Archive for Ned Wright

Ned Wright’s Dark Energy Piston

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 29, 2015 by telescoper

Since Ned Wright picked up on the fact that I borrowed his famous Dark Energy Piston for my talk I thought I’d include it here in all its animated glory to explain a little bit better why I think it was worth taking the piston.

The two important things about dark energy that enable it to reconcile apparently contradictory observations within the framework of general relativity are: (i) that its energy-density does not decrease with the expansion of the Universe (as do other forms of energy, such as radiation); and (ii) that it has negative pressure which, among other things, means that it causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

piston-animThe Dark Energy Piston (above) shows how these two aspects are related. Suppose the chamber of the piston is filled with “stuff” that has the attributes described above. As the piston moves out the energy density of dark energy does not decrease, but its volume does, so the total amount of energy in the chamber must increase. Since the system depicted here consists only of the piston and the chamber, this extra energy must have been supplied as work done by the piston on the contents of the chamber. For this to have happened the stuff inside must have resisted being expanded, i.e. it must be in tension. In other words it has to have negative pressure.

Compare the case of “ordinary” matter, in the form of an ideal gas. In such a case the stuff inside the piston does work pushing it out, and the energy density inside the chamber would therefore decrease.

If it seems strange to you that something that is often called “vacuum energy” has the property that its density does not decrease when it subjected to expansion, then just consider that a pretty good definition of a vacuum is something that, when you do dilute it, you don’t any less!

So how does this dark vacuum energy stuff with negative pressure cause the expansion of the Universe to accelerate?

Well, here’s the equation that governs the dynamical evolution of the Universe:

DecelerationI’ve included a cosmological constant term (Λ) but ignore this for now. Note that if the pressure p is small (e.g. how it would be for cold dark matter) and the energy density ρ is positive (which it is for all forms of energy we know of) then in the absence of Λ the acceleration is always negative, i.e. the universe decelerates. This is in accord with intuition: because gravity always pulls we expect the expansion to slow down by the mutual attraction of all the matter. However, if the pressure is negative, the combination in brackets can be negative so can imply accelerated expansion.

In fact if dark energy stuff has an equation of state of the form p=-ρc2 then the combination in brackets leads to a fluid with precisely the same effect that a cosmological constant would have, so this is the simplest kind of dark energy.

When Einstein introduced the cosmological constant in 1915/6 he did it by modifying the left hand side of his field equations, essentially modifying the law of gravitation. This discussion shows that he could instead have modified the right hand side by introducing a vacuum energy with an equation of state p=-ρc2. A more detailed discussion of this can be found here.

Anyway, which way you like to think of dark energy the fact of the matter is that we don’t know how to explain it from a fundamental point of view. The only thing I can be sure of is that whatever it is in itself, dark energy is a truly terrible name for it.

I’d go for “persistent tension”…


Is Space Expanding?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2011 by telescoper

I think I’ve just got time for a quick post this lunchtime, so I’ll pick up on a topic that rose from a series of interchanges on Twitter this morning. As is the case with any interesting exchange of views, this conversation ended up quite some distance from its starting point, and I won’t have time to go all the way back to the beginning, but it was all to do with the “expansion of space“, a phrase one finds all over the place in books articles and web pages about cosmology at both popular and advanced levels.

What kicked the discussion off was an off-the-cuff humorous remark about the rate at which the Moon is receding from the Earth according to Hubble’s Law; the answer to which is “very slowly indeed”. Hubble’s law is v=H_0 d where v is the apparent recession velocity and d the distance, so for very small distance the speed of expansion is tiny. Strictly speaking, however, the velocity isn’t really observable – what we measure is the redshift, which we then interpret as being due to a velocity.

I chipped in with a comment to the effect that Hubble’s law didn’t apply to the Earth-Moon system (or to the whole Solar System, or for that matter to the Milky Way Galaxy or to the Local Group either) as these are held together by local gravitational effects and do not participate in the cosmic expansion.

To that came the rejoinder that surely these structures are expanding, just very slowly because they are small and that effect is counteracted by motions associated with local structures which “fight against” the “underlying expansion” of space.

But this also makes me uncomfortable, hence this post. It’s not that I think this is necessarily a misconception. The “expansion of space” can be a useful thing to discuss in a pedagogical context. However, as someone once said, teaching physics involves ever-decreasing circles of deception, and the more you think about the language of expanding space the less comfortable you should feel about it, and the more careful you should be in using it as anything other than a metaphor. I’d say it probably belongs to the category of things that Wolfgang Pauli would have described as “not even wrong”, in the sense that it’s more meaningless than incorrect.

Let me briefly try to explain why. In cosmology we assume that the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic and consequently that the space-time is described by the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric, which can be written

ds^{2} = c^{2} dt^{2}-a^{2}(t) d\sigma^{2}

in which d\sigma^2 describes the (fixed) geometry of a three-dimensional homogeneous space; this spatial part does not depend on time. The imposition of spatial homogeneity selects a preferred time coordinate t, defined such that observers can synchronize watches according to the local density of matter – points in space-time at which the matter density is the same are defined to be at the same time.

The presence of the scale factor a(t) in front of the spatial 3-metric allows the overall 4-metric to change with time, but only in such a way that preserves the spatial geometry, in other words the spatial sections can have different scales at different times, but always have the same shape. It’s a consequence of Einstein’s equations of General Relativity that a Universe described by the FLRW metric must evolve with time (at least in the absence of a cosmological constant). In an expanding universe a(t) increases with t and this increase naturally accounts for Hubble’s law, with  H(t)=\dot{a}/a but only if you define velocities and distances in the particular way suggested by the coordinates used.

So how do we interpret this?

Well, there are (at least) two different interpretations depending on your choice of coordinates.  One way to do it is to pick spatial coordinates such that the positions of galaxies change with time; in this choice the redshift of galaxy observed from another is due to their relative motion. Another way to do it is to use coordinates in which the galaxy positions are  fixed; these are called comoving coordinates.  In general relativity we can switch between one view and the other and the observable effect (i.e. the redshift) is the same in either.

Most cosmologists use comoving coordinates (because it’s generally a lot easier that way), and it’s this second interpretation that encourages one to think not about things moving but about space itself expanding. The danger with that is that it sometimes leads one to endow “space” (whatever that means) with physical attributes that it doesn’t really possess. This is most often seen in the analogy of galaxies being the raisins in a pudding, with “space” being the dough that expands as the pudding cooks taking the raisins away from each other. This analogy conveys some idea of the effect of homogeneous expansion, but isn’t really right. Raisins and dough are both made of, you know, stuff. Space isn’t.

In support of my criticism I quote:

 Many semi-popular accounts of cosmology contain statements to the effect that “space itself is swelling up” in causing the galaxies to separate. This seems to imply that all objects are being stretched by some mysterious force: are we to infer that humans who survived for a Hubble time [the age of the universe] would find themselves to be roughly four metres tall? Certainly not….In the common elementary demonstration of the expansion by means of inflating a balloon, galaxies should be represented by glued-on coins, not ink drawings (which will spuriously expand with the universe).

(John Peacock, Cosmological Physics, p. 87-8). A lengthier discussion of this point, which echoes some of the points I make below, can be found here.

To get back to the original point of the question let me add another quote:

A real galaxy is held together by its own gravity and is not free to expand with the universe. Similarly, if [we talk about] the Solar System, Earth, [an] atom, or almost anything, the result would be misleading because most systems are held together by various forces in some sort of equilibrium and cannot partake in cosmic expansion. If we [talk about] clusters of galaxies…most clusters are bound together and cannot expand. Superclusters are vast sprawling systems of numerous clusters that are weakly bound and can expand almost freely with the universe.

(Edward Harrison, Cosmology, p. 278).

I’d put this a different way. The “Hubble expansion” describes the motion of test particles in a the coordinate system I described above, i.e one  which applies to a perfectly homogeneous and isotropic universe. This metric simply doesn’t apply on the scale of the solar system, our own galaxy and even up to the scale of groups or clusters of galaxies. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31),  for example, is not receding from the Milky Way at all – it has a blueshift.  I’d argue that the space-time geometry in such systems is simply nothing like the FLRW form, so one can’t expect to make physical sense trying to to interpret particle motions within them in terms of the usual cosmological coordinate system. Losing the symmetry of the FLRW case  makes the choice of appropriate coordinates much more challenging.

There is cosmic inhomogeneity on even larger scales, of course, but in such cases the “peculiar velocities” generated by the lumpiness can be treated as a (linear) correction to the pure Hubble flow associated with the background cosmology.  In my view, however, in highly concentrated objects that decomposition into an “underlying expansion” and a “local effect” isn’t useful. I’d prefer simply to say that there is no Hubble flow in such objects. To take this to an extreme, what about a black hole? Do you think there’s a Hubble flow inside one of those, struggling to blow it up?

In fact the mathematical task of embedding inhomogeneous structures in an asymptotically FLRW background is not at all straightforward to do exactly, but it is worth mentioning that, by virtue of Birkhoff’s theorem,  the interior of an exactly spherical cavity (i.e. void)  must be described by the (flat) Minkowski metric. In this case the external cosmic expansion has absolutely no effect on the motion of particles in the interior.

I’ll end with this quote from the Fount of All Wisdom, Ned Wright,in response to the question Why doesn’t the Solar System expand if the whole Universe is expanding?

This question is best answered in the coordinate system where the galaxies change their positions. The galaxies are receding from us because they started out receding from us, and the force of gravity just causes an acceleration that causes them to slow down, or speed up in the case of an accelerating expansion. Planets are going around the Sun in fixed size orbits because they are bound to the Sun. Everything is just moving under the influence of Newton’s laws (with very slight modifications due to relativity). [Illustration] For the technically minded, Cooperstock et al. computes that the influence of the cosmological expansion on the Earth’s orbit around the Sun amounts to a growth by only one part in a septillion over the age of the Solar System.

The paper cited in this passage is well worth reading because it demonstrates the importance of the point I was trying to make above about using an appropriate coordinate system:

In the non–spherical case, it is generally recognized that the expansion of the universe does not have observable effects on local physics, but few discussions of this problem in the literature have gone beyond qualitative statements. A serious problem is that these studies were carried out in coordinate systems that are not easily comparable with the frames used for astronomical observations and thus obscure the physical meaning of the computations.

Now I’ve waffled on far too long so  I’ll just finally  recommend this paper entitled Expanding Space: The Root of All Evil and get back to work…

Back Early…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2009 by telescoper

As a very quick postscript to my previous post about the amazing performance of Hubble’s spanking new camera, let me just draw attention to a fresh paper on the ArXiv by Rychard Bouwens and collaborators, which discusses the detection of galaxies with redshifts around 8 in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (shown below in an earlier image) using WFC3/IR observations that reveal galaxies fainter than the previous detection limits.

Amazing. I remember the days when a redshift z=0.5 was a big deal!

To put this in context and to give some idea of its importance, remember that the redshift z is defined in such a way that 1+z is the factor by which the wavelength of light is stretched out by the expansion of the Universe. Thus, a photon from a galaxy at redshift 8 started out on its journey towards us (or, rather, the Hubble Space Telescope) when the Universe was compressed in all directions relative to its present size by a factor of 9. The average density of stuff then was a factor 93=729 larger, so the Universe was a much more crowded place then compared to what it’s like now.

Translating the redshift into a time is trickier because it requires us to know how the expansion rate of the Universe varies with cosmic epoch. The requires solving the equations of a cosmological model or, more realistically for a Friday afternoon, plugging the numbers into Ned Wright’s famous cosmology calculator.

Using the best-estimate parameters for the current concordance cosmology reveals that at redshift 8, the Universe was only about 0.65 billion years old (i.e. light from the distant galaxies seen by HST set out only 650 million years after the Big Bang). Since the current age of the Universe is about 13.7 billion years (according to the same model), this means that the light Hubble detected set out on its journey towards us an astonishing 13 billion years ago.

More importantly for theories of galaxy formation and evolution, this means that at least some galaxies must have formed very early on, relatively speaking, in the first 5% of the time the Universe has been around for until now.

These observations are by no means certain as the redshifts have been determined only approximately using photometric techniques rather than the more accurate spectroscopic methods, but if they’re correct they could be extremely important.

At the very least they provide even stronger motivation for getting on with the next-generation space telescope, JWST.