I’m not getting much time these days to even think about cosmology but Subir Sarkar drew my attention to an intriguing paper by his team so I thought I’d share it here. Here is the abstract and author list:

I find this an intriguing result because I’ve often wondered about the dipole anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background might not be exclusively kinematic in origin and whether they might also be a primordial contribution. The dipole (180°) variation corresponds to a ΔT/T of order 10^{-3}, which a hundred times larger than the variation on any other angular scale. This is what it looks like:

This is usually interpreted as being due to the motion of the observer through a frame in which the cosmic microwave background is completely isotropic. A simple calculation then gives the speed of this motion using ΔT/T ≈ v/c. This motion is assumed to be generated by gravitational interaction with local density fluctuations rather than being due to anything truly cosmological (i.e. of primordial origin).

The features in the cosmic microwave background temperature pattern on smaller angular scales (the quadrupole, octopole, etc…) , which have ΔT/T of order 10^{-5} are different in that they are dominated by primordial density fluctuations. There should be a primordial dipole at some level, but the fact that these other harmonic modes have such low amplitudes and the assumption that the primordial dipole should be of the same order, combined with the fact that the CMB dipole does indeed roughly line up with the dipole expected to be generated by local inhomogeneities, has led to the widespread belief that this intrinsic dipole is negligible. This analysis suggests that it might not be.

What the authors have done is study the anisotropy of a large sample of quasars (going out to redshifts of order three) finding the dipole to be larger than that of the CMB. Note however that the sample does not cover the whole sky because of a mask to remove regions wherein AGN are hard to observe:

As well as the mask there are other possible systematics that might be at play, which I am sure will be interrogated when the paper is peer-reviewed which, as far as I know, is not yet the case.

P.S. I might just quibble a little bit about the last sentence of the abstract. We know that the Universe violates the cosmological principle even in the standard model: with scale-invariant perturbations there is no scale at which the Universe is completely homogeneous. The question is really how much and in what way it is violated. We seem to be happy with 10^{-5} but not with 10^{-3}…

Update: On 23rd October Subir will be giving a talk about this an participating in a debate. For more details, see here.

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