Archive for Planck Satellite

Cosmology Talks: Eiichiro Komatsu & Yuto Minami on Parity Violation in the Cosmic Microwave Background

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2020 by telescoper

It’s time I shared another one of those interesting cosmology talks on the Youtube channel curated by Shaun Hotchkiss. This channel features technical talks rather than popular expositions so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but for those seriously interested in cosmology at a research level they should prove interesting.

In this video, Eiichiro Komatsu and Yuto Minami talk about their recent work, first devising a way to extract a parity violating signature in the cosmic microwave background, as manifested by a form of birefringence. If the universe is birefringent then E-mode polarization would change into B-mode as electromagnetic radiation travels through space, so there would be a non-zero correlation between the two measured modes. They  try to measure this correlation using the Planck 2018 data, getting  a 2.4 sigma `hint’ of a result.

A problem with the measurement is that systematic errors, such as imperfectly calibrated detector angles,  could mimic the signal. Yuto and Eiichiro’s  idea was to measure the detector angle by looking at the E-B correlation in the foregrounds, where light hasn’t travelled far enough to be affected by any potential birefringence in the universe. They argue that this allows them to distinguish between the two types of measured E-B correlation. However, this is only the case if there is no intrinsic correlation between the E-mode and B-mode polarization in the foregrounds, which may not be the case, but which they are testing. The method can be applied to any of the plethora of CMB experiments currently underway so there will probably be more results soon that may shed further light on this issue.

Incidentally this reminds me of Cardiff days when work was going on about the same affect using the Quad instrument. I wasn’t involved with Quad but I do remember having interesting chats about the theory behind the measurement or upper limit as it was (which is reported here). Looking at the paper I realize that paper involved researchers from the Department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth University.

P. S. The paper that accompanies this talk can be found here.

Cosmology Examination Results

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 14, 2020 by telescoper

The examination season in Maynooth being now over, and the results having been issued, I thought I’d pass on the results not for individual students but for the Universe as a whole.

As you can see Dark Energy is top of the class, with a good II.1 (Upper Second Class). A few years ago this candidate looked likely to get a mark over 70% and thus get First Class Honours, but in the end fell just short. Given the steady performance and possible improvement in future I think this candidate will probably be one to reckon with in a future research career.

In second place, a long way behind on about 27%, is Dark Matter. This candidate only answered some of the questions asked, and those not very convincingly. Although reasonably strong on theory, the candidate didn’t show up at all in the laboratory. The result is a fail but there is an opportunity for a repeat at a future date, though there is some doubt as to whether the candidate would appear.

At the bottom of the class on a meagre 5% we find Ordinary Matter. It seems this candidate must have left the examination early and did not even give the correct name (baryons) on the script. Technically this one could repeat but even doing so is unlikely even to get an Ordinary Degree. I would suggest that baryons aren’t really cut out for cosmology and should make alternative plans for the future.


P.S. Photons and neutrinos ceased interacting with the course some time ago. Owing to this lack of engagement they are assumed to have dropped out, and their marks are not shown.





Inflation after Planck

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

Gratuitous Picture of Planck

There’s a paper on the arXiv by Debika Chowdhury et al with the title Inflation after Planck: Judgment Day and abstract:

Inflation is considered as the best theory of the early universe by a very large fraction of cosmologists. However, the validity of a scientific model is not decided by counting the number of its supporters and, therefore, this dominance cannot be taken as a proof of its correctness. Throughout its history, many criticisms have been put forward against inflation. The final publication of the Planck Cosmic Microwave Background data represents a benchmark time to study their relevance and to decide whether inflation really deserves its supremacy. In this paper, we categorize the criticisms against inflation, go through all of them in the light of what is now observationally known about the early universe, and try to infer and assess the scientific status of inflation. Although we find that important questions still remain open, we conclude that the inflationary paradigm is not in trouble but, on the contrary, has rather been strengthened by the Planck data.

You can download a PDF of the full paper here.

This is a pretty good introduction to live issues around the theory of cosmic inflation in the light of the results from the Planck mission. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether or not you agree with the concluding sentence of the abstract!


Cosmological Results from the Dark Energy Survey

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2017 by telescoper

At last the Dark Energy Survey has produced its first cosmological results. The actual papers have not yet hit the arXiv but they have been announced at a meeting in the USA and are linked to from this page.

I’ll jump straight to this one, which shows the joint constraints on S8 which is related to σ8 (a measure of the level of fluctuations in the cosmological mass distribution) via S8= σ8m/0.3)0.5 against the cosmological density parameter, Ωm.

These constraints, derived using DES Y1 measurements of galaxy clustering, galaxy-galaxy lensing, and weak lensing cosmic shear are compared with those obtained from the cosmic microwave background using Planck data, and also combined with them to produce a joint constraint. Following usual practice, the contours are 68% and 95%  posterior probability regions.

The central values of DES and Planck values are different, but the discrepancy is only marginal. Compare this with a an equivalent diagram from a paper I discussed last year.

The KIDS analysis used to produce this plot uses only weak lensing tomography, so you can see that using additional measures reduces the viable region in this parameter space.

It’s great to see new data coming in, but at first sight it seems it is tending to confirm the predictions of the standard cosmological model, rather than providing evidence of departures from it.

Incidentally, this little video shows the extent to which the Dark Energy Survey is a global project, including some of my former colleagues at the University of Sussex!


A Cosmic Microwave Background Dipole Puzzle

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by telescoper

The following is tangentially related to a discussion I had during a PhD examination last week, and I thought it might be worth sharing here to stimulate some thought among people interested in cosmology.

First here’s a picture of the temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background from Planck (just because it’s so pretty).


The analysis of these fluctuations yields a huge amount of information about the universe, including its matter content and spatial geometry as well as the form of primordial fluctuations that gave rise to galaxies and large-scale structure. The variations in temperature that you see in this image are small – about one-part in a hundred thousand – and they show that the universe appears to be close to isotropic (at least around us).

I’ll blog later on (assuming I find time) on the latest constraints on this subject, but for the moment I’ll just point out something that has to be removed from the above map to make it look isotropic, and that is the Cosmic Microwave Background Dipole. Here is a picture (which I got from here):


This signal – called a dipole because it corresponds to a simple 180 degree variation across the sky – is about a hundred times larger than the “intrinsic” fluctuations which occur on smaller angular scales and are seen in the first map. According to the standard cosmological framework this dipole is caused by our peculiar motion through the frame in which microwave background photons are distributed homogeneously and isotropically. Had we no peculiar motion then we would be “at rest” with respect to this CMB reference frame so there would be no such dipole. In the standard cosmological framework this “peculiar motion” of ours is generated by the gravitational effect of local structures and is thus a manifestation of the fact that our universe is not homogeneous on small scales; by “small” I mean on the scales of a hundred Megaparsecs or so. Anyway, if you’re interested in goings-on in the very early universe or its properties on extremely large scales the dipole is thus of no interest and, being so large, it is quite easy to subtract. That’s why it isn’t there in maps such as the Planck map shown above. If it had been left in it would swamp the other variations.

Anyway, the interpretation of the CMB dipole in terms of our peculiar motion through the CMB frame leads to a simple connection between the pattern shown in the second figure and the velocity of the observational frame: it’s a Doppler Effect. We are moving towards the upper right of the figure (in which direction photons are blueshifted, so the CMB looks a bit hotter in that direction) and away from the bottom left (whence the CMB photons are redshifted so the CMB appears a bit cooler). The amplitude of the dipole implies that the Solar System is moving with a velocity of around 370 km/s with respect to the CMB frame.

Now 370 km/s is quite fast, but it’s much smaller than the speed of light – it’s only about 0.12%, in fact – which means that one can treat this is basically a non-relativistic Doppler Effect. That means that it’s all quite straightforward to understand with elementary physics. In the limit that v/c<<1 the Doppler Effect only produces a dipole pattern of the type we see in the Figure above, and the amplitude of the dipole is ΔT/T~v/c because all terms of higher order in v/c are negligibly smallFurthermore in this case the dipole is simply superimposed on the primordial fluctuations but otherwise does not affect them.

My question to the reader, i.e. you,  is the following. Suppose we weren’t travelling at a sedate 370 km/s through the CMB frame but instead enter the world of science fiction and take a trip on a spacecraft that can travel close to the speed of light. What would this do to the CMB? Would we still just see a dipole, or would we see additional (relativistic) effects? If there are other effects, what would they do to the pattern of “intrinsic” fluctuations?

Comments and answers through the box below, please!


Inflationary Opinion Poll

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 28, 2014 by telescoper

Compare and contrast this abstract of a paper on the arXiv from Guth et al. from last year:

Models of cosmic inflation posit an early phase of accelerated expansion of the universe, driven by the dynamics of one or more scalar fields in curved spacetime. Though detailed assumptions about fields and couplings vary across models, inflation makes specific, quantitative predictions for several observable quantities, such as the flatness parameter (Ωk=1−Ω) and the spectral tilt of primordial curvature perturbations (ns−1=dlnPR/dlnk), among others—predictions that match the latest observations from the Planck satellite to very good precision. In the light of data from Planck  as well as recent theoretical developments in the study of eternal inflation and the multiverse, we address recent criticisms of inflation by Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb. We argue that their conclusions rest on several problematic assumptions, and we conclude that cosmic inflation is on a stronger footing than ever before.

and this one, just out,  by Ijjas et al.:

Classic inflation, the theory described in textbooks, is based on the idea that, beginning from typical initial conditions and assuming a simple inflaton potential with a minimum of fine-tuning, inflation can create exponentially large volumes of space that are generically homogeneous, isotropic and flat, with nearly scale-invariant spectra of density and gravitational wave fluctuations that are adiabatic, Gaussian and have generic predictable properties. In a recent paper, we showed that, in addition to having certain conceptual problems known for decades, classic inflation is for the first time also disfavored by data, specifically the most recent data from WMAP, ACT and Planck2013. Guth, Kaiser and Nomura and Linde have each recently published critiques of our paper, but, as made clear here, we all agree about one thing: the problematic state of classic inflation. Instead, they describe an alternative inflationary paradigm that revises the assumptions and goals of inflation, and perhaps of science generally.

I’m not sure how much of a “schism” (to use Ijjas et al.’s word) there actually is, but it seems like an appropriate subject for a totally unscientific Friday lunchtime opinion poll:

Physics World Plug

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 7, 2014 by telescoper

Just time for a quick bit of shameless self-promotion. This month’s Edition of Physics World has an article by me as cover feature. Here’s a sneak preview, but to read the whole thing you’ll have to rush out and buy a copy! Alternatively, you can find it online here.


Planck and Being Human

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 23, 2013 by telescoper

On Saturday 19th October the instruments and cooling systems on the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft were switched off, marking the end of the scientific part of the Planck mission, after about four years of mapping the cosmic microwave background.  Later, a piece of software was uploaded that would prevent  the spacecraft systems being  accidentally switched on again after being switched off and the transmitter from causing interference with any future probes.  Planck is already “parked” indefinitely in a what is called a “disposal” orbit, far from the Earth-Moon system, having been nudged off its perch at the 2nd Lagrangian Point (L2) in August by a complicated series of manoeuvres. On October 21st the spacecraft’s thrusters were fired to burn up the last of its fuel, an important aspect of rendering the spacecraft inert, as required by ESA’s space debris mitigation guidelines.


These preliminaries having been completed, today, at 12.00 GMT,  a final instruction will be transmitted to the spacecraft  to close it down permanently; thereafter Planck will circle the Sun as a silent memorial to the stunning success it achieved when active. I’m sure all those who worked on the Planck mission will pause as the final shutdown command is given and ponder the lonely future  of the spacecraft that had supplied so much interesting data.

But although this will be the end of the Planck mission, it is by no means the end of the Planck Era. Vast amounts of data still need to be fully analysed and key science results are still in the pipeline,  relating in particular to the polarization of the microwave background radiation. Moreover, the numerous maps, catalogues and other data products will be a priceless legacy to this generation, and no doubt many future generations, of scientists.

The fate of Planck illustrates two contrasting aspects of the human experience. On the one hand, there’s the fragility of our existence in a cosmos too vast for us to comprehend. Like the defunct spacecraft, our Earth too circles this little Sun of ours in a precarious orbit while the rest of the Universe – with its countless billion upon billion of other suns – carries on, oblivious to our very existence. Planck makes us painfully aware of our own insignificance.

But on the other hand there’s the sense of fulfillment, and even of joy, at finding things out. We may have puny monkey brains and many things are likely to remain forever beyond our mental grasp, but trying to figure things out is one of the things that defines us as human.  Experiments like Planck (and, for that matter, the Large Hadron Collider) are not the wasteful extravagance some people claim them to be. We need them not just for the sake of science, but to remind us of our common humanity.

UPDATE: And now, from ESA, confirmation that Planck has received its last command. Goodbye, and enjoy your retirement!

Has Planck closed the window on the Early Universe?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2013 by telescoper

A combination of circumstances – including being a bit poorly – has made me rather late in getting around to reading the papers released by the Planck consortium a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had a bit of time this Sunday so I decided to have a look. Naturally I went straight for, er, paper No. 24, which you can find on the arXiv, here.

I picked this one to start with because it’s about primordial non-Gaussianity. This is an important topic because the simplest theories of cosmological inflation predict the generation of small-amplitude irregularities in the early Universe that form a statistically homogeneous and isotropic Gaussian random field. This means that the perturbations (usually defined in terms of departures of the metric from a pure Robertson-Walker form) are defined by probability distributions which are invariant under translations and rotations in 3D space.

In a nutshell, such perturbations arise quite simply in inflationary cosmology as zero-point oscillations of a scalar quantum field, in a very similar way the Gaussian distributions that arise from the quantized harmonic oscillator. Assuming the fluctuations are small in amplitude the scalar field evolves according to

\ddot{\Phi} +3H\dot{\Phi} + V^{\prime}(\Phi),

which is similar to that describing a ball rolling down a potential V, under the action of a force given by the derivative V^{\prime}, opposed by a “frictional” force depending on the ball’s speed; in the inflationary context the frictional force depends on the expansion rate H(\Phi, \dot{\Phi}). If the slope of the potential is relatively shallow then there is a slow-rolling regime during which the kinetic energy of the field is negligible compared to its potential energy; the term in \ddot{\phi} then becomes negligible in the above equation. The universe then enters a near-exponential phase of expansion, during which the small Gaussian quantum fluctuations in \Phi become Gaussian classical metric perturbations.

On the one hand, Gaussian fluctuations are great for a theorist because so many of their statistical properties can be calculated analytically: I played around a lot with them in my PhD thesis many moons ago, long before Planck, in fact long before any fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background were measured at all! The problem is that if we keep finding that everything is consistent with the Gaussian hypothesis then we have problems.

The point about this slow-rolling regime is that it is an attractor solution that resembles the physical description of a body falling through the air: eventually such a body reaches a terminal velocity defined by the balance between gravity and air resistance, but independent of how high and how fast it started. The problem is that if you want to know where a body moving at terminal velocity started falling from, you’re stumped (unless you have other evidence). All dynamical memory of the initial conditions is lost when you reach the attractor solution. The problem for early Universe cosmologists is similar. If everything we measure is consistent with having been generated during a simple slow-rolling inflationary regime, then there is no way of recovering any information about what happened beforehand because nothing we can observe remembers it. The early Universe will remain a closed book forever.

So what does all this have to do with Planck? Well, one of the most important things that the Planck collaboration has been looking for is evidence of non-Gaussianity that could be indicative of primordial physics more complicated than that included in the simplest inflationary models (e.g.  multiple scalar fields, more complicated dynamics, etc).  Departures from the standard model might just keep the window on the early Universe open.

A simple way of defining a parameter that describes the level of non-Gaussianity is as follows:

\phi = \phi_{G} + f_{NL} \left( \phi_{G}^2 -< \phi_{G}^2 > \right)

the parameter f_{NL} describes a quadratic contribution to the overall metric perturbation \phi: you can think of this as being like a power series expansion of the total fluctuation in terms of a Gaussian component \phi_{G}; the term in angle brackets is just there to ensure the whole thing averages to zero. This definition of non-Gaussianity is not the only one possible, but it’s the simplest and it’s the one for which Planck has produced the most dramatic result:

f_{NL}=2.7 \pm 5.8,

which is clearly consistent with zero. If this doesn’t look impressive, bear in mind that the typical fluctuation in the metric inferred from cosmological measurements is of order 10^{-5}. The quadratic terms are therefore of order 10^{-10}, so the upper limit on the level of non-Gaussianity allowed by Planck really is minuscule. This is one of the reasons why some people have described the best-fitting model emerging from Planck as the Maximally Boring Universe

So it looks like only very unwise investors will be buying shares in cosmological non-Gaussianity at least in the short-term. More fundamentally we may be approaching the limit of what we can learn about inflation in particular, or even the early Universe in general, using the traditional techniques of observational cosmology. But there remain very intriguing questions that may yet shed light on the pre-inflationary epoch. Among these are the large-scale anomalies seen in the very same Planck data that have put such stringent limits on non-Gaussianity. But that question, described in Planck Paper 23, will have to wait for another day…