Archive for Cosmology

A Nobel Prize for Jim Peebles!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on October 8, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve just dashed back in excitement to the office from two hours of mandatory Financial Report Training to write a quick post before my 12 o’clock lecture on Astrophysics & Cosmology because of the news about the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics.

My recent post was half right in the sense that half this year’s prize goes to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of an extrasolar planet. I don’t know either of them personally, but heartiest congratulations to both!

My heart lept with joy, however, to see the other half of the prize go to Jim Peebles (above) for his work on theoretical cosmology. Much of the reason for that is that I’ve had the great honour and pleasure to meet Jim many times over the years. He is not only a truly great scientist but also a extremely nice man whose kindness and generosity is universally recognized. He’s not known as `Gentleman Jim’ for nothing!

The other reason for the excitement is that I was completely taken by surprise by the announcement. I had feared that his chance of winning a Nobel Prize had passed – I argued at the time that Jim should have been awarded a share of the 2006 Nobel Prize because without his amazing pioneering theoretical work the importance of the cosmic microwave background for cosmology and the large-scale structure of the Universe would not have been established so rapidly. As an author of the first paper to provide a theoretical interpretation of the signal detected by Penzias and Wilson, Jim was there right at the start of the modern era of cosmology and his subsequent work constructed the foundations of the theory of structure formation through gravitational instability. I was sad that he didn’t get a share in 2006 for this work, but am absolutely delighted that this has been rectified now!

This was one of the first cosmology books I ever bought. It’s an amazing piece of work that has been essential reading for cosmologists for almost 40 years!

Congratulations to Jim!

Now let me think about what to say to my students about this!

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The Danger to Science from Hype

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 5, 2019 by telescoper

I came across an article in the Irish Times this morning entitled `Hyping research runs risk of devaluing science‘. That piece is directly aimed at medical science and the distressing tendency of some researchers in that field to make extravagant claims about `miracle cures’ that turn out to be a very long way from being scientifically tested. The combination of that article, yesterday’s blog post, and the fact that this year I’ve been speaking and writing a lot about the 1919 Eclipse expedition reminded me that I ended a book I wrote in 1998 with a discussion of the dangers to science of researchers being far too certain  and giving the impression that they are members of some sort priesthood that thinks it deals in absolute truths.

I decided to post the last few paragraphs of that book here because they talk about the responsibility scientists have to be honest about the limitations of their research and the uncertainties that surround any new discovery. Science has done great things for humanity, but it is fallible. Too many scientists are too certain about things that are far from proven. This can be damaging to science itself, as well as to the public perception of it. Bandwagons proliferate, stifling original ideas and leading to the construction of self-serving cartels. This is a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to flourish.

To my mind the thing  that really separates science from religion is that science is an investigative process, not a collection of truths. Each answer simply opens up more questions.  The public tends to see science as a collection of “facts” rather than a process of investigation. The scientific method has taught us a great deal about the way our Universe works, not through the exercise of blind faith but through the painstaking interplay of theory, experiment and observation.

This is what I wrote in 1998:

Science does not deal with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. It deals instead with descriptions of reality that are either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Newton’s theory of gravity was not shown to be ‘wrong’ by the eclipse expedition. It was merely shown that there were some phenomena it could not describe, and for which a more sophisticated theory was required. But Newton’s theory still yields perfectly reliable predictions in many situations, including, for example, the timing of total solar eclipses. When a theory is shown to be useful in a wide range of situations, it becomes part of our standard model of the world. But this doesn’t make it true, because we will never know whether future experiments may supersede it. It may well be the case that physical situations will be found where general relativity is supplanted by another theory of gravity. Indeed, physicists already know that Einstein’s theory breaks down when matter is so dense that quantum effects become important. Einstein himself realised that this would probably happen to his theory.

Putting together the material for this book, I was struck by the many parallels between the events of 1919 and coverage of similar topics in the newspapers of 1999. One of the hot topics for the media in January 1999, for example, has been the discovery by an international team of astronomers that distant exploding stars called supernovae are much fainter than had been predicted. To cut a long story short, this means that these objects are thought to be much further away than expected. The inference then is that not only is the Universe expanding, but it is doing so at a faster and faster rate as time passes. In other words, the Universe is accelerating. The only way that modern theories can account for this acceleration is to suggest that there is an additional source of energy pervading the very vacuum of space. These observations therefore hold profound implications for fundamental physics.

As always seems to be the case, the press present these observations as bald facts. As an astrophysicist, I know very well that they are far from unchallenged by the astronomical community. Lively debates about these results occur regularly at scientific meetings, and their status is far from established. In fact, only a year or two ago, precisely the same team was arguing for exactly the opposite conclusion based on their earlier data. But the media don’t seem to like representing science the way it actually is, as an arena in which ideas are vigorously debated and each result is presented with caveats and careful analysis of possible error. They prefer instead to portray scientists as priests, laying down the law without equivocation. The more esoteric the theory, the further it is beyond the grasp of the non-specialist, the more exalted is the priest. It is not that the public want to know – they want not to know but to believe.

Things seem to have been the same in 1919. Although the results from Sobral and Principe had then not received independent confirmation from other experiments, just as the new supernova experiments have not, they were still presented to the public at large as being definitive proof of something very profound. That the eclipse measurements later received confirmation is not the point. This kind of reporting can elevate scientists, at least temporarily, to the priesthood, but does nothing to bridge the ever-widening gap between what scientists do and what the public think they do.

As we enter a new Millennium, science continues to expand into areas still further beyond the comprehension of the general public. Particle physicists want to understand the structure of matter on tinier and tinier scales of length and time. Astronomers want to know how stars, galaxies  and life itself came into being. But not only is the theoretical ambition of science getting bigger. Experimental tests of modern particle theories require methods capable of probing objects a tiny fraction of the size of the nucleus of an atom. With devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can gather light that comes from sources so distant that it has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us from them. But extending these experimental methods still further will require yet more money to be spent. At the same time that science reaches further and further beyond the general public, the more it relies on their taxes.

Many modern scientists themselves play a dangerous game with the truth, pushing their results one-sidedly into the media as part of the cut-throat battle for a share of scarce research funding. There may be short-term rewards, in grants and TV appearances, but in the long run the impact on the relationship between science and society can only be bad. The public responded to Einstein with unqualified admiration, but Big Science later gave the world nuclear weapons. The distorted image of scientist-as-priest is likely to lead only to alienation and further loss of public respect. Science is not a religion, and should not pretend to be one.

PS. You will note that I was voicing doubts about the interpretation of the early results from supernovae  in 1998 that suggested the universe might be accelerating and that dark energy might be the reason for its behaviour. Although more evidence supporting this interpretation has since emerged from WMAP and other sources, I remain skeptical that we cosmologists are on the right track about this. Don’t get me wrong – I think the standard cosmological model is the best working hypothesis we have – I just think we’re probably missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I may of course be wrong in this but, then again, so might everyone.

 

 

 

Gas Filaments in the Cosmic Web

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2019 by telescoper

I saw that there’s a new paper that has just been published in the journal Science by Umehata et al with the title Gas filaments of the cosmic web located around active galaxies in a protocluster. In case you run into a paywall at Science, you may of course, find the paper on the arXiv here.

The abstract reads:

Cosmological simulations predict the Universe contains a network of intergalactic gas filaments, within which galaxies form and evolve. However, the faintness of any emission from these filaments has limited tests of this prediction. We report the detection of rest-frame ultraviolet Lyman-alpha radiation from multiple filaments extending more than one megaparsec between galaxies within the SSA 22 proto-cluster at a redshift of 3.1. Intense star formation and supermassive black-hole activity is occurring within the galaxies embedded in these structures, which are the likely sources of the elevated ionizing radiation powering the observed Lyman-alpha emission. Our observations map the gas in filamentary structures of the type thought to fuel the growth of galaxies and black holes in massive proto-clusters.

The existence of a complex cosmic web of filaments and voids has been known about for some time as it is revealed on large scales by the distribution of galaxies through redshift surveys:

You can see all my posts agged with `Cosmic Web’ here. There are also good theoretical reasons (besides numerical simulations) for believing this is what the large-scale distribution of matter should look like. Roughly speaking, dense knots of matter lie at the vertices of a three-dimensional pattern traced out by one-dimensional structures.

We have also known for some time, however, that there is more going on in cosmic structure than is revealed by light from stars in galaxies. In particular the way gas flows along the filaments into the knots plays an important role in galaxy and cluster formation. This paper reveals the distribution of gas around a giant cluster that has formed at such a node using observations made using the European Southern Observatory’s MUSE instrument.

Here’s a pretty picture:

I found out about this paper from a news piece in the Guardian with the title Scientists observe mysterious cosmic web directly for first time. That’s sufficiently misleading for me to cross-file the paper under `Astrohype’ because, as I explained above, we have been observing the cosmic web for decades. It is however only just becoming possible to observe the diffuse gas rather than having to join the dots between the galaxies so it is an exciting result. My complaint, I suppose, is that the word `directly’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the title!

Chaos and Variance in (Simulations of) Galaxy Formation

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 11, 2019 by telescoper

During yesterday’s viva voce examination a paper came up that I missed when it came out last year. It’s by Keller et al. called Chaos and Variance in Galaxy Formation. The abstract reads:

The evolution of galaxies is governed by equations with chaotic solutions: gravity and compressible hydrodynamics. While this micro-scale chaos and stochasticity has been well studied, it is poorly understood how it couples to macro-scale properties examined in simulations of galaxy formation. In this paper, we show how perturbations introduced by floating-point roundoff, random number generators, and seemingly trivial differences in algorithmic behaviour can produce non-trivial differences in star formation histories, circumgalactic medium (CGM) properties, and the distribution of stellar mass. We examine the importance of stochasticity due to discreteness noise, variations in merger timings and how self-regulation moderates the effects of this stochasticity. We show that chaotic variations in stellar mass can grow until halted by feedback-driven self-regulation or gas exhaustion. We also find that galaxy mergers are critical points from which large (as much as a factor of 2) variations in quantities such as the galaxy stellar mass can grow. These variations can grow and persist for more than a Gyr before regressing towards the mean. These results show that detailed comparisons of simulations require serious consideration of the magnitude of effects compared to run-to-run chaotic variation, and may significantly complicate interpreting the impact of different physical models. Understanding the results of simulations requires us to understand that the process of simulation is not a mapping of an infinitesimal point in configuration space to another, final infinitesimal point. Instead, simulations map a point in a space of possible initial conditions points to a volume of possible final states.

(The highlighting is mine.) I find this analysis pretty scary, actually, as it shows that numerical effects (including just running the code on different processors) can have an enormous impact on the outputs of these simulations. Here’s Figure 14 for example:

This shows the predicted stellar surface mass density in a number of simulations: the outputs vary by more than an order of magnitude!

This paper underlines an important question which I have worried about before, and could paraphrase as “Do we trust N-body simulations too much?”. The use of numerical codes in cosmology is widespread and there’s no question that they have driven the subject forward in many ways, not least because they can generate “mock” galaxy catalogues in order to help plan survey strategies. However, I’ve always been concerned that there is a tendency to trust these calculations too much. On the one hand there’s the question of small-scale resolution and on the other there’s the finite size of the computational volume. And there are other complications in between too. In other words, simulations are approximate. To some extent our ability to extract information from surveys will therefore be limited by the inaccuracy of our calculation of the theoretical predictions.

Anyway, the paper gives us quite a few things to think about and I think it might provoke a bit of discussion, which is why I mentioned it here – i.e. to encourage folk to read and give their opinions.

The use of the word “simulation” always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:

1.

a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.

3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.

So it’s only the third entry that gives the intended meaning. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory!

In football, of course, you can even get sent off for simulation…

Hubble Tension: an “Alternative” View?

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 25, 2019 by telescoper

There was a new paper last week on the arXiv by Sunny Vagnozzi about the Hubble constant controversy (see this blog passim). I was going to refrain from commenting but I see that one of the bloggers I follow has posted about it so I guess a brief item would not be out of order.

Here is the abstract of the Vagnozzi paper:

I posted this picture last week which is relevant to the discussion:

The point is that if you allow the equation of state parameter w to vary from the value of w=-1 that it has in the standard cosmology then you get a better fit. However, it is one of the features of Bayesian inference that if you introduce a new free parameter then you have to assign a prior probability over the space of values that parameter could hold. That prior penalty is carried through to the posterior probability. Unless the new model fits observational data significantly better than the old one, this prior penalty will lead to the new model being disfavoured. This is the Bayesian statement of Ockham’s Razor.

The Vagnozzi paper represents a statement of this in the context of the Hubble tension. If a new floating parameter w is introduced the data prefer a value less than -1 (as demonstrated in the figure) but on posterior probability grounds the resulting model is less probable than the standard cosmology for the reason stated above. Vagnozzi then argues that if a new fixed value of, say, w = -1.3 is introduced then the resulting model is not penalized by having to spread the prior probability out over a range of values but puts all its prior eggs in one basket labelled w = -1.3.

This is of course true. The problem is that the value of w = -1.3 does not derive from any ab initio principle of physics but by a posteriori of the inference described above. It’s no surprise that you can get a better answer if you know what outcome you want. I find that I am very good at forecasting the football results if I make my predictions after watching Final Score

Indeed, many cosmologists think any value of w < -1 should be ruled out ab initio because they don’t make physical sense anyway.

 

 

 

The Last Resting Place of the Hubble Parameter?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 22, 2019 by telescoper

Last week was rather busy on the blog, with a run of posts about the Hubble constant (or, more precisely, the  present value of the Hubble parameter) attracting the most traffic. Somehow during all the excitement I allowed myself to be persuaded to write a piece for RTÉ Brainstorm about this issue. My brief is to write a detailed account of the current controversy in language accessible to a lay reader in not more than 800 words. That’s quite a challenge. Better get on with it.

Perhaps after that I’ll be able to lay the Hubble parameter to rest, at least for a while:

The original photograph (and joke) may be found here.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 19, 2019 by telescoper

I was a bit busy yesterday doing a number of things, including publishing a new paper at The Open Journal of Astrophysics, but I didn’t get time to write a post about it until now. Anyway, here is how the new paper looks on the site:

The authors are Tom Kitching, Paniez Paykari and Mark Cropper of the Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory (of University College London) and Henk Hoekstra of Leiden Observatory.

You can find the accepted version on the arXiv here. This version was accepted after modifications requested by the referee and editor. Because this is an overlay journal the authors have to submit the accepted version to the arXiv (which we then check against the copy submitted to us) before publishing. We actually have a bunch of papers that we have accepted but are awaiting the appearance of the final version on the arXiv so we can validate it.

Anyway, this is another one for the `Cosmology and Nongalactic Astrophysics’ folder. We would be happy to get more submissions from other areas of astrophysics. Hint! Hint!

P.S. Just a reminder that we now have an Open Journal of Astrophysics Facebook page where you can follow updates from the Journal should you wish..