Archive for Rashid Sunyaev

CMB Spectral Distortions Revisited

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2017 by telescoper

While uploading some bibliographic information for bureaucratic purposes yesterday I noticed that an old paper of mine had recently attracted a number of citations. The paper was written while I was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex in 1990, but not published until 1991 by which time I had moved to Queen Mary College (as it was then called). The citation history of this article is actually quite interesting:

You can see that it was cited a bit immediately after publication, then endured a long spell from 1997 to 2012 in which nobody seemed interested in it, then experienced something of a revival. It currently has a total of about 49 citations, which doesn’t exactly make it a classic in a field which is extremely active, but it’s nice to see it hasn’t been forgotten entirely.

Here is the abstract of the paper:

As the abstract makes clear we wrote this paper in response to a measurement of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation by the FIRAS instrument on the satellite COBE that had demonstrated that it was extremely well fitted by a Planck spectrum, with little room for any deviation away from a perfect black-body shape. Here’s the measured curve from COBE and some other experiments at the time:

The accuracy of the fit allows one to place limits on any process happening in the early Universe that might produce a distortion of the spectrum. There are a number of things that could do this. Any energy released in the early Universe takes time to thermalise, i.e. for the radiation field and the matter to come into thermal equilibrium via Compton scattering, double Compton scattering and Bremsstrahlung. Imperfect thermalisation produces a spectrum which doesn’t quite match the Planck curve.

Two types of distortion are possible, both introduced in classic papers from 1969 and 1970 by Rashid Sunyaev and Ya. B. Zel’dovich. One type is called a y-distortion (which corresponds to photons being shifted from low frequency and the other is called a μ-distortion, which is described by inserting a chemical potential term to the usual Planck formula for the black-body spectrum. Observational limits on both forms of distortion are very tight : |y|<1.5 ×10-5; |μ|<1.5 ×10-5, which places stringent limits on any energy release, including that which would arise from the dissipation of primordial acoustic waves (which is what John and I concentrated on in the paper).

So why did interest in this get revived a few years ago? The answer to that is that advances in relevant technology have now made it possible to think about an experiment that can measure much smaller spectral distortions than has hitherto been possible. A proposal for an experiment, called PIXIE, which includes such a measurement, is described here. Although spectral distortions are only a secondary science goal for PIXIE, it could push down the upper limits quoted above by a factor of 1000 or so, at which level we should expect to see departures from the Planck curve within the standard model, which would be a very important test of basic cosmological theory.

That all depends on whether PIXIE – or something like it – goes ahead.



The Zel’dovich Universe – Days 5 & 6 Summary

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

Well, it’s Sunday morning and it’s raining in Tallinn. I’ve got a few hours to kill but fortunately don’t have to check out of the hotel until noon so I thought I’d briefly summarize Days Five and Six of IAU Symposium No. 308, The Zel’dovich Universe just to complete the story.

Day Five (Friday) began with a talk by Jaan Einasto, recent winner of the Gruber Prize for Cosmology. As you can see from this picture I took before his talk commenced,  the topic was Yakov Zel’dovich and the Comic Sans Cosmic Web Paradigm:


The following talk was by the ebullient Rashid Sunyaev, whose name is associated with Zel’dovich in so many contexts, including the Sunyaev-Zeld’ovich effect. Sunyaev is such a big personality that he is unconstrained by the banal notions of time, and his talk set the schedule back for the rest of the morning. Among the things I remember from his contribution was a discussion of the Berkeley-Nagoya distortion. This was a hot topic during the time I was a graduate student, as it was a measurement that suggested the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background departed significantly from a black-body (Planck) curve in the Wien part of the spectrum; this is now usually known as a y-distortion. Anyway, lots of theorists wrote papers explaining the measured excess in terms of this that and the other and then it was shown to be an error; the excess emission came not from the Big Bang but from the exhaust of the rocket carrying the measurement. The thing I remember most strongly about this was that as soon as the error was identified it ceased to be the Berkeley-Nagoya distortion and became instead the Nagoya-Berkeley distortion…

Rashid Sunyaev was himself a winner of the Gruber prize some years ago, as indeed were Dick Bond and Brent Tully who spoke erlier in the conference, so the organizers decided to form a Gruber-panel to discuss various topics suggested by the audience. Here is Sunyaev, hogging the microphone:


Carlos Frenk is also a Gruber prize winner, but he only arrived after lunch so wasn’t part of this discussion. The afternoon was all about cosmological simulations of various aspects of the Cosmic Web. This gives me an opportunity to repeat how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “simulation”:

1. a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

In the World Cup players can even get sent off for simulation, although regrettably they seldom are.

Anyway, Friday evening found us at the famous House of Blackheads (aptly on Pikk Street) for an evening of very long speeches punctuated by small amounts of food and wine (and of course some very lovely music as I described yesterday). When the party was over a group of us adjourned to a local bar, from which I returned to my hotel at about 2am.

Day Six was a half-day, with some very interesting talks about gravitational len-sing in the first session and “superstructures” in the cosmic web. Then we were into the final furlong as it were. Nick Kaiser was put in Session (No. 21) all of his own. As usual, given how annoyingly brilliant he is, Nick gave  fabulously interesting talk full of insights and ideas. The organizers had definitely saved the best for second-to-last.

Then, after five-and-a-half days and almost 100 talks, it was down to me to give the conference summary. Obviously I couldn’t really summarize all that such I just picked up a few things that occurred to me during the course of the conference (some of which I’ve written about over the last week or so on this blog) and made a few jokes, primarily at the expense of Carlos Frenk. I was interested to see that signs like this had been put up around Tallinn advertising my talk:


The OMG and WOW are self-explanatory, but I was a bit confused about the SAH so I googled it and found that it means the Society of Architectural Historians. I’ve never heard it put quite like that before, but I guess that’s what we cosmologists are: trying to understanding the origins and time evolution of the architecture of the Universe.

A number of speakers at this conference referred to a conference in Hungary in 1987 at which they had met Zel’dovich (who died later that year). I was a graduate student (at Sussex) at that time and owing the shortage of travel funds I wasn’t able to go; I went to a meeting in Cambridge called The Post-Recombination Universe instead. If memory serves that’s when I gave my first conference talk. Anyway, Carlos Frenk gave a talk at that meeting in Hungary which he decribed in his talk at this conference on Friday afternoon. Somebody back in 1987 had written a series of limericks to describe that meeting, so I was challenged to come up with one to conclude this one. Here’s my effort, which is admittedly pretty feeble, but at least the sentiments behind it are genuine..

In Tallinn (IAU 308)
The sessions invariably ran late
But despite being tired
We still much inspired
By Yakov Zel’dovich (the Great).