Archive for Polarization

Circular Polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 23, 2018 by telescoper

Some years ago I went to a seminar on the design of an experiment to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. At the end of the talk I asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. The point of my question was the speaker had focussed entirely on measuring the intensity of the radiation (I) and the two Stokes Parameters that measure linear polarization of the radiation (usually called Q and U). How difficult, I asked, would it be to measure the remaining Stokes parameter V (which quantifies circular polarization)?

There was a sharp intake of breath among the audience as if I had uttered an obscenity, and the speaker responded with a glare and a curt `the cosmic microwave background is not circularly polarized’. It is true that in the standard cosmological theory the microwave background is produced by Thomson scattering in the early Universe which produces partial linear polarization, so that Q and U are non-zero, but not circular polarization, so V=0. However, I had really asked my question because I had an idea that it might be worth measuring V (or at least putting an upper limit on it) in order to assess the level of instrumental systematics (which are a serious issue with polarization measurements).

I was reminded of this episode when I saw a paper on the arXiv by Keisuke Inomata and Marc Kamionkowski which points out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. Here is the abstract of the paper:

(You can click on the image to make it more readable.) It’s an interesting calculation, but it’s hard to see how we will ever be able to measure a value of Stokes V as low as 10-14.

A few years ago there was a paper on the arXiv by Asantha Cooray, Alessandro Melchiorri and Joe Silk which pointed out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. When light travels through a region containing plasma and a magnetic field, circular polarization can be generated from linear polarization via a process called Faraday conversion. For this to happen, the polarization vector of the incident radiation (defined by the direction of its E-field) must have non-zero component along the local magnetic field, i.e. the B-field. Charged particles are free to move only along B, so the component of E parallel to B is absorbed and re-emitted by these charges, thus leading to phase difference between it and the component of E orthogonal to B and hence to the circular polarization. This is related to the perhaps more familiar process of which causes the plane of linear polarization to rotate when polarized radiation travels through a region containing a magnetic field.

Here is the abstract of that paper:

(Also clickable.) This is a somewhat larger effect but differs from the first paper in that it is produced by foreground processes rather than primordial physics. In any case a Stokes V of 10-9 is also unlikely to be measurable at any time in the foreseeable future.

Remembering Clover

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by telescoper

I was tidying up some papers in my desk yesterday and came across a clipping dated April 9th 2009, i.e. exactly nine years ago to the day. Amazed by this coincidence, I resolved to post it on here but was unable to work out how to use the new-fangled scanner in the Data Innovation Institute office so had to wait until I could get expert assistance this morning:

Sorry it’s a bit crumpled, but I guess that demonstrates the authenticity of its provenance.

The full story, as it appeared in the print edition of the Western Mail, can also be found online here. By the way it’s me on the stepladder, pretending to know something about astronomical instrumentation.

I wrote at some length about the background to the cancellation of the Clover experiment here. In a nutshell, however, Clover involved the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester and was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff from Nottingham almost a decade ago, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output. It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had already spent a large amount (£4.5M) on Clover, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M) and cancel the experiment. I was very disappointed, but that’s nothing compared to Paolo (shown in the picture) who lost his job as a result of the decision and took his considerable skills and knowledge abroad.

We will never know for sure, but if Clover had gone ahead it might well have detected the same signal found five years later by BICEP2, which was announced in 2014. Working at three different frequencies (95, 150 and 225GHz) Clover would have had a better capability than BICEP2 in distinguishing the primordial signal from contamination from Galactic dust emission (which, as we now know, is the dominant contribution to the BICEP2 result; see thread here), although that still wouldn’t have been easy because of sensitivity issues. As it turned out, the BICEP2 signal turned out to be a false alarm so, looking on the bright side, perhaps at least the members of the Clover team avoided making fools of themselves on TV!

P.S. Note also that I moved to Cardiff in mid-2007, so I had not spent 5 years working on the Clover project by the time it was cancelled as discussed in the newspaper article, but many of my Cardiff colleagues had.

BICEP3 Cometh…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by telescoper

Back in the office after the Christmas and New Year break, with a mountain of stuff to work through..

Anyway, I saw this paper on the arXiv yesterday and thoought I’d share it here. It’s from a paper by Wu et al. entitled Initial Performance of BICEP3: A Degree Angular Scale 95 GHz Band Polarimeter.  The abstract follows:

BICEP3 is a 550 mm aperture telescope with cold, on-axis, refractive optics designed to observe at the 95 GHz band from the South Pole. It is the newest member of the BICEP/Keck family of inflationary probes specifically designed to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at degree-angular scales. BICEP3 is designed to house 1280 dual-polarization pixels, which, when fully-populated, totals to 9× the number of pixels in a single Keck 95 GHz receiver, thus further advancing the BICEP/Keck program’s 95 GHz mapping speed. BICEP3 was deployed during the austral summer of 2014-2015 with 9 detector tiles, to be increased to its full capacity of 20 in the second season. After instrument characterization measurements were taken, CMB observation commenced in April 2015. Together with multi-frequency observation data from Planck, BICEP2, and the Keck Array, BICEP3 is projected to set upper limits on the tensor-to-scalar ratio to r 0.03 at 95% C.L..

It all looks very promising, with science results likely to appear later this year, but who will win the race to find those elusive primordial B-modes?

 

Amplitude & Energy in Electromagnetic Waves

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 22, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a little physics riddle. As you all know, electromagnetic radiation consists of oscillating electric and magnetic fields rather like this:

Figure10.1(Graphic stolen from here.) The polarization state of the wave is defined by the direction of the Electric field, in this case vertically upwards.

Now the energy carried by an electromagnetic wave of a given wavelength is proportional to the square of its amplitude, denoted in the Figure by A, so the energy is of the form kA2 in this case with k constant. Two separate electromagnetic waves with the same amplitude and wavelength would thus carry an energy = 2kA2.

But now consider what happens if you superpose two waves in phase, each having the same wavelength, polarization and amplitude to generate a single wave with amplitude 2A. The energy carried now is k(2A)2 = 4kA2, which is twice the value obtained for two separate waves.

Where does the extra energy come from?

Answers through the Comments Box please!

Launch!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 3, 2015 by telescoper

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, the search for signatures of primordial gravitational waves in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background goes on. Here’s a fascinating blog by a member of the SPIDER team, whose balloon-borne experiment was recently launched and is currently circling the South Pole taking data. Here’s hoping it works out as planned!

SPIDER on the Ice

This is surreal.

I have been working on SPIDER for three and a half years, and much of the rest of the collaboration has been working for many years beyond that. We have all gone through intense times of stress and disappointment, victories and defeats. The personal sacrifice on the part of every individual on the team to get SPIDER to the point of flight readiness has been a weight on all of our shoulders as we prepared to launch our hopes and dreams on a balloon.

Ballooning is incredibly risky. Everything can work flawlessly on the ground, and then one thing can break during launch, or freeze or overheat at float altitude, and no amount of commanding from afar can bring it back to life. This happens so often in ballooning, and all you can do is obsess over every aspect of the experiment, have redundancy where possible, and…

View original post 760 more words

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

Stokes V – The Lost Parameter

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by telescoper

Some years ago I went to a seminar on the design of an experiment to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. At the end of the talk I asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. The point of my question was the speaker had focussed entirely on measuring the intensity of the radiation (I) and the two Stokes Parameters that measure linear polarization of the radiation (usually called Q and U). How difficult, I asked, would it be to measure the remaining Stokes parameter V (which quantifies circular polarization)?

There was a sharp intake of breath among the audience and the speaker responded with a curt “the cosmic microwave background is not circularly polarized”. It is true that in the standard cosmological theory the microwave background is produced by Thomson scattering in the early Universe which produces partial linear polarization, so that Q and U are non-zero, but not circular polarization so V=0. However, I had really asked my question because I had an idea that it might be worth measuring V (or at least putting an upper limit on it) in order to assess the level of instrumental systematics (which are a serious issue with polarization measurements).

I was reminded of this episode when I saw a paper on the arXiv today by Asantha Cooray, Alessandro Melchiorri and Joe Silk which points out that the CMB may well have some level of circular polarization. When light travels through a region containing plasma and a magnetic field, circular polarization can be generated from linear polarization via a process called Faraday conversion. For this to happen, the polarization vector of the incident radiation (defined by the direction of its E-field) must have non-zero component along the local magnetic field, i.e. the B-field. Charged particles are free to move only along B, so the component of E parallel to B is absorbed and re-emitted by these charges, thus leading to phase difference between it and the component of E orthogonal to B and hence to the circular polarization. This is related to the perhaps more familiar process of Faraday rotation, which causes the plane of linear polarization to rotate when polarized radiation travels through a region containing a magnetic field.

Anyway, here is the abstract of the paper

The primordial anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) are linearly polarized via Compton-scattering. The Faraday conversion process during the propagation of polarized CMB photons through regions of the large-scale structure containing magnetized relativistic plasma, such as galaxy clusters, will lead to a circularly polarized contribution. Though the resulting Stokes-V parameter is of order 10-9 at frequencies of 10 GHz, the contribution can potentially reach the total Stokes-U at low frequencies due to the cubic dependence on the wavelength. In future, the detection of circular polarization of CMB can be used as a potential probe of the physical properties associated with relativistic particle populations in large-scale structures.

It’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard for me to judge the feasibility of measuring a value of Stokes V as low as 10-9. Clearly it would only work at frequencies much lower than those probed by current CMB experiments such as BICEP2 (which operates at 150 GHz). Perhaps if the speaker had answered my question all those years ago I’d be in a better position to decide!

Published BICEP2 paper admits “Unquantifiable Uncertainty”..

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the BICEP2 results that excited so much press coverage earlier this year have now been published in Physical Review Letters. A free PDF version of the piece can be found here.  The published version incorporates a couple of important caveats that have arisen since the original release of the results prior to peer review. In particular, in the abstract (discussing models of the dust foreground emission:

However, these models are not sufficiently constrained by external public data to exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal. Cross correlating BICEP2 against 100 GHz maps from the BICEP1 experiment, the excess signal is confirmed with 3σ significance and its spectral index is found to be consistent with that of the CMB, disfavoring dust at 1.7 σ.

Since the primary question-mark over the original result was whether the signal was due to dust or CMB, this corresponds to an admission that the detection is really at very low significance. I’ll set aside my objection to the frequentist language used in this statement!

There is an interesting comment in the footnotes too:

In the preprint version of this paper an additional DDM2 model was included based on information taken from Planck conference talks. We noted the large uncertainties on this and the other dust models presented. In the Planck dust polarization paper [96] which has since appeared the maps have been masked to include only regions “where the systematic uncertainties are small, and where the dust signal dominates total emission.” This mask excludes our field. We have concluded the information used for the DDM2 model has unquantifiable uncertainty. We look forward to performing a cross-correlation analysis against the Planck 353 GHz polarized maps in a future publication.

The emphasis is mine. The phrase made me think of this:

hazards

The paper concludes:

More data are clearly required to resolve the situation. We note that cross-correlation of our maps with the Planck 353 GHz maps will be more powerful than use of those maps alone in our field. Additional data are also expected from many other experiments, including Keck Array observations at 100 GHz in the 2014 season.

In other words, what I’ve been saying from the outset.

 

Has BICEP2 bitten the dust?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2014 by telescoper

Time for yet another update on twists and turns of the ongoing saga of  BICEP2 and in particular the growing suspicion that the measurements could be accounted for by Galactic dust rather than primordial gravitational waves; see various posts on this blog.

First there is a Nature News and Views article by Paul Steinhardt with the title Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble. As the title suggests, this piece is pretty scathing about the whole affair, for two main reasons. The first is to do with the manner of the release of the result via a press conference before the results had been subjected to peer review. Steinhardt argues that future announcements of “discoveries” in this area

should be made after submission to journals and vetting by expert referees. If there must be a press conference, hopefully the scientific community and the media will demand that it is accompanied by a complete set of documents, including details of the systematic analysis and sufficient data to enable objective verification.

I also have reservations about the way the communication of this result was handled but I wouldn’t go as far as Steinhardt did. I think it’s quite clear that the BICEP2 team have detected something and that they published their findings in good faith. The fact that the media pushed the result as being a definitive detection of primordial gravitational waves wasn’t entirely their fault; most of the hype was probably down to other cosmologists (especially theorists) who got a bit over-excited.

It is true that if it turns out that the BICEP2 signal is due to dust rather than primordial gravitational waves then the cosmology community will have a certain amount of egg on its face. On the other hand, this is actually what happens in science all the time. If we scientists want the general public to understand better how science actually works we should not pretend that it is about absolute certainties but that it is a process, and because it is a process operated by human beings it is sometimes rather messy. The lesson to be learned is not about hiding the mess from the public but about communicating the uncertainties more accurately and more honestly.

Steinhardt’s other main point is one with which I disagree very strongly. Here is the core of his argument about inflation:

The common view is that it is a highly predictive theory. If that was the case and the detection of gravitational waves was the ‘smoking gun’ proof of inflation, one would think that non-detection means that the theory fails. Such is the nature of normal science. Yet some proponents of inflation who celebrated the BICEP2 announcement already insist that the theory is equally valid whether or not gravitational waves are detected. How is this possible?

The answer given by proponents is alarming: the inflationary paradigm is so flexible that it is immune to experimental and observational tests.

This is extremely disingenuous. There’s a real difference between a theory that is “immune to experimental and observational tests” and one which is just very difficult to test in that way. For a start, the failure of a given experiment to detect gravitational waves  does not prove that gravitational waves don’t exist at some level; a more sensitive experiment might be needed. More generally, the inflationary paradigm is not completely specified as a theory; it is a complex entity which contains a number of free parameters that can be adjusted in the light of empirical data. The same is also true, for example, of the standard model of particle physics. The presence of these adjustable degrees of freedom makes it much harder to test the hypothesis than would be the case if there were no such wiggle room. Normal science often proceeds via the progressive tightening of the theoretical slack until there is no more room for manoeuvre. This process can take some time.

Inflation will probably be very difficult to test, but then there’s no reason why we should expect a definitive theoretical understanding of the very early Universe to come easily to us. Indeed, there is almost certainly a limit to the extent that we can understand the Universe with “normal science” but I don’t think we’ve reached it yet. We need to be more patient. So what if we can’t test inflation with our current technology? That doesn’t mean that the idea is unscientific. It just means that the Universe is playing hard to get.

Steinhardt continues with an argument about the multiverse. He states that inflation

almost inevitably leads to a multiverse with an infinite number of bubbles, in which the cosmic and physical properties vary from bubble to bubble. The part of the multiverse that we observe corresponds to a piece of just one such bubble. Scanning over all possible bubbles in the multi­verse, every­thing that can physically happen does happen an infinite number of times. No experiment can rule out a theory that allows for all possible outcomes. Hence, the paradigm of inflation is unfalsifiable.

This may seem confusing given the hundreds of theoretical papers on the predictions of this or that inflationary model. What these papers typically fail to acknowledge is that they ignore the multiverse and that, even with this unjustified choice, there exists a spectrum of other models which produce all manner of diverse cosmological outcomes. Taking this into account, it is clear that the inflationary paradigm is fundamentally untestable, and hence scientifically meaningless.

I don’t accept the argument that “inflation almost inevitably leads to a multiverse” but even if you do the rest of the argument is false. Infinitely many outcomes may be possible, but are they equally probable? There is a well-defined Bayesian framework within which one could answer this question, with sufficient understanding of the underlying physics. I don’t think we know how to do this yet but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in principle.

For similar discussion of this issue see Ted Bunn’s Blog.

Steinhardt’s diatribe was accompanied  yesterday by a sceptical news piece in the Grauniad entitled Gravitational waves turn to dust after claims of flawed analysis. This piece is basically a rehash of the argument that the BICEP2 results may be accounted for by dust rather than primordial gravitational waves, which definitely a possibility, and that the BICEP2 analysis involved a fairly dubious analysis of the foregrounds. In my opinion it’s an unnecessarily aggressive piece, but mentioning it here gives me the excuse to post the following screen grab from the science section of today’s Guardian website:

BICEP_thenandnow

Aficionados of Private Eye will probably think of the Just Fancy That section!

Where do I stand? I can hear you all asking that question so I’ll make it clear that my view hasn’t really changed at all since March. I wouldn’t offer any more than even money on a bet that BICEP2 has detected primordial gravitational waves at all and I’d offer good odds that, if the detection does stand, the value of the tensor-to-scalar ratio is significantly lower than the value of 0.2 claimed by BICEP2.  In other words, I don’t know. Sometimes that’s the only really accurate statement a scientist can make.

BICEP2: The Dust Thickens…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by telescoper

Off to a day-long staff training event today so just time to post a quick update on the BICEP2 saga (see various posts on this blog). There’s a new paper on the arXiv today by Flauger, Hill and Spergel. The first part of its rather lengthy abstract reads:

BICEP2 has reported the detection of a degree-scale B-mode polarization pattern in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and has interpreted the measurement as evidence for primordial gravitational waves. Motivated by the profound importance of the discovery of gravitational waves from the early Universe, we examine to what extent a combination of Galactic foregrounds and lensed E-modes could be responsible for the signal. We reanalyze the BICEP2 results and show that the 100×150 GHz and 150×150 GHz data are consistent with a cosmology with r=0.2 and negligible foregrounds, but also with a cosmology with r=0 and a significant dust polarization signal. We give independent estimates of the dust polarization signal in the BICEP2 region using four different approaches. While these approaches are consistent with each other, the expected amplitude of the dust polarization power spectrum remains uncertain by about a factor of three. The lower end of the prediction leaves room for a primordial contribution, but at the higher end the dust in combination with the standard CMB lensing signal could account for the BICEP2 observations, without requiring the existence of primordial gravitational waves. By measuring the cross-correlations between the pre-Planck templates used in the BICEP2 analysis and between different versions of a data-based template, we emphasize that cross-correlations between models are very sensitive to noise in the polarization angles and that measured cross-correlations are likely underestimates of the contribution of foregrounds to the map. These results suggest that BICEP1 and BICEP2 data alone cannot distinguish between foregrounds and a primordial gravitational wave signal, and that future Keck Array observations at 100 GHz and Planck observations at higher frequencies will be crucial to determine whether the signal is of primordial origin. (abridged)

The foreground analysis done in this paper seems to me to be much more convincing that that presented in the original BICEP2 paper and it confirms that the data as presented can not discriminate between B-modes arising from a polarized foreground component and from the presence of primordial gravitational waves. As I’ve said before (several times now), the press hype surrounding this discovery was a bit premature and we have to wait for observations at other frequencies before a clearer picture emerges through the dust.

UPDATE: A new Nature News and Views Article contains a strong statement by David Spergel to the effect that BICEP2 provides no evidence either for or against the existence of primordial gravitational waves.