Archive for Planck

Should we worry about the Hubble Constant?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 27, 2016 by telescoper

One of the topics that came up in the discussion sessions at the meeting I was at over the weekend was the possible tension between cosmological parameters, especially relating to the determination of the Hubble constant (H0) by Planck and by “traditional” methods based on the cosmological distance ladder; see here for an overview of the latter. Coincidentally, I found this old preprint while tidying up my office yesterday:

Cosmo_params

Things have changed quite a bit since 1979! Before getting to the point I should explain that Planck does not determine H0 directly, as it is not one of the six numbers used to specify the minimal model used to fit the data. These parameters do include information about H0, however, so it is possible to extract a value from the data indirectly. In other words it is a derived parameter:

Planck_parameters

The above summary shows that values of the Hubble constant obtained in this way lie around the 67 to 68  km/s/Mpc mark, with small changes if other measures are included. According to the very latest Planck paper on cosmological parameter estimates the headline determination is H0 = (67.8 +/- 0.9) km/s/Mpc.

Note however that a recent “direct” determination of the Hubble constant by Riess et al.  using Hubble Space Telescope data quotes a headline value of (73.24+/-1.74) km/sec/Mpc. Had these two values been obtained in 1979 we wouldn’t have worried because the errors would have been much larger, but nowadays the measurements are much more precise and there does seem to be a hint of a discrepancy somewhere around the 3 sigma level depending on precisely which determination you use. On the other hand the history of Hubble constant determinations is one of results being quoted with very small “internal” errors that turned out to be much smaller than systematic uncertainties.

I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a consensus as to how seriously to take this apparent “tension”. I certainly can’t see anything wrong with the Riess et al. result, and the lead author is a Nobel prize-winner, but I’m also impressed by the stunning success of the minimal LCDM model at accounting for such a huge data set with a small set of free parameters. If one does take this tension seriously it can be resolved by adding an extra parameter to the model or by allowing one of the fixed properties of the LCDM model to vary to fit the data. Bayesian model selection analysis however tends to reject such models on the grounds of Ockham’s Razor. In other words the price you pay for introducing an extra free parameter exceeds the benefit in improved goodness of fit. GAIA may shortly reveal whether or not there are problems with the local stellar distance scale, which may reveal the source of any discrepancy. For the time being, however, I think it’s interesting but nothing to get too excited about. I’m not saying that I hope this tension will just go away. I think it will be very interesting if it turns out to be real. I just think the evidence at the moment isn’t convincing me that there’s something beyond the standard cosmological model. I may well turn out to be wrong.

It’s quite interesting to think  how much we scientists tend to carry on despite the signs that things might be wrong. Take, for example, Newton’s Gravitational Constant, G. Measurements of this parameter are extremely difficult to do, but different experiments do seem to be in disagreement with each other. If Newtonian gravity turned out to be wrong that would indeed be extremely exciting, but I think it’s a wiser bet that there are uncontrolled experimental systematics. On the other hand there is a danger that we might ignore evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our theory. It’s sometimes a difficult judgment how seriously to take experimental results.

Anyway, I don’t know what cosmologists think in general about this so there’s an excuse for a poll:

 

 

 

 

What does “Big Data” mean to you?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 7, 2016 by telescoper

On several occasions recently I’ve had to talk about Big Data for one reason or another. I’m always at a disadvantage when I do that because I really dislike the term.Clearly I’m not the only one who feels this way:

say-big-data-one-more-time

For one thing the term “Big Data” seems to me like describing the Ocean as “Big Water”. For another it’s not really just the how big the data set is that matters. Size isn’t everything, after all. There is much truth in Stalin’s comment that “Quantity has a quality all its own” in that very large data sets allow you to do things you wouldn’t even try with smaller ones, but it can be complexity rather than sheer size that also requires new methods of analysis.

Planck_CMB_large

The biggest event in my own field of cosmology in the last few years has been the Planck mission. The data set is indeed huge: the above map of the temperature pattern in the cosmic microwave background has no fewer than 167 million pixels. That certainly caused some headaches in the analysis pipeline, but I think I would argue that this wasn’t really a Big Data project. I don’t mean that to be insulting to anyone, just that the main analysis of the Planck data was aimed at doing something very similar to what had been done (by WMAP), i.e. extracting the power spectrum of temperature fluctuations:

Planck_power_spectrum_origIt’s a wonderful result of course that extends the measurements that WMAP made up to much higher frequencies, but Planck’s goals were phrased in similar terms to those of WMAP – to pin down the parameters of the standard model to as high accuracy as possible. For me, a real “Big Data” approach to cosmic microwave background studies would involve doing something that couldn’t have been done at all with a smaller data set. An example that springs to mind is looking for indications of effects beyond the standard model.

Moreover what passes for Big Data in some fields would be just called “data” in others. For example, the Atlas Detector on the  Large Hadron Collider  represents about 150 million sensors delivering data 40 million times per second. There are about 600 million collisions per second, out of which perhaps one hundred per second are useful. The issue here is then one of dealing with an enormous rate of data in such a way as to be able to discard most of it very quickly. The same will be true of the Square Kilometre Array which will acquire exabytes of data every day out of which perhaps one petabyte will need to be stored. Both these projects involve data sets much bigger and more difficult to handle that what might pass for Big Data in other arenas.

Books you can buy at airports about Big Data generally list the following four or five characteristics:

  1. Volume
  2. Velocity
  3. Variety
  4. Veracity
  5. Variability

The first two are about the size and acquisition rate of the data mentioned above but the others are more about qualitatively different matters. For example, in cosmology nowadays we have to deal with data sets which are indeed quite large, but also very different in form.  We need to be able to do efficient joint analyses of heterogeneous data structures with very different sampling properties and systematic errors in such a way that we get the best science results we can. Now that’s a Big Data challenge!

 

The Supervoid and the Cold Spot

Posted in Astrohype, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 21, 2015 by telescoper

While I was away at the SEPnet meeting yesterday a story broke in the press broke about the discovery of a large underdensity in the distribution of galaxies. The discovery is described in a paper by Szapudi et al. in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The claim is that this structure in the galaxy distribution can account for the apresence of a mysterious cold spot in the cosmic microwave background, shown here (circled) in the map generated by Planck:

Planck_coldspot

I’ve posted about this feature myself here in the category Cosmic Anomalies.

The abstract of the latest paper is here:

We use the WISE-2MASS infrared galaxy catalogue matched with Pan-STARRS1 (PS1) galaxies to search for a supervoid in the direction of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) cold spot (CS). Our imaging catalogue has median redshift z ≃ 0.14, and we obtain photometric redshifts from PS1 optical colours to create a tomographic map of the galaxy distribution. The radial profile centred on the CS shows a large low-density region, extending over tens of degrees. Motivated by previous CMB results, we test for underdensities within two angular radii, 5°, and 15°. The counts in photometric redshift bins show significantly low densities at high detection significance, ≳5σ and ≳6σ, respectively, for the two fiducial radii. The line-of-sight position of the deepest region of the void is z ≃ 0.15–0.25. Our data, combined with an earlier measurement by Granett, Szapudi & Neyrinck, are consistent with a large Rvoid = (220 ± 50) h−1 Mpc supervoid with δm ≃ −0.14 ± 0.04 centred at z = 0.22 ± 0.03. Such a supervoid, constituting at least a ≃3.3σ fluctuation in a Gaussian distribution of the Λ cold dark matter model, is a plausible cause for the CS.

The result is not entirely new: it has been discussed at various conferences over the past year or so (e.g this one) but this is the first refereed paper showing details of the discovery.

This gives me the excuse to post this wonderful cartoon, the context of which is described here. Was that really in 1992? That was twenty years ago!

Anyway, I just wanted to make a few points about this because some of the press coverage has been rather misleading. I’ve therefore filed this one in the category Astrophype.

First, the “supervoid” structure that has been discovered is not a “void”, which would be a region completely empty of galaxies. As the paper makes clear it is less dramatic than that: it’s basically an underdensity of around 14% in the density of galaxies. It is (perhaps) the largest underdensity yet found on such a large scale – though that depends very much on how you define a void – but it is not in itself inconsistent with the standard cosmological framework. Such large underdensities are expected to be rare, but rare things do occur if you survey a large enough volume of the universe. Large overdensities also arise as statistical fluctuations in large volumes.

Second, and probably most importantly, although this “supervoid” is in the direction of the CMB Cold Spot it cannot on its own explain the Cold Spot; the claim in the abstract that it provides a plausible explanation of the cold spot is simply incorrect. A void can affect the measured temperature of the CMB through the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect: photons travelling through such a structure are redshifted as they travel through the underdense region, so the CMB looks cooler in the direction of the void. However, even optimistic calculations of the magnitude of the effect suggest that this particular “void” can only account for about 10% of the signal associated with the Cold Spot. This is a reasonably significant contribution but it does not account for the signal on its own.

This is not to say however that it is irrelevant. It could well be that the supervoid actually sits in front of a region of the CMB sky that was already cold, as a result of a primordial fluctuation rather than a line-of-sight effect. Such an effect could well arise by chance, at least with some probability. If the original perturbation were a “3σ” temperature fluctuation then the additional effect of the supervoid would turn it into a 3.3σ effect. Since this pushes the event further out into the tail of the probability distribution it makes a reasonably uncommon feature look  less probable. Because the tail of a Gaussian distribution drops off very quickly this has quite a large effect on the probability. For example, a fluctuation of 3.3σ or greater has a probability of 0.00048 whereas one of 3.0σ has a probability of 0.00135, about a factor of 2.8 larger. That’s an effect, but not a large one.

In summary, I think the discovery of this large underdensity is indeed interesting but it is not a plausible explanation for the CMB Cold Spot. Not, that is, unless there’s some new physical process involved in the propagation of light that we don’t yet understand.

Now that would be interesting…

Planck Update

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 5, 2015 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post today to pass on thhe news that most of the 2015 crop of papers from the Planck mission have now been released and are available to download here. You can also find some related data products here.

I haven’t had time to look at these in any detail myself, but my attention was drawn (in the light of the recently-released combined analysis of Planck and Bicpe2/Keck data) to the constraints on inflationary cosmological models shown in this figure:

inflation

It seems that the once-popular (because it is simple) m^2 \phi^2 model of inflation is excluded at greater than 99% confidence…

Feel free to add reactions to any of the papers in the new release via the comments box!

The BICEP2 Bubble Bursts…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 30, 2015 by telescoper

I think it’s time to break the worst-kept secret in cosmology, concerning the claimed detection of primordial gravitational waves by the BICEP2 collaboration that caused so much excitement last year; see this blog, passim. If you recall, the biggest uncertainty in this result derived from the fact that it was made at a single frequency, 150 GHz, so it was impossible to determine the spectrum of the signal. Since dust in our own galaxy emits polarized light in the far-infrared there was no direct evidence to refute the possibility that this is what BICEP2 had detected. The indirect arguments presented by the BICEP2 team (that there should be very little dust emission in the region of the sky they studied) were challenged, but the need for further measurements was clear.

Over the rest of last year, the BICEP2 team collaborated with the consortium working on the Planck satellite, which has measurements over the whole sky at a wide range of frequencies. Of particular relevance to the BICEP2 controversy are the Planck mesurements at such high frequency that they are known to be dominated by dust emission, specifically the 353 GHz channel. Cross-correlating these data with the BICEP2 measurements (and also data from the Keck Array which is run by the same team) should allow the identification of that part of the BICEP2 signal that is due to dust emission to be isolated and subtracted. What’s left would be the bit that’s interesting for cosmology. This is the work that has been going on, the results of which will officially hit the arXiv next week.

However, news has been leaking out over the last few weeks about what the paper will say. Being the soul of discretion I decided not to blog about these rumours. However, yesterday I saw the killer graph had been posted so I’ve decided to share it here:

cross-correlation

The black dots with error bars show the original BICEP/Keck “detection” of B-mode polarization which they assumed was due to primordial gravitational waves. The blue dots with error bars show the results after subtracting the correlated dust component. There is clearly a detection of B-mode polarization. However, the red curve shows the B-mode polarization that’s expected to be generated not by primordial gravitational waves but by gravitational lensing; this signal is already known. There’s a slight hint of an excess over the red curve at multipoles of order 200, but it is not statistically significant. Note that the error bars are larger when proper uncertainties are folded in.

Here’s a quasi-official statement of the result (orginall issued in French) that has been floating around on Twitter:

BICEP_null

To be blunt, therefore, the BICEP2 measurement is a null result for primordial gravitational waves. It’s by no means a proof that there are no gravitational waves at all, but it isn’t a detection. In fact, for the experts, the upper limit on the tensor-to-scalar ratio  R from this analysis is R<0.13 at 95% confidences there’s actually till room for a sizeable contribution from gravitational waves, but we haven’t found it yet.

The search goes on…

UPDATE: As noted below in the comments, the actual paper has now been posted online here along with supplementary materials. I’m not surprised as the cat is already well and truly out of the bag, with considerable press interest, some of it driving traffic here!

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: There’s a news item in Physics World and another in Nature News about this, both with comments from me and others.

Planck Talks Online!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2014 by telescoper

After yesterday’s frivolity, I return to community service mode today with a short post before a series of end-of-term meetings.

You may recall that not long ago  I posted an item about a meeting in Ferrara which started on 1st December and which  concerned results from the Planck satellite. Well, although the number of new results was disappointingly limited, all the talks given at that meeting are now available online here. Not all of the talks are about new Planck results, and some of those that do are merely tasters of things that will be more completely divulged in due course, but there is still a lot of interesting material there so I recommend cosmology types have a good look through. Any comments would be welcome through the usual channel below.

I’ll take this opportunity to pass on another couple of related items. First is that there is another meeting on Planck, in Paris next week. Coincidentally, I will be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday for a completely unrelated matter (of which more anon) but I will try to keep up with the cosmology business via Twitter etc and pass on whatever I can pick up.

The other bit of news is that there is to be a press conference on December 22nd at which I’m led to believe the outcome of the joint analysis of CMB polarization by Planck and BICEP2 will be unveiled. Now that will be interesting, so stay tuned!

Oh, and my poll on this subject is still open:

 

 

Planck 2014: The Results That Weren’t….

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2014 by telescoper

A big conference started today in Ferrara, Italy, which my duties here at the University of Sussex unfortunately did not allow me to attend. The purpose of the meeting was to announce the latest science results and data products from the Planck mission. There was quite a lot of excitement in advance of today’s session as there was supposed to be a press conference at which some exciting results would be announced. Although I’m in Sussex rather than Italy, I have been doing my best to keep up with some of the goings-on via Twitter.

From what I have gathered, it has so far been a bit of an anti-climax. For a start, it was announced some time ago that the full data sets would not be released during this meeting after all, with the effect the conference would just give a preview of the final Planck results. Here’s an explanation from the Planck website:

– The data products and scientific results will be presented at a public conference in Ferrara.

– It is planned to release full mission data products and scientific papers to the public before the end of 2014. A few of the derived products will need a little more time to be readied for release, but will be made public within the month of January 2015.

So the results were to be “presented”, but not “released”. Hmm..

The press conference scheduled for this morning didn’t actually happen either, so we had to wait for the science sessions for juicy information. Not being there in person I had to pick up what I could from Twitter, which included only a few images with accompanying text (only in French).

Here, for example are the main power-spectra for temperature (TT), E-mode polarization (EE) and the cross-spectrum between the two (TE), together with a picture of the temperature pattern across the sky:

france_120114.005

Lovely results of course – look how accurately the data fit the theoretical model curves – but notice that both the TE and EE spectra are cut off at low l. That’s because the polarization signal on large angular scales is so heavily affected by systematics that measurements for l<30 are unreliable. It’s not clear when, if ever, those systematic issues will be resolved. There’s no measurement of the primordial B-mode spectrum to compare with BICEP2, either, although there is a strong detection of a B-mode lensing signal obtained by cross-correlating Planck data with galaxy maps.

Still, that doesn’t mean that there is no polarization data at all. There is for example, this rather beautiful visualization of the polarized emission at 353 GHz, together with the Galactic magnetic field, shown over a thirty-degree square region of the sky:

lic_3_page_7

The science results that I’ve been able to glean from social media largely amount to minor corrections to last year’s results, with only small changes (less than ~1σ)  to the cosmological parameters derived from them. Good science, of course, but nothing to get too worked up about. What with the “now you see it, now you don’t” press conference, the decision not to release the data, and the polarization data  still being in a mess, I can’t help feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the whole thing. This might be a bit harsh, but I think it’s been a bit of a farce…

Still, at least I’m no longer sad I couldn’t make the conference!

 

BICEP2 bites the dust.. or does it?

Posted in Bad Statistics, Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2014 by telescoper

Well, it’s come about three weeks later than I suggested – you should know that you can never trust anything you read in a blog – but the long-awaited Planck analysis of polarized dust emission from our Galaxy has now hit the arXiv. Here is the abstract, which you can click on to make it larger:

PlanckvBICEP2

My twitter feed was already alive with reactions to the paper when I woke up at 6am, so I’m already a bit late on the story, but I couldn’t resist a quick comment or two.

The bottom line is of course that the polarized emission from Galactic dust is much larger in the BICEP2 field than had been anticipated in the BICEP2 analysis of their data (now published  in Physical Review Letters after being refereed). Indeed, as the abstract states, the actual dust contamination in the BICEP2 field is subject to considerable statistical and systematic uncertainties, but seems to be around the same level as BICEP2’s claimed detection. In other words the Planck analysis shows that the BICEP2 result is completely consistent with what is now known about polarized dust emission.  To put it bluntly, the Planck analysis shows that the claim that primordial gravitational waves had been detected was premature, to say the least. I remind you that the original  BICEP2 result was spun as a ‘7σ’ detection of a primordial polarization signal associated with gravitational waves. This level of confidence is now known to have been false.  I’m going to resist (for the time being) another rant about p-values

Although it is consistent with being entirely dust, the Planck analysis does not entirely kill off the idea that there might be a primordial contribution to the BICEP2 measurement, which could be of similar amplitude to the dust signal. However, identifying and extracting that signal will require the much more sophisticated joint analysis alluded to in the final sentence of the abstract above. Planck and BICEP2 have differing strengths and weaknesses and a joint analysis will benefit from considerable complementarity. Planck has wider spectral coverage, and has mapped the entire sky; BICEP2 is more sensitive, but works at only one frequency and covers only a relatively small field of view. Between them they may be able to identify an excess source of polarization over and above the foreground, so it is not impossible that there may a gravitational wave component may be isolated. That will be a tough job, however, and there’s by no means any guarantee that it will work. We will just have to wait and see.

In the mean time let’s see how big an effect this paper has on my poll:

 

 

Note also that the abstract states:

We show that even in the faintest dust-emitting regions there are no “clean” windows where primordial CMB B-mode polarization could be measured without subtraction of dust emission.

It is as I always thought. Our Galaxy is a rather grubby place to live. Even the windows are filthy. It’s far too dusty for fussy cosmologists, who need to have everything just so, but probably fine for astrophysicists who generally like mucking about and getting their hands dirty…

This discussion suggests that a confident detection of B-modes from primordial gravitational waves (if there is one to detect) may have to wait for a sensitive all-sky experiment, which would have to be done in space. On the other hand, Planck has identified some regions which appear to be significantly less contaminated than the BICEP2 field (which is outlined in black):

Quieter dust

Could it be possible to direct some of the ongoing ground- or balloon-based CMB polarization experiments towards the cleaner (dark blue area in the right-hand panel) just south of the BICEP2 field?

From a theorist’s perspective, I think this result means that all the models of the early Universe that we thought were dead because they couldn’t produce the high level of primordial gravitational waves detected by BICEP2 have no come back to life, and those that came to life to explain the BICEP2 result may soon be read the last rites if the signal turns out to be predominantly dust.

Another important thing that remains to be seen is the extent to which the extraordinary media hype surrounding the announcement back in March will affect the credibility of the BICEP2 team itself and indeed the cosmological community as a whole. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with what has happened from a scientific point of view: results get scrutinized, tested, and sometimes refuted.  To that extent all this episode demonstrates is that science works.  On the other hand most of this stuff usually goes on behind the scenes as far as the public are concerned. The BICEP2 team decided to announce their results by press conference before they had been subjected to proper peer review. I’m sure they made that decision because they were confident in their results, but it now looks like it may have backfired rather badly. I think the public needs to understand more about how science functions as a process, often very messily, but how much of this mess should be out in the open?

 

UPDATE: Here’s a piece by Jonathan Amos on the BBC Website about the story.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here’s the Physics World take on the story.

ANOTHER OTHER UPDATE: A National Geographic story

Round the Horn Antenna

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

The other day I was looking through my copy of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (which I buy for the dirty pictures).  Turning my attention to the personal columns, I discovered an advertisement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council which is, apparently, considering investing in new space missions related to astronomy and cosmology. Always eager to push back the frontiers of science, I hurried down to their address in Swindon to find out what was going on.

 

ME: (Knocks on door) Hello. Is there anyone there?

JULIAN: Oh hello! My name’s Julian, and this is my friend Sandy.

SANDY: Oooh hello! What can we do for you?

ME: Hello to you both. Is this Polaris House?

JULIAN: Not quite. Since we took over we changed the name…

ME: To?

SANDY: It’s now called Polari House…

JULIAN: ..on account of that’s the only language spoken around here.

ME: So you’re in charge of the British Space Programme then?

JULIAN:  Yes, owing to the budget, the national handbag isn’t as full as it used to be so now it’s just me and her.

SANDY: But never fear we’re both dab hands with thrusters.

JULIAN: Our motto is “You can vada about in any band, with a satellite run  by Jules and…

SANDY: …Sand.

ME: I heard that you’re looking for some input.

SANDY: Ooooh. He’s bold, in’e?

ME: I mean for your consultation exercise…

JULIAN: Oh yes. I forgot about that. Well I’m sure we’d welcome your contribution any time, ducky.

ME: Well I was wondering what you could tell me about Moonlite?

SANDY: You’ve come to the right place. She had an experience by Moonlight, didn’t you Jules?

JULIAN: Yes. Up the Acropolis…

ME: I mean the Space Mission “Moonlite”

SANDY: Oh, of course. Well, it’s only small but it’s very stimulating.

JULIAN: Hmmm.

SANDY: Yes. It gets blasted off into space and whooshes off to the Moon…

JULIAN: …the backside thereof…

SANDY: ..and when it gets there it shoves these probes in to see what happens.

ME: Why?

SANDY: Why not?

ME: Seems a bit pointless to me.

JULIAN: There’s no pleasing some people is there?

ME: Haven’t you got anything more impressive?

SANDY: Like what?

ME:  Maybe something that goes a bit further out? Mars, perhaps?

JULIAN: Well the French have this plan to send some great butch omi to troll around on Mars but we haven’t got the metzas so we have to satisfy ourselves with something a bit more bijou…

SANDY: Hmm…You can say that again.

JULIAN: You don’t have to be big to be bona.

SANDY: Anyway, we had our shot at Mars and it went willets up.

ME: Oh yes, I remember that thing named after a dog.

JULIAN: That’s right. Poodle.

ME: Do you think a man will ever get as far as Uranus?

JULIAN&SANDY: Oooh! Bold!

SANDY: Well I’ll tell you what. I’ll show you something that can vada out to the very edge of the Universe!

ME: That sounds exciting.

JULIAN: I’ll try to get it up right now.

ME: Well…er…

JULIAN: I mean on the computer

ME: I say, that’s an impressive piece of equipment

JULIAN: Thank you

SANDY: Oh don’t encourage her…

ME: I meant the computer.

JULIAN: Yes, it’s a 14″ console.

SANDY:  And, believe me, 14 inches will console anyone!

JULIAN; There you are. Look at that.

ME: It looks very impressive. What is it?

SANDY: This is an experiment designed to charper for the heat of the Big Bang.

JULIAN. Ooer.

SANDY: The Americans launched WMAP and the Europeans had PLANCK. We’ve merged the two ideas and have called it ….PLMAP.

ME: Wouldn’t it have been better if you’d made the name the other way around? I mean with the first bit of WMAP and the second bit of Planck. On second thoughts maybe not..

JULIAN: It’s a little down-market but we have high hopes.

SANDY: Yes, Planck had two instruments called HFI and LFI. We couldn’t afford two so we made do with one.

JULIAN: It’s called MFI. That’s why it’s a bit naff.

ME: I see. What are these two round things either side?

SANDY: They’re the bolometers…

ME: What is this this long thing in between pointing up? And why is it leaning to one side?

SANDY: Well that’s not unusual in my experience …

JULIAN:  Shush. It’s an off-axis Gregorian telescope if you must know.

ME: And what about this round the back?

SANDY: That’s your actual dish. It’s very receptive, if you know what I mean.

ME: What’s that inside?

JULIAN: That’s a horn antenna. We didn’t make that ourselves. We had to get it from elsewhere.

ME: So who gave you the horn?

SANDY: That’s for us to know and you to find out!

ME: So what does it all do?

JULIAN: It’s designed to make a map of what George Smoot called “The Eek of God”.

ME: Can it do polarization?

JULIAN: But of course! We polari-ize everything!

ME: Like BICEP?

JULIAN: Cheeky!

SANDY: Of course. We’re partial to a nice lally too!

JULIAN: But seriously, it’s fabulosa…

SANDY: …Or it would be if someone hadn’t neglected to read the small print.

ME: Why? Is there a problem?

JULIAN: Well, frankly, yes. We ran out of money.

SANDY: It was only when we got it out the box we realised.

ME: What?

JULIAN & SANDY: Batteries Not Included!

With apologies to Barry Took and Marty Feldman, who wrote the original Julian and Sandy sketches performed by Hugh Paddick (Julian) and Kenneth Williams (Sandy) for the radio show Round the Horne. Here’s an example of the real thing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

BICEP2: Watch this Space!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 21, 2014 by telescoper

One of the advantages of informal workshops like this one I’m attending in Copenhagen right now is that there’s a lot of time for discussions and picking up various bits of gossip. Some of the intelligence gathered in this way is unreliable but often it represents knowledge that’s widely known in the cosmological community but which I’ve missed because I don’t spend as much time on the conference circuit these days.

Anyway, those of you with more than a passing interest in cosmology will remember the results from the BICEP2 experiment announced with a great fanfare of publicity in March this year. A significant number of eminent cosmologists immediately seized on the detection of B-mode correlations in the polarized cosmic microwave background as definitive proof of the existence of primordial gravitational waves. Some went even further, in fact, and claimed that the BICEP2 results prove all kinds of other things too.

As time passed, however, and folks had time to digest some of the details presented by the BICEP2 team, there has been a growing unease about the possibility that the measurements may have been misinterpreted. The problem – the Achilles Heel of BICEP, so to speak – is that it operates at a single frequency, 150 GHz. That means that it is not possible for this experiment on its own to determine the spectrum of the detected signal. This is important because it is not only the cosmic microwave background that is capable of producing polarized radiation at a frequency of 150 GHz, foreground dust inside our own Galaxy being the prime suspect as an alternative source. It should be possible to distinguish between dust and CMB using measurements at different frequencies because the microwave background has a black-body spectrum  whereas dust does not. However, BICEP2 maps only a small part of the sky and at the time of the announcement there were no other measurements covering the same region, so a convincing test has not so far been possible.

 

cmbspectrum

The measured spectrum of the cosmic microwave background. It’s indistinguishable from the theoretical black-body curve shown as a solid line

The initial BICEP2 announcement included a discussion of foregrounds that concluded that these were expected to be much lower than their detected signal in the area mapped, but serious doubts have emerged about the accuracy of this claim. Have a look at my BICEP2 folder to see more discussion.

More recently, in July, it was announced that the BICEP2 team would collaborate with the large consortium working on the analysis of data from the Planck experiment to try to resolve these difficulties. Planck not only covers the whole sky but also has detectors making measurements over a wide range of frequencies (all the way up to 857 GHz). This should provide a definitive measurement of the contribution of Galactic dust to the BICEP2 field and at last give us a strong experimental basis on which to decided whether the BICEP2 signal is primordial or not. The result of my informal poll on BICEP2 was a clear majority (~62%) in favour of the statement that it was “too early to say” what the BICEP2 signal actually represents.

Anyway, I have it on very good authority that Planck’s analysis of the Galactic foregrounds in the BICEP2 region will be published (on the arXiv) on or around September 1st 2014. That’s just about 10 days from now. Maybe then this tantalizing wait will be over. I’ll try my best to post about the results when it comes out. In the meantime, I thought I’d do something completely unscientific and try to gauge what how current opinion stands on this issue by means of a poll of the total unrepresentative readership of this blog. Suppose you had to bet on whether the BICEP2 result is due to (a) primordial gravitational waves or (b) Galactic foregrounds, which would you go for?

Of course, those working on this project probably know the answer already so they’ll have to decide for themselves whether they wish to vote!