As I threatened promised after Anton’s interesting essay on the perception of colour, a couple of days ago, I thought I’d write a quick item about something vaguely relevant that relates to some of my own research. In fact, this ended up as a little paper in *Nature* written by myself and Lung-Yih Chiang, a former student of mine who’s now based in his homeland of Taiwan.

This is going to be a bit more technical than my usual stuff, but it also relates to a post I did some time ago concerning the cosmic microwave background and to the general idea of the cosmic web, which has also featured in a previous item. You may find it useful to read these contributions first if you’re not *au fait* with cosmological jargon.

Or you may want to ignore it altogether and come back when I’ve found another look-alike…

The large-scale structure of the Universe – the vast chains of galaxies that spread out over hundreds of millions of light-years and interconnect in a complex network (called the cosmic web) – is thought to have its origin in small fluctuations generated in the early universe by quantum mechnical effects during a bout of cosmic inflation.

These fluctuations in the density of an otherwise homogeneous universe are usually expressed in dimensionless form via the density contrast, defined as where is the mean density. Because it’s what physicists always do when they can’t think of anything better, we take the Fourier transform of this and write it as , which is a complex function of the wavevector , and can therefore be written

where is the amplitude and is the *phase* belonging to the wavevector ; the phase is an angle between zero and radians.

This is a particularly useful thing to do because the simplest versions of inflation predict that the phases of each of the Fourier modes should be *randomly distributed*. Each is independent of the others and is essentially a random angle designating any point on the unit circle. What this really means is that there is no information content in their distribution, so that the harmonic components are in a state of maximum statistical disorder or entropy. This property also guarantees that fluctuations from place to place have a Gaussian distribution, because the density contrast at any point is formed from a superposition of a large number of independent plane-wave modes to which the central limit theorem applies.

However, this just describes the initial configuration of the density contrast as laid down very early in the Big Bang. As the Universe expands, gravity acts on these fluctuations and alters their properties. Regions with above-average initial density () attract material from their surroundings and get denser still. They then attract more material, and get denser. This is an unstable process that eventually ends up producing enormous concentrations of matter () in some locations and huge empty voids everywhere else.

This process of gravitational instability has been studied extensively in a variety of astrophysical settings. There are basically two regimes: the linear regime covering the early stages when and the non-linear regime when large contrasts begin to form. The early stage is pretty well understood; the latter isn’t. Although many approximate analytical methods have been invented which capture certain aspects of the non-linear behaviour, general speaking we have to run N-body simulations that calculate everything numerically by brute force to get anywhere.

The difference between linear and non-linear regimes is directly reflected in the Fourier-space behaviour. In the linear regime, each Fourier mode evolves independently of the others so the initial statistical form is preserved. In the non-linear regime, however, modes couple together and the initial Gaussian distribution begins to distort.

About a decade ago, Lung-Yih and I started to think about whether one might start to understand the non-linear regime a bit better by looking at the phases of the Fourier modes, an aspect of the behaviour that had been largely neglected until then. Our point was that mode-coupling effects must surely generate phase correlations that were absent in the initial random-phase configuration.

In order to explore the phase distribution we hit upon the idea of representing the phase of each Fourier mode using a colour model. Anton’s essay discussed the RGB (red-green-blue) parametrization of colour is used on computer screens as well as the CMY (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow) system preferred for high-quality printing.

However, there are other systems that use parameters different to those representing basic tones in these schemes. In particular, there are colour models that involve a parameter called the *hue*, which represents the position of a particular colour on the colour wheel shown left. In terms of the usual RGB framework you can see that red has a hue of zero, green is 120 degrees, and blue is 240. The complementary colours cyan, magenta and yellow lie 180 degrees opposite their RGB counterparts.

This representation is handy because it can be employed in a scheme that uses colour to represent Fourier phase information. Our idea was simple. The phases of the initial conditions should be random, so in this representation the Fourier transform should just look like a random jumble of colours with equal amounts of, say, red green and blue. As non-linear mode coupling takes hold of the distribution, however, a pattern should emerge in the phases in a manner which is characteristic of gravitational instability.

I won’t go too much further into the details here, but I will show a picture that proves that it works!

What you see here are four columns. The leftmost shows (from top to bottom) the evolution of a two-dimensional simulation of gravitational clustering. You can see the structure develops hierarchically, with an increasing characteristic scale of structure as time goes on.

The second column shows a time sequence of (part of) the Fourier transform of the distribution seen in the first; for the aficianados I should say that this is only one quadrant of the transform and that the rest is omitted for reasons of symmetry. Amplitude information is omitted here and the phase at each position is represented by an appropriate hue. To represent on this screen, however, we had to convert back to the RGB system.

The pattern is hard to see on this low resolution plot but two facts are noticeable. One is that a definite texture emerges, a bit like Harris Tweed, which gets stronger as the clustering develops. The other is that the relative amount of red green and blue does not change down the column.

The reason for the second property is that although clustering develops and the distribution of density fluctuations becomes non-Gaussian, the distribution of phases remains uniform in the sense that binning the phases of the entire Fourier transform would give a flat histogram. This is a consequence of the fact that the statistical properties of the fluctuations remain invariant under spatial translations even when they are non-linear.

Although the one-point distribuition of phases stays uniform even into the strongly non-linear regime, they phases do start to learn about each other, i.e. phase correlations emerge. Columns 3 and 4 illustrate this in the simplest possible way; instead of plotting the phases of each wavemode we plot the differences between the phases of neighbouring modes in the x and y directions respectively.

If the phases are random then the phase differences are also random. In the initial state, therefore, columns 3 and 4 look just like column 2. However, as time goes on you should be able to see the emergence of a preferred colour in both columns, showing that the distribution of phase differences is no longer random.

The hard work is to describe what’s going on mathematically. I’ll spare you the details of that! But I hope I’ve at least made the point that this is a useful way of demonstrating that phase correlations exist and of visualizing some of their properties.

It’s also – I think – quite a lot of fun!

P.S. If you’re interested in the original paper, you will find it in *Nature*, Vol. 406 (27 July 2000), pp. 376-8.