Archive for Hubble constant

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.

Thoughts on Cosmological Distances

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2019 by telescoper

At the risk of giving the impression that I’m obsessed with the issue of the Hubble constant, I thought I’d do a quick post about something vaguely related to that which I happened to be thinking about the other night.

It has been remarked that the two allegedly discrepant sets of measures of the cosmological distance scale seen, for example, in the diagram below differ in that the low values are global measures (based on observations at high redshift) while the high values of are local (based on direct determinations using local sources, specifically stars of various types).

The above Figure is taken from the paper I blogged about a few days ago here.

That is basically true. There is, however, another difference in the two types of determination: the high values of the Hubble constant are generally related to interpretations of the measured brightness of observed sources (i.e. they are luminosity distances) while the lower values are generally based on trigonometry (specifically they are angular diameter distances). Observations of the cosmic microwave background temperature pattern, baryon acoustic oscillations in the matter power-spectum, and gravitational lensing studies all involve angular-diameter distances rather than luminosity distances.

Before going on let me point out that the global (cosmological) determinations of the Hubble constant are indirect in that they involve the simultaneous determination of a set of parameters based on a detailed model. The Hubble constant is not one of the basic parameters inferred from cosmological observations, it is derived from the others. One does not therefore derive the global estimates in the same way as the local ones, so I’m simplifying things a lot in the following discussion which I am not therefore claiming to be a resolution of the alleged discrepancy. I’m just thinking out loud, so to speak.

With that caveat in mind, and setting aside the possibility (or indeed probability) of observational systematics in some or all of the measurements, let us suppose that we did find that there was a real discrepancy between distances inferred using angular diameters and distances using luminosities in the framework of the standard cosmological model. What could we infer?

Well, if the Universe is described by a space-time with the Robertson-Walker Metric (which is the case if the Cosmological Principle applies in the framework of General Relativity) then angular diameter distances and luminosity distances differ only by a factor of (1+z)2 where z is the redshift: DL=DA(1+z)2.

I’ve included here some slides from undergraduate course notes to add more detail to this if you’re interested:

The result  DL=DA(1+z)2 is an example of Etherington’s Reciprocity Theorem. If we did find that somehow this theorem were violated, how could we modify our cosmological theory to explain it?

Well, one thing we couldn’t do is change the evolutionary history of the scale factor a(t) within a Friedman model. The redshift just depends on the scale factor when light is emitted and the scale factor when it is received, not how it evolves in between. And because the evolution of the scale factor is determined by the Friedman equation that relates it to the energy contents of the Universe, changing the latter won’t help either no matter how exotic the stuff you introduce (as long as it only interacts with light rays via gravity).

In the light of the caveat I introduced above, I should say that changing the energy contents of the Universe might well shift the allowed parameter region which may reconcile the cosmological determination of the Hubble constant from cosmology with local values. I am just talking about a hypothetical simpler case.

In order to violate the reciprocity theorem one would have to tinker with something else. An obvious possibility is to abandon the Robertson-Walker metric. We know that the Universe is not exactly homogeneous and isotropic, so one could appeal to the gravitational lensing effect of lumpiness as the origin of the discrepancy. This must happen to some extent, but understanding it fully is very hard because we have far from perfect understanding of globally inhomogeneous cosmological models.

Etherington’s theorem requires light rays to be described by null geodesics which would not be the case if photons had mass, so introducing massive photons that’s another way out. It also requires photon numbers to be conserved, so some mysterious way of making photons disappear might do the trick, so adding some exotic field that interacts with light in a peculiar way is another possibility.

Anyway, my main point here is that if one could pin down the Hubble constant tension as a discrepancy between angular-diameter and luminosity based distances then the most obvious place to look for a resolution is in departures of the metric from the Robertson-Walker form.

Addendum: just to clarify one point, the reciprocity theorem applies to any GR-based metric theory, i.e. just about anything without torsion in the metric, so it applies to inhomogeneous cosmologies based on GR too. However, in such theories there is no way of defining a global scale factor a(t) so the reciprocity relation applies only locally, in a different form for each source and observer.

The Hubble Constant from the Tip of the Red Giant Branch

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 16, 2019 by telescoper

At the risk of boring everyone again with Hubble constant news there’s yet another paper on the arXiv about the Hubble constant. This one is another `local’ measurement, in that it uses properties of nearby stars,  time based on a new calibration of the Red Giant Branch. This one is by Wendy Freedman et al. and its abstract reads:

We present a new and independent determination of the local value of the Hubble constant based on a calibration of the Tip of the Red Giant Branch (TRGB) applied to Type Ia supernovae (SNeIa). We find a value of Ho = 69.8 +/- 0.8 (+/-1.1\% stat) +/- 1.7 (+/-2.4\% sys) km/sec/Mpc. The TRGB method is both precise and accurate, and is parallel to, but independent of the Cepheid distance scale. Our value sits midway in the range defined by the current Hubble tension. It agrees at the 1.2-sigma level with that of the Planck 2018 estimate, and at the 1.7-sigma level with the SHoES measurement of Ho based on the Cepheid distance scale. The TRGB distances have been measured using deep Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) imaging of galaxy halos. The zero point of the TRGB calibration is set with a distance modulus to the Large Magellanic Cloud of 18.477 +/- 0.004 (stat) +/-0.020 (sys) mag, based on measurement of 20 late-type detached eclipsing binary (DEB) stars, combined with an HST parallax calibration of a 3.6 micron Cepheid Leavitt law based on Spitzer observations. We anchor the TRGB distances to galaxies that extend our measurement into the Hubble flow using the recently completed Carnegie Supernova Project I sample containing about 100 well-observed SNeIa. There are several advantages of halo TRGB distance measurements relative to Cepheid variables: these include low halo reddening, minimal effects of crowding or blending of the photometry, only a shallow (calibrated) sensitivity to metallicity in the I-band, and no need for multiple epochs of observations or concerns of different slopes with period. In addition, the host masses of our TRGB host-galaxy sample are higher on average than the Cepheid sample, better matching the range of host-galaxy masses in the CSP distant sample, and reducing potential systematic effects in the SNeIa measurements.

You can download a PDF of the paper here.

Note that the value obtained ising the TRGB here lies in between the two determinations using the cosmic microwave background and the Cepheid distance scale I discussed, for example, here. This is illustrated nicely by the following couple of Figures:

I know that this result – around 70 km s-1 Mpc-1 – has made some people a bit more relaxed about the apparent tension between the previous measurements, but what do you think? Here’s a poll so you can express your opinion.

My own opinion is that if there isn’t any tension at all at the one-sigma level then you should consider the possibility that you got sigma wrong!

Hubble’s Constant – A Postscript on w

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 15, 2019 by telescoper

Last week I posted about new paper on the arXiv (by Wong et al.) that adds further evidence to the argument about whether or not the standard cosmological model is consistent with different determinations of the Hubble Constant. You can download a PDF of the full paper here.

Reading the paper through over the weekend I was struck by Figure 6:

This shows the constraints on H0 and the parameter w which is used to describe the dark energy component. Bear in mind that these estimates of cosmological parameters actually involve the simultaneous estimation of several parameters, six in the case of the standard ΛCDM model. Incidentally, H0 is not one of the six basic parameters of the standard model – it is derived from the others – and some important cosmological observations are relatively insensitive to its value.

The parameter w is the equation of state parameter for the dark energy component so that the pressure p is related to the energy density ρc2 via p=wρc2. The fixed value w=-1 applies if the dark energy is of the form of a cosmological constant (or vacuum energy). I explained why here. Non-relativistic matter (dominated by rest-mass energy) has w=0 while ultra-relativistic matter has w=1/3.

Applying the cosmological version of the thermodynamic relation for adiabatic expansion  “dE=-pdV” one finds that ρ ∼ a-3(1+w) where a is the cosmic scale factor. Note that w=-1 gives a constant energy density as the Universe expands (the cosmological constant); w=0 gives ρ ∼ a-3, as expected for `ordinary’ matter.

As I already mentioned, in the standard cosmological model w is fixed at  w=-1 but if it is treated as a free parameter then it can be added to the usual six to produce the Figure shown above. I should add for Bayesians that this plot shows the posterior probability assuming a uniform prior on w.

What is striking is that the data seem to prefer a very low value of w. Indeed the peak of the likelihood (which determines the peak of the posterior probability if the prior is flat) appears to be off the bottom of the plot. It must be said that the size of the black contour lines (at one sigma and two sigma for dashed and solid lines respectively) suggests that these data aren’t really very informative; the case w=-1 is well within the 2σ contour. In other words, one might get a slightly better fit by allowing the equation of state parameter to float, but the quality of the fit might not improve sufficiently to justify the introduction of another parameter.

Nevertheless it is worth mentioning that if it did turn out, for example, that w=-2 that would imply ρ ∼ a+3, i.e. an energy density that increases steeply as a increases (i.e. as the Universe expands). That would be pretty wild!

On the other hand, there isn’t really any physical justification for cases with w<-1 (in terms of a plausible model) which, in turn, makes me doubt the reasonableness of imposing a flat prior. My own opinion is that if dark energy turns out not to be of the simple form of a cosmological constant then it is likely to be too complicated to be expressed in terms of a single number anyway.


Postscript to this postscript: take a look at this paper from 2002!

Hubble’s Constant – The Tension Mounts!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 12, 2019 by telescoper

There’s a new paper on the arXiv (by Wong et al.) that adds further evidence to the argument about whether or not the standard cosmological model is consistent with different determinations of the Hubble Constant. The abstract is here:

You can download a PDF of the full paper here.

You will that these measurements, based on observations of time delays in multiply imaged quasars that have been  gravitationally lensed, give higher values of the Hubble constant than determinations from, e.g., the Planck experiment.

Here’s a nice summary of the tension in pictorial form:

And here are some nice pictures of the lensed quasars involved in the latest paper:


It’s interesting that these determinations seem more consistent with local distance-scale approaches than with global cosmological measurements but the possibility remains of some unknown systematic.

Time, methinks, to resurrect my long-running poll on this!

Please feel free to vote. At the risk of inciting Mr Hine to clog up my filter with further gibberish,  you may also comment through the box below.


An Informational Approach to Cosmological Parameter Estimation

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2019 by telescoper

In order to avoid having to make a start on examination marking I was having a trawl through the arXiv this morning when I found an interesting paper by Stephens & Gleiser called An Informational Approach to Cosmological Parameter Estimation. The abstract is:

You can download a PDF of the full paper here.

I haven’t had time to go through the manuscript in detail but while it doesn’t seem to say very much of a specific nature about the Hubble constant tension issue, it does introduce an approach which is new to me. The Jensen-Shannon Divergence is a variation on the familiar Kullback-Leibler Divergence.

Anyway, I’d be interested in comments on this from experts!