal regions. For those of you who like such things, the discrepancy is about 3.5σ..

Another plot you might find interesting is this one:

The solid line shows how the Hubble `constant’ varies with redshift in the standard cosmological model; H0 is the present value of a redshift-dependent parameter H(z) that measures the rate at which the Universe is expanding. You will see that the Hubble parameter is larger at high redshift, but decreases as the expansion of the Universe slows down, until a redshift of around 0.5 and then it increases, indicating that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.  Direct determinations of the expansion rate at high redshift are difficult, hence the large error bars, but the important feature is the gap between the direct determination at z=0 and what the standard model predicts. If the Riess et al. 2018 measurements are right, the expansion of the Universe seems to have been accelerating more rapidly than the standard model predicts.

So after that little update here’s a little poll I’ve been running for a while on whether people think this apparent discrepancy is serious or not. I’m interested to see whether these latest findings change the voting!

Planck’s Last Papers

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 17, 2018 by telescoper

Well, they’ve been a little while coming but just today I heard that the final set of a dozen papers from the European Space Agency’s Planck mission are now available. You can find the latest ones, along with the all the others, here.

This final `Legacy’ set of papers is sure to be a vital resource for many years to come and I can hear in my mind’s ear the sound of cosmologists all around the globe scurrying to download them!

I’m not sure when I’ll get time to read these papers, so if anyone finds any interesting nuggets therein please feel free to comment below!

Georges Lemaître: Google Doodle Poll

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 17, 2018 by telescoper


I noticed this morning that today’s Google Doodle (above) features none other than Georges Lemaître. That reminded me that a while ago I stumbled across a post on the Physics World Blog concerning a radio broadcast about Georges Lemaître.

Here’s a description of said programme:

Few theories could claim to have a more fundamental status than Big Bang Theory. This is now humanity’s best attempt at explaining how we got here: A Theory of Everything. This much is widely known and Big Bang Theory is now one of the most recognisable scientific brands in the world. What’s less well known is that the man who first proposed the theory was not only an accomplished physicist, he was also a Catholic priest. Father Georges Lemaître wore his clerical collar while teaching physics, and not at Oxford, Cambridge or MIT but at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. It was this unassuming Catholic priest in an academic backwater who has changed the way we look at the origins of the universe. His story also challenges the assumption that science and religion are always in conflict. William Crawley introduces us to the “Father” of the Big Bang.

The question is whether the word “Father” in the last sentence should be taken as anything more than a play on the title he’d be given as a Catholic priest?

Lemaître’s work was indeed highly original and it undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Big Bang theory, especially in Western Europe and in the United States. However, a far stronger claim to the title of progenitor of this theory belongs to Alexander Alexandrovich Friedman, who obtained the cosmological solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, on which the Big Bang model is based, independently of and shortly before Lemaître did. Unfortunately the Russian Friedman died in 1925 and it was many years before his work became widely known in the West. At least in my book, he’s the real “father” of the Big Bang, but I’m well aware that this is the source of a great deal of argument at cosmology conferences (especially when Russian cosmologists are present), which makes it an apt topic for a quick poll:

P.S. I prefer to spell Friedman with one “n” rather than two. His name in his own language is Алекса́ндр Алекса́ндрович Фри́дман and the spelling “Friedmann” only arose because of later translations into German.

Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:


This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.


Is Dark Matter a Superfluid?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 22, 2018 by telescoper

In between marking exams and project reports I’ve been doing a little bit of reading in preparation for a talk that I’m due to give next week, which prompted me to share this talk by Justin Khoury of the University of Pennsylvania, which is about framework that unifies the claimed success of Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) on galactic scales with the that of the standard ΛCDM model on cosmological scales. This is achieved through the physics of superfluidity. The dark matter and MOND components have a common origin, representing different phases of a single underlying substance. In galaxies, dark matter thermalizes and condenses to form a superfluid phase. The superfluid phonons couple to baryonic matter particles and mediate a MOND-like force. This framework naturally distinguishes between galaxies (where MOND is successful) and galaxy clusters (where MOND is not): dark matter has a higher temperature in clusters, and hence is in a mixture of superfluid and normal phase. The rich and well-studied physics of superfluidity leads to a number of observational signatures, discussed in the talk.

The idea that dark matter might be in the form of a superfluid is not new (see e.g. this paper) but there has been a recent surge of interest driven largely by Khoury and collaborators. If you want to find out more, can find a review paper about this model here.