Archive for galaxy clustering

XXL Map of Galaxy Clusters

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 18, 2015 by telescoper

The press office at the European Space Agency is apparently determined to release as much interesting material as possible in the week before Christmas so that as few people as possible will notice. I mentioned one yesterday, and here is another.

XXL

The map is of preliminary data from the XXL Cluster Survey, the largest survey of galaxy clusters ever undertaken, and was obtained using the XMM-Newton telescope. (Thanks to various people, including Ben Maughan below who pointed out the error I made by relying on the accuracy of the ESA Press Release.)

The press-release marks the publication of the first results from this survey on 15th December 2015. The clusters of galaxies surveyed are prominent  features of the large-scale structure of the Universe and to better understand them is to better understand this structure and the circumstances that led to its evolution. So far 450 clusters have been identified – they are indicated by the red rings in the picture. Note that the full moon is shown at the top left to show the size of the sky area surveyed.

If you’ll pardon a touch of autobiography I should point out that my very first publication was on galaxy clusters. It came out in 1986 and was based on data from optically-selected clusters; X-rays emission from the very hot gas they contain is a much better way to identify these than through counting galaxies by their starlight. Cluster cosmology has moved on a lot. So has everything else in cosmology, come to think of it!

 

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When random doesn’t seem random..

Posted in Crosswords, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 21, 2015 by telescoper

A few months have passed since I last won a dictionary as a prize in the Independent Crossword competition. That’s nothing remarkable in itself, but since my average rate of dictionary accumulation has been about one a month over the last few years, it seems a bit of a lull.  Have I forgotten how to do crosswords and keep sending in wrong solutions? Is the Royal Mail intercepting my post? Has the number of correct entries per week suddenly increased, reducing my odds of winning? Have the competition organizers turned against me?

In fact, statistically speaking, there’s nothing significant in this gap. Even if my grids are all correct, the number of correct grids has remained constant, and the winner is pulled at random  from those submitted (i.e. in such a way that all correct entries are equally likely to be drawn) , then a relatively long unsuccessful period such as I am experiencing at the moment is not at all improbable. The point is that such runs are far more likely in a truly random process than most people imagine, as indeed are runs of successes. Chance coincidences happen more often than you think.

I try this out in lectures sometimes, by asking a member of the audience to generate a random sequence of noughts and ones in their head. It seems people are very conscious that the number of ones should be roughly equal to the number of noughts that they impose that as they go along. Almost universally, the supposedly random sequences people produce only have very short runs of 1s or 0s because, say, a run like ‘00000’ just seems too unlikely. Well, it is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In a truly random binary sequence like this (i.e. one in which 1 and 0 both have a probability of 0.5 and each selection is independent of the others), coincidental runs of consecutive 0s and 1s happen with surprising frequency. Try it yourself, with a coin.

Coincidentally, the subject of randomness was suggested to me independently yesterday by an anonymous email correspondent by the name of John Peacock as I have blogged about it before; one particular post on this topic is actually one of this blog’s most popular articles).  What triggered this was a piece about music players such as Spotify (whatever that is) which have a “random play” feature. Apparently people don’t accept that it is “really random” because of the number of times the same track comes up. To deal with this “problem”, experts are working at algorithms that don’t actually play things randomly but in such a way that accords with what people think randomness means.

I think this fiddling is a very bad idea. People understand probability so poorly anyway that attempting to redefine the word’s meaning is just going to add confusion. You wouldn’t accept a casino that used loaded dice, so why allow cheating in another context? Far better for all concerned for the general public to understand what randomness is and, perhaps more importantly, what it looks like.

I have to confess that I don’t really like the word “randomness”, but I haven’t got time right now for a rant about it. There are, however, useful mathematical definitions of randomness and it is also (sometimes) useful to make mathematical models that display random behaviour in a well-defined sense, especially in situations where one has to take into account the effects of noise.

I thought it would be fun to illustrate one such model. In a point process, the random element is a “dot” that occurs at some location in time or space. Such processes can be defined in one or more dimensions and relate to a wide range of situations: arrivals of buses at a bus stop, photons in a detector, darts on a dartboard, and so on.

The statistical description of clustered point patterns is a fascinating subject, because it makes contact with the way in which our eyes and brain perceive pattern. I’ve spent a large part of my research career trying to figure out efficient ways of quantifying pattern in an objective way and I can tell you it’s not easy, especially when the data are prone to systematic errors and glitches. I can only touch on the subject here, but to see what I am talking about look at the two patterns below:

pointbpointa

You will have to take my word for it that one of these is a realization of a two-dimensional Poisson point process and the other contains correlations between the points. One therefore has a real pattern to it, and one is a realization of a completely unstructured random process.

I show this example in popular talks and get the audience to vote on which one is the random one. In fact, I did this just a few weeks ago during a lecture in our module Quarks to Cosmos, which attempts to explain scientific concepts to non-science students. As usual when I do this, I found that the vast majority thought  that the top one is random and the bottom one is the one with structure to it. It is not hard to see why. The top pattern is very smooth (what one would naively expect for a constant probability of finding a point at any position in the two-dimensional space) , whereas the bottom one seems to offer a profusion of linear, filamentary features and densely concentrated clusters.

In fact, it’s the bottom  picture that was generated by a Poisson process using a  Monte Carlo random number generator. All the structure that is visually apparent in the second example is imposed by our own sensory apparatus, which has evolved to be so good at discerning patterns that it finds them when they’re not even there!

The top  process is also generated by a Monte Carlo technique, but the algorithm is more complicated. In this case the presence of a point at some location suppresses the probability of having other points in the vicinity. Each event has a zone of avoidance around it; the points are therefore anticorrelated. The result of this is that the pattern is much smoother than a truly random process should be. In fact, this simulation has nothing to do with galaxy clustering really. The algorithm used to generate it was meant to mimic the behaviour of glow-worms which tend to eat each other if they get  too close. That’s why they spread themselves out in space more uniformly than in the “really” random pattern.

I assume that Spotify’s non-random play algorithm will have the effect of producing a one-dimensional version of the top pattern, i.e. one with far too few coincidences to be genuinely random.

Incidentally, I got both pictures from Stephen Jay Gould’s collection of essays Bully for Brontosaurus and used them, with appropriate credit and copyright permission, in my own book From Cosmos to Chaos.

The tendency to find things that are not there is quite well known to astronomers. The constellations which we all recognize so easily are not physical associations of stars, but are just chance alignments on the sky of things at vastly different distances in space. That is not to say that they are random, but the pattern they form is not caused by direct correlations between the stars. Galaxies form real three-dimensional physical associations through their direct gravitational effect on one another.

People are actually pretty hopeless at understanding what “really” random processes look like, probably because the word random is used so often in very imprecise ways and they don’t know what it means in a specific context like this.  The point about random processes, even simpler ones like repeated tossing of a coin, is that coincidences happen much more frequently than one might suppose.

I suppose there is an evolutionary reason why our brains like to impose order on things in a general way. More specifically scientists often use perceived patterns in order to construct hypotheses. However these hypotheses must be tested objectively and often the initial impressions turn out to be figments of the imagination, like the canals on Mars.

Perhaps I should complain to WordPress about the widget that links pages to a “random blog post”. I’m sure it’s not really random….

Galaxies, Glow-worms and Chicken Eyes

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by telescoper

I just came across a news item based on a research article in Physical Review E by Jiao et al. with the abstract:

Optimal spatial sampling of light rigorously requires that identical photoreceptors be arranged in perfectly regular arrays in two dimensions. Examples of such perfect arrays in nature include the compound eyes of insects and the nearly crystalline photoreceptor patterns of some fish and reptiles. Birds are highly visual animals with five different cone photoreceptor subtypes, yet their photoreceptor patterns are not perfectly regular. By analyzing the chicken cone photoreceptor system consisting of five different cell types using a variety of sensitive microstructural descriptors, we find that the disordered photoreceptor patterns are “hyperuniform” (exhibiting vanishing infinite-wavelength density fluctuations), a property that had heretofore been identified in a unique subset of physical systems, but had never been observed in any living organism. Remarkably, the patterns of both the total population and the individual cell types are simultaneously hyperuniform. We term such patterns “multihyperuniform” because multiple distinct subsets of the overall point pattern are themselves hyperuniform. We have devised a unique multiscale cell packing model in two dimensions that suggests that photoreceptor types interact with both short- and long-ranged repulsive forces and that the resultant competition between the types gives rise to the aforementioned singular spatial features characterizing the system, including multihyperuniformity. These findings suggest that a disordered hyperuniform pattern may represent the most uniform sampling arrangement attainable in the avian system, given intrinsic packing constraints within the photoreceptor epithelium. In addition, they show how fundamental physical constraints can change the course of a biological optimization process. Our results suggest that multihyperuniform disordered structures have implications for the design of materials with novel physical properties and therefore may represent a fruitful area for future research.

The point made in the paper is that the photoreceptors found in the eyes of chickens possess a property called disordered hyperuniformity which means that the appear disordered on small scales but exhibit order over large distances. Here’s an illustration:

chicken_eyes

It’s an interesting paper, but I’d like to quibble about something it says in the accompanying news story. The caption with the above diagram states

Left: visual cell distribution in chickens; right: a computer-simulation model showing pretty much the exact same thing. The colored dots represent the centers of the chicken’s eye cells.

Well, as someone who has spent much of his research career trying to discern and quantify patterns in collections of points – in my case they tend to be galaxies rather than photoreceptors – I find it difficult to defend the use of the phrase “pretty much the exact same thing”. It’s notoriously difficult to look at realizations of stochastic point processes and decided whether they are statistically similar or not. For that you generally need quite sophisticated mathematical analysis.  In fact, to my eye, the two images above don’t look at all like “pretty much the exact same thing”. I’m not at all sure that the model works as well as it is claimed, as the statistical analysis presented in the paper is relatively simple: I’d need to see some more quantitative measures of pattern morphology and clustering, especially higher-order correlation functions, before I’m convinced.

Anyway, all this reminded me of a very old post of mine about the difficulty of discerning patterns in distributions of points. Take the two (not very well scanned)  images here as examples:

points

You will have to take my word for it that one of these is a realization of a two-dimensional Poisson point process (which is, in a well-defined sense completely “random”) and the other contains spatial correlations between the points. One therefore has a real pattern to it, and one is a realization of a completely unstructured random process.

I sometimes show this example in popular talks and get the audience to vote on which one is the random one. The vast majority usually think that the one on the right is the one that is random and the left one is the one with structure to it. It is not hard to see why. The right-hand pattern is very smooth (what one would naively expect for a constant probability of finding a point at any position in the two-dimensional space) , whereas the  left one seems to offer a profusion of linear, filamentary features and densely concentrated clusters.

In fact, it’s the left picture that was generated by a Poisson process using a Monte Carlo random number generator. All the structure that is visually apparent is imposed by our own sensory apparatus, which has evolved to be so good at discerning patterns that it finds them when they’re not even there!

The right process is also generated by a Monte Carlo technique, but the algorithm is more complicated. In this case the presence of a point at some location suppresses the probability of having other points in the vicinity. Each event has a zone of avoidance around it; the points are therefore anticorrelated. The result of this is that the pattern is much smoother than a truly random process should be. In fact, this simulation has nothing to do with galaxy clustering really. The algorithm used to generate it was meant to mimic the behaviour of glow-worms (a kind of beetle) which tend to eat each other if they get too close. That’s why they spread themselves out in space more uniformly than in the random pattern. In fact, the tendency displayed in this image of the points to spread themselves out more smoothly than a random distribution is in in some ways reminiscent of the chicken eye problem.

The moral of all this is that people are actually pretty hopeless at understanding what “really” random processes look like, probably because the word random is used so often in very imprecise ways and they don’t know what it means in a specific context like this. The point about random processes, even simpler ones like repeated tossing of a coin, is that coincidences happen much more frequently than one might suppose. By the same token, people are also pretty hopeless at figuring out whether two distributions of points resemble each other in some kind of statistical sense, because that can only be made precise if one defines some specific quantitative measure of clustering pattern, which is not easy to do.

The Importance of Being Homogeneous

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2012 by telescoper

A recent article in New Scientist reminded me that I never completed the story I started with a couple of earlier posts (here and there), so while I wait for the rain to stop I thought I’d make myself useful by posting something now. It’s all about a paper available on the arXiv by Scrimgeour et al. concerning the transition to homogeneity of galaxy clustering in the WiggleZ galaxy survey, the abstract of which reads:

We have made the largest-volume measurement to date of the transition to large-scale homogeneity in the distribution of galaxies. We use the WiggleZ survey, a spectroscopic survey of over 200,000 blue galaxies in a cosmic volume of ~1 (Gpc/h)^3. A new method of defining the ‘homogeneity scale’ is presented, which is more robust than methods previously used in the literature, and which can be easily compared between different surveys. Due to the large cosmic depth of WiggleZ (up to z=1) we are able to make the first measurement of the transition to homogeneity over a range of cosmic epochs. The mean number of galaxies N(<r) in spheres of comoving radius r is proportional to r^3 within 1%, or equivalently the fractal dimension of the sample is within 1% of D_2=3, at radii larger than 71 \pm 8 Mpc/h at z~0.2, 70 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.4, 81 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.6, and 75 \pm 4 Mpc/h at z~0.8. We demonstrate the robustness of our results against selection function effects, using a LCDM N-body simulation and a suite of inhomogeneous fractal distributions. The results are in excellent agreement with both the LCDM N-body simulation and an analytical LCDM prediction. We can exclude a fractal distribution with fractal dimension below D_2=2.97 on scales from ~80 Mpc/h up to the largest scales probed by our measurement, ~300 Mpc/h, at 99.99% confidence.

To paraphrase, the conclusion of this study is that while galaxies are strongly clustered on small scales – in a complex `cosmic web’ of clumps, knots, sheets and filaments –  on sufficiently large scales, the Universe appears to be smooth. This is much like a bowl of porridge which contains many lumps, but (usually) none as large as the bowl it’s put in.

Our standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

I blogged some time ago about that the idea that the  Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension D. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius R is proportional to R^D. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then D = 3, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as R^3, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of D < 3 indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: D = 1, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as R^1, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have D=2, and so on.

We know that D \simeq 1.2 on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to D=3 has not been so strong, at least not until recently. It’s just just that measuring D from a survey is actually rather tricky, but also that when we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential \delta\Phi by \delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right), give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale \lambda reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon \sim ct. Galaxies correspond to a large \delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6 but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small in scale \lambda to perturb the background metric significantly.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then, not all of them consistent with each other. I will do a full “Part 2” to that post eventually, but in the mean time I’ll just comment that this particularly one does seem to be consistent with a Universe that possesses the property of large-scale homogeneity. If that conclusion survives the next generation of even larger galaxy redshift surveys then it will come as an immense relief to cosmologists.

The reason for that is that the equations of general relativity are very hard to solve in cases where there isn’t a lot of symmetry; there are just too many equations to solve for a general solution to be obtained.  If the cosmological principle applies, however, the equations simplify enormously (both in number and form) and we can get results we can work with on the back of an envelope. Small fluctuations about the smooth background solution can be handled (approximately but robustly) using a technique called perturbation theory. If the fluctuations are large, however, these methods don’t work. What we need to do instead is construct exact inhomogeneous model, and that is very very hard. It’s of course a different question as to why the Universe is so smooth on large scales, but as a working cosmologist the real importance of it being that way is that it makes our job so much easier than it would otherwise be.

P.S. And I might add that the importance of the Scrimgeour et al paper to me personally is greatly amplified by the fact that it cites a number of my own articles on this theme!

Cosmic Clumpiness Conundra

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by telescoper

Well there’s a coincidence. I was just thinking of doing a post about cosmological homogeneity, spurred on by a discussion at the workshop I attended in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly I’m presented with a topical hook to hang it on.

New Scientist has just carried a report about a paper by Shaun Thomas and colleagues from University College London the abstract of which reads

We observe a large excess of power in the statistical clustering of luminous red galaxies in the photometric SDSS galaxy sample called MegaZ DR7. This is seen over the lowest multipoles in the angular power spectra Cℓ in four equally spaced redshift bins between 0.4 \leq z \leq 0.65. However, it is most prominent in the highest redshift band at z\sim 4\sigma and it emerges at an effective scale k \sim 0.01 h{\rm Mpc}^{-1}. Given that MegaZ DR7 is the largest cosmic volume galaxy survey to date (3.3({\rm Gpc} h^{-1})^3) this implies an anomaly on the largest physical scales probed by galaxies. Alternatively, this signature could be a consequence of it appearing at the most systematically susceptible redshift. There are several explanations for this excess power that range from systematics to new physics. We test the survey, data, and excess power, as well as possible origins.

To paraphrase, it means that the distribution of galaxies in the survey they study is clumpier than expected on very large scales. In fact the level of fluctuation is about a factor two higher than expected on the basis of the standard cosmological model. This shows that either there’s something wrong with the standard cosmological model or there’s something wrong with the survey. Being a skeptic at heart, I’d bet on the latter if I had to put my money somewhere, because this survey involves photometric determinations of redshifts rather than the more accurate and reliable spectroscopic variety. I won’t be getting too excited about this result unless and until it is confirmed with a full spectroscopic survey. But that’s not to say it isn’t an interesting result.

For one thing it keeps alive a debate about whether, and at what scale, the Universe is homogeneous. The standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

At our meeting a few weeks ago, Subir Sarkar from Oxford pointed out that the evidence for cosmological homogeneity isn’t as compelling as most people assume. I blogged some time ago about an alternative idea, that the Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension D. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius R is proportional to R^D. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then D = 3, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as R^3, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of D < 3 indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: D = 1, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as R^1, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have D=2, and so on.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then. I will do a “Part 2” to that post before long, but I’m waiting for some results I’ve heard about informally, but which aren’t yet published, before filling in the more recent developments.

We know that D \simeq 1.2 on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to D=3 is not so strong. The point is, however, at what scale would we say that homogeneity is reached. Not when D=3 exactly, because there will always be statistical fluctuations; see below. What scale, then?  Where D=2.9? D=2.99?

What I’m trying to say is that much of the discussion of this issue involves the phrase “scale of homogeneity” when that is a poorly defined concept. There is no such thing as “the scale of homogeneity”, just a whole host of quantities that vary with scale in a way that may or may not approach the value expected in a homogeneous universe.

It’s even more complicated than that, actually. When we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential \delta\Phi by \delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right), give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale \lambda reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon \sim ct. Galaxies correspond to a large \delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6 but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small to perturb the background metric significantly. Even the big clumps found by the UCL team only correspond to a small variation in the metric. The issue with these, therefore, is not so much that they threaten the applicability of the Cosmological Principle, but that they seem to suggest structure might have grown in a different way to that usually supposed.

The problem is that we can’t measure the gravitational potential on these scales directly so our tests are indirect. Counting galaxies is relatively crude because we don’t even know how well galaxies trace the underlying mass distribution.

An alternative way of doing this is to use not the positions of galaxies, but their velocities (usually called peculiar motions). These deviations from a pure Hubble flow are caused by lumps of matter pulling on the galaxies; the more lumpy the Universe is, the larger the velocities are and the larger the lumps are the more coherent the flow becomes. On small scales galaxies whizz around at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per second relative to each other, but averaged over larger and larger volumes the bulk flow should get smaller and smaller, eventually coming to zero in a frame in which the Universe is exactly homogeneous and isotropic.

Roughly speaking the bulk flow v should relate to the metric fluctuation as approximately \delta \Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right) \left(v/c\right).

It has been claimed that some observations suggest the existence of a dark flow which, if true, would challenge the reliability of the standard cosmological framework, but these results are controversial and are yet to be independently confirmed.

But suppose you could measure the net flow of matter in spheres of increasing size. At what scale would you claim homogeneity is reached? Not when the flow is exactly zero, as there will always be fluctuations, but exactly how small?

The same goes for all the other possible criteria we have for judging cosmological homogeneity. We are free to choose the point where we say the level of inhomogeneity is sufficiently small to be satisfactory.

In fact, the standard cosmology (or at least the simplest version of it) has the peculiar property that it doesn’t ever reach homogeneity anyway! If the spectrum of primordial perturbations is scale-free, as is usually supposed, then the metric fluctuations don’t vary with scale at all. In fact, they’re fixed at a level of \delta \Phi/c^2 \sim 10^{-5}.

The fluctuations are small, so the FLRW metric is pretty accurate, but don’t get smaller with increasing scale, so there is no point when it’s exactly true. So lets have no more of “the scale of homogeneity” as if that were a meaningful phrase. Let’s keep the discussion to the behaviour of suitably defined measurable quantities and how they vary with scale. You know, like real scientists do.

Random Thoughts: Points and Poisson (d’Avril)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 4, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve got a thing about randomness. For a start I don’t like the word, because it covers such a multitude of sins. People talk about there being randomness in nature when what they really mean is that they don’t know how to predict outcomes perfectly. That’s not quite the same thing as things being inherently unpredictable; statements about the nature of reality are ontological, whereas I think randomness is only a useful concept in an epistemological sense. It describes our lack of knowledge: just because we don’t know how to predict doesn’t mean that it can’t be predicted.

Nevertheless there are useful mathematical definitions of randomness and it is also (somtimes) useful to make mathematical models that display random behaviour in a well-defined sense, especially in situations where one has to take into account the effects of noise.

I thought it would be fun to illustrate one such model. In a point process, the random element is a “dot” that occurs at some location in time or space. Such processes occur in wide range of contexts: arrivals of buses at a bus stop, photons in a detector, darts on a dartboard, and so on.

Let us suppose that we think of such a process happening in time, although what follows can straightforwardly be generalised to things happening over an area (such a dartboard) or within some higher-dimensional region. It is also possible to invest the points with some other attributes; processes like this are sometimes called marked point processes, but I won’t discuss them here.

The “most” random way of constructing a simple point process is to assume that each event happens independently of every other event, and that there is a constant probability per unit time of an event happening. This type of process is called a Poisson process, after the French mathematician Siméon-Denis Poisson, who was born in 1781. He was one of the most creative and original physicists of all time: besides fundamental work on electrostatics and the theory of magnetism for which he is famous, he also built greatly upon Laplace’s work in probability theory. His principal result was to derive a formula giving the number of random events if the probability of each one is very low. The Poisson distribution, as it is now known and which I will come to shortly, is related to this original calculation; it was subsequently shown that this distribution amounts to a limiting of the binomial distribution. Just to add to the connections between probability theory and astronomy, it is worth mentioning that in 1833 Poisson wrote an important paper on the motion of the Moon.

In a finite interval of duration T the mean (or expected) number of events for a Poisson process will obviously just be proportional to the product of the rate per unit time and T itself; call this product l.
 
The full distribution is then

This gives the probability that a finite interval contains exactly x events. It can be neatly derived from the binomial distribution by dividing the interval into a very large number of very tiny pieces, each one of which becomes a Bernoulli trial. The probability of success (i.e. of an event occurring) in each trial is extremely small, but the number of trials becomes extremely large in such a way that the mean number of successes is l. In this limit the binomial distribution takes the form of the above expression. The variance of this distribution is interesting: it is alsol.  This means that the typical fluctuations within the interval are of order the square root of l on a mean level of l, so the fractional variation is of the famous “one over root n” form that is a useful estimate of the expected variation in point processes.  Indeed, it’s a useful rule-of-thumb for estimating likely fluctuation levels in a host of statistical situations.

If football were a Poisson process with a mean number of goals per game of, say, 2 then would expect must games to have 2 plus or minus 1.4 (the square root of 2)  goals, i.e. between about 0.6 and 3.4. That is actually not far from what is observed and the distribution of goals per game in football matches is actually quite close to a Poisson distribution.

This idea can be straightforwardly extended to higher dimensional processes. If points are scattered over an area with a constant probability per unit area then the mean number in a finite area will also be some number l and the same formula applies.

As a matter of fact I first learned about the Poisson distribution when I was at school, doing A-level mathematics (which in those days actually included some mathematics). The example used by the teacher to illustrate this particular bit of probability theory was a two-dimensional one from biology. The skin of a fish was divided into little squares of equal area, and the number of parasites found in each square was counted. A histogram of these numbers accurately follows the Poisson form. For years I laboured under the delusion that it was given this name because it was something to do with fish, but then I never was very quick on the uptake.

This is all very well, but point processes are not always of this Poisson form. Points can be clustered, so that having one point at a given position increases the conditional probability of having others nearby. For example, galaxies like those shown in the nice picture are distributed throughout space in a clustered pattern that is very far from the Poisson form. But it’s very difficult to tell from just looking at the picture. What is needed is a rigorous statistical analysis.

The statistical description of clustered point patterns is a fascinating subject, because it makes contact with the way in which our eyes and brain perceive pattern. I’ve spent a large part of my research career trying to figure out efficient ways of quantifying pattern in an objective way and I can tell you it’s not easy, especially when the data are prone to systematic errors and glitches. I can only touch on the subject here, but to see what I am talking about look at the two patterns below:

 

pointbpointa

You will have to take my word for it that one of these is a realization of a two-dimensional Poisson point process and the other contains correlations between the points. One therefore has a real pattern to it, and one is a realization of a completely unstructured random process.

I show this example in popular talks and get the audience to vote on which one is the random one. The vast majority usually think that the top  is the one that is random and the bottom one is the one with structure to it. It is not hard to see why. The top pattern is very smooth (what one would naively expect for a constant probability of finding a point at any position in the two-dimensional space) , whereas the bottom one seems to offer a profusion of linear, filamentary features and densely concentrated clusters.

In fact, it’s the bottom  picture that was generated by a Poisson process using a  Monte Carlo random number generator. All the structure that is visually apparent is imposed by our own sensory apparatus, which has evolved to be so good at discerning patterns that it finds them when they’re not even there!

The top  process is also generated by a Monte Carlo technique, but the algorithm is more complicated. In this case the presence of a point at some location suppresses the probability of having other points in the vicinity. Each event has a zone of avoidance around it; the points are therefore anticorrelated. The result of this is that the pattern is much smoother than a truly random process should be. In fact, this simulation has nothing to do with galaxy clustering really. The algorithm used to generate it was meant to mimic the behaviour of glow-worms which tend to eat each other if they get  too close. That’s why they spread themselves out in space more uniformly than in the random pattern.

Incidentally, I got both pictures from Stephen Jay Gould’s collection of essays Bully for Brontosaurus and used them, with appropriate credit and copyright permission, in my own book From Cosmos to Chaos. I forgot to say this in earlier versions of this post.

The tendency to find things that are not there is quite well known to astronomers. The constellations which we all recognize so easily are not physical associations of stars, but are just chance alignments on the sky of things at vastly different distances in space. That is not to say that they are random, but the pattern they form is not caused by direct correlations between the stars. Galaxies form real three-dimensional physical associations through their direct gravitational effect on one another.

People are actually pretty hopeless at understanding what “really” random processes look like, probably because the word random is used so often in very imprecise ways and they don’t know what it means in a specific context like this.  The point about random processes, even simpler ones like repeated tossing of a coin, is that coincidences happen much more frequently than one might suppose.

I suppose there is an evolutionary reason why our brains like to impose order on things in a general way. More specifically scientists often use perceived patterns in order to construct hypotheses. However these hypotheses must be tested objectively and often the initial impressions turn out to be figments of the imagination, like the canals on Mars.

Now, I think I’ll complain to wordpress about the widget that links pages to a “random blog post”.

I’m sure it’s not really random….