Archive for WMAP

What the Power Spectrum misses

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just taking a short break from work I chatted over coffee to one of the students here at the Niels Bohr Institute about various things to do with the analysis of signals in the Fourier domain (as you do). That discussion reminded me of this rather old post (from 2009) which I thought might be worth a second airing (after a bit of editing). The discussion is all based on past cosmological data (from WMAP) rather than the most recent (from Planck), but that doesn’t change anything qualitatively. So here you are.

WMapThe picture above shows the all-sky map of fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background across the sky as revealed by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, known to its friends as WMAP.

I spent many long hours fiddling with the data coming from the WMAP experiment, partly because I’ve never quite got over the fact that such wonderful data actually exists. When I started my doctorate in 1985 the whole field of CMB analysis was so much pie in the sky, as no experiments had yet been performed with the sensitivity to reveal the structures we now see. This is because they are very faint and easily buried in noise. The fluctuations in temperature from pixel to pixel across the sky are of order one part in a hundred thousand of the mean temperature (i.e. about 30 microKelvin on a background temperature of about 3 Kelvin). That’s smoother than the surface of a billiard ball. That’s why it took such a long time to make the map shown above, and why it is such a triumphant piece of science.

I blogged a while ago about the idea that the structure we see in this map was produced by sound waves reverberating around the early Universe. The techniques cosmologists use to analyse this sound are similar to those used in branches of acoustics except that we only see things in projection on the celestial sphere which requires a bit of special consideration.

One of the things that sticks in my brain from my undergraduate years is being told that `if you don’t know what you’re doing as a physicist you should start by making a Fourier transform of everything. This approach breaks down the phenomenon being studied into a set of  plane waves with different wavelengths corresponding to analysing the different tones present in a complicated sound.

It’s often very good advice to do such a decomposition for one-dimensional time series or fluctuation fields in three-dimensional Cartesian space, even you do know what you’re doing, but it doesn’t work with a sphere because plane waves don’t fit properly on a curved surface. Fortunately, however, there is a tried-and-tested alternative involving spherical harmonics rather than plane waves.

Spherical harmonics are quite complicated beasts mathematically but they have pretty similar properties to Fourier harmonics in many respects. In particular they are represented as complex numbers having real and imaginary parts or, equivalently, an amplitude and a phase (usually called the argument by mathematicians),

Z=X+iY = R \exp(i\phi)

This latter representation is the most useful one for CMB fluctuations because the simplest versions of inflationary theory predict that the phases φ of each of the spherical harmonic modes should be randomly distributed. What this really means is that there is no information content in their distribution so that the harmonic modes are in a state of maximum statistical disorder or entropy. This property also guarantees that the distribution of fluctuations over the sky should have a Gaussian distribution.

If you accept that the fluctuations are Gaussian then only the amplitudes of the spherical harmonic coefficients are useful. Indeed, their statistical properties can be specified entirely by the variance of these amplitudes as a function of mode frequency. This pre-eminently important function is called the power-spectrum of the fluctuations, and it is shown here for the WMAP data:


Although the units on the axes are a bit strange it doesn”t require too much imagination to interpret this in terms of a sound spectrum. There is a characteristic tone (at the position of the big peak) plus a couple of overtones (the bumps at higher frequencies). However these features are not sharp so the overall sound is not at all musical.

If the Gaussian assumption is correct then the power-spectrum contains all the useful statistical information to be gleaned from the CMB sky, which is why so much emphasis has been placed on extracting it accurately from the data.

Conversely, though, the power spectrum is completely insensitive to any information in the distribution of spherical harmonic phases. If something beyond the standard model made the Universe non-Gaussian it would affect the phases of the harmonic modes in a way that would make them non-random.

However,I will now show you how important phase information could actually be, if only we could find a good way of exploiting it. Let’s start with a map of the Earth, with the colour representing height of the surface above mean sea level:


You can see the major mountain ranges (Andes, Himalayas) quite clearly as red in this picture and note how high Antarctica is…that’s one of the reasons so much astronomy is done there.

Now, using the same colour scale we have the WMAP data again (in Galactic coordinates).


The virture of this representation of the map is that it shows how smooth the microwave sky is compared to the surface of the Earth. Note also that you can see a bit of crud in the plane of the Milky Way that serves as a reminder of the difficulty of cleaning the foregrounds out.

Clearly these two maps have completely different power spectra. The Earth is dominated by large features made from long-wavelength modes whereas the CMB sky has relatively more small-scale fuzz.

Now I’m going to play with these maps in the following rather peculiar way. First, I make a spherical harmonic transform of each of them. This gives me two sets of complex numbers, one for the Earth and one for WMAP. Following the usual fashion, I think of these as two sets of amplitudes and two sets of phases. Note that the spherical harmonic transformation preserves all the information in the sky maps, it’s just a different representation.

Now what I do is swap the amplitudes and phases for the two maps. First, I take the amplitudes of WMAP and put them with the phases for the Earth. That gives me the spherical harmonic representation of a new data set which I can reveal by doing an inverse spherical transform:


This map has exactly the same amplitudes for each mode as the WMAP data and therefore possesses an identical power spectrum to that shown above. Clearly, though, this particular CMB sky is not compatible with the standard cosmological model! Notice that all the strongly localised features such as coastlines appear by virtue of information contained in the phases but absent from the power-spectrum.

To understand this think how sharp features appear in a Fourier transform. A sharp spike at a specific location actually produces a broad spectrum of Fourier modes with different frequencies. These modes have to add in coherently at the location of the spike and cancel out everywhere else, so their phases are strongly correlated. A sea of white noise also has a flat power spectrum but has random phases. The key difference between these two configurations is not revealed by their spectra but by their phases.

Fortunately there is nothing quite as wacky as a picture of the Earth in the real data, but it makes the point that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than can be described in terms of the power spectrum!

Finally, perhaps in your mind’s eye you might consider what it might look lie to do the reverse experiment: recombine the phases of WMAP with the amplitudes of the Earth.


If the WMAP data are actually Gaussian, then this map is a sort of random-phase realisation of the Earth’s power spectrum. Alternatively you can see that it is the result of running a kind of weird low-pass filter over the WMAP fluctuations. The only striking things it reveals are (i) a big blue hole associated with foreground contamination, (ii) a suspicious excess of red in the galactic plane owing to the same problem, and (iiI) a strong North-South asymmetry arising from the presence of Antarctica.

There’s no great scientific result here, just a proof that spherical harmonic phases are potentially interesting because of the information they contain about strongly localised features

PS. These pictures were made by a former PhD student of mine, Patrick Dineen, who has since quit astrophysics  to work in the financial sector for Winton Capital, which has over the years recruited a number of astronomy and cosmology graduates and also sponsors a Royal Astronomical Society prize. That shows that the skills and knowledge obtained in the seemingly obscure field of cosmological data analysis have applications elsewhere!


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.


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?


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.


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!


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:







Is Inflation Testable?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2014 by telescoper

It seems the little poll about cosmic inflation I posted last week with humorous intent has ruffled a few feathers, but at least it gives me the excuse to wheel out an updated and edited version of an old piece I wrote on the subject.

Just over thirty  years ago a young physicist came up with what seemed at first to be an absurd idea: that, for a brief moment in the very distant past, just after the Big Bang, something weird happened to gravity that made it push rather than pull.  During this time the Universe went through an ultra-short episode of ultra-fast expansion. The physicist in question, Alan Guth, couldn’t prove that this “inflation” had happened nor could he suggest a compelling physical reason why it should, but the idea seemed nevertheless to solve several major problems in cosmology.

Three decades later, Guth is a professor at MIT and inflation is now well established as an essential component of the standard model of cosmology. But should it be? After all, we still don’t know what caused it and there is little direct evidence that it actually took place. Data from probes of the cosmic microwave background seem to be consistent with the idea that inflation happened, but how confident can we be that it is really a part of the Universe’s history?

According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was born in a dense fireball which has been expanding and cooling for about 14 billion years. The basic elements of this theory have been in place for over eighty years, but it is only in the last decade or so that a detailed model has been constructed which fits most of the available observations with reasonable precision. The problem is that the Big Bang model is seriously incomplete. The fact that we do not understand the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that appears to fill the Universe is a serious shortcoming. Even worse, we have no way at all of describing the very beginning of the Universe, which appears in the equations used by cosmologists as a “singularity”- a point of infinite density that defies any sensible theoretical calculation. We have no way to define a priori the initial conditions that determine the subsequent evolution of the Big Bang, so we have to try to infer from observations, rather than deduce by theory, the parameters that govern it.

The establishment of the new standard model (known in the trade as the “concordance” cosmology) is now allowing astrophysicists to turn back the clock in order to understand the very early stages of the Universe’s history and hopefully to understand the answer to the ultimate question of what happened at the Big Bang itself and thus answer the question “How did the Universe Begin?”

Paradoxically, it is observations on the largest scales accessible to technology that provide the best clues about the earliest stages of cosmic evolution. In effect, the Universe acts like a microscope: primordial structures smaller than atoms are blown up to astronomical scales by the expansion of the Universe. This also allows particle physicists to use cosmological observations to probe structures too small to be resolved in laboratory experiments.

Our ability to reconstruct the history of our Universe, or at least to attempt this feat, depends on the fact that light travels with a finite speed. The further away we see a light source, the further back in time its light was emitted. We can now observe light from stars in distant galaxies emitted when the Universe was less than one-sixth of its current size. In fact we can see even further back than this using microwave radiation rather than optical light. Our Universe is bathed in a faint glow of microwaves produced when it was about one-thousandth of its current size and had a temperature of thousands of degrees, rather than the chilly three degrees above absolute zero that characterizes the present-day Universe. The existence of this cosmic background radiation is one of the key pieces of evidence in favour of the Big Bang model; it was first detected in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for their discovery.

The process by which the standard cosmological model was assembled has been a gradual one, but the latest step was taken by the European Space Agency’s Planck mission . I’ve blogged about the implications of the Planck results for cosmic inflation in more technical detail here. In a nutshell, for several years this satellite mapped  the properties of the cosmic microwave background and how it varies across the sky. Small variations in the temperature of the sky result from sound waves excited in the hot plasma of the primordial fireball. These have characteristic properties that allow us to probe the early Universe in much the same way that solar astronomers use observations of the surface of the Sun to understand its inner structure,  a technique known as helioseismology. The detection of the primaeval sound waves is one of the triumphs of modern cosmology, not least because their amplitude tells us precisely how loud the Big Bang really was.

The pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic radiation also allows us to probe one of the exciting predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that space should be curved by the presence of matter or energy. Measurements from Planck and its predecessor WMAP reveal that our Universe is very special: it has very little curvature, and so has a very finely balanced energy budget: the positive energy of the expansion almost exactly cancels the negative energy relating of gravitational attraction. The Universe is (very nearly) flat.

The observed geometry of the Universe provides a strong piece of evidence that there is an mysterious and overwhelming preponderance of dark stuff in our Universe. We can’t see this dark matter and dark energy directly, but we know it must be there because we know the overall budget is balanced. If only economics were as simple as physics.

Computer Simulation of the Cosmic Web

The concordance cosmology has been constructed not only from observations of the cosmic microwave background, but also using hints supplied by observations of distant supernovae and by the so-called “cosmic web” – the pattern seen in the large-scale distribution of galaxies which appears to match the properties calculated from computer simulations like the one shown above, courtesy of Volker Springel. The picture that has emerged to account for these disparate clues is consistent with the idea that the Universe is dominated by a blend of dark energy and dark matter, and in which the early stages of cosmic evolution involved an episode of accelerated expansion called inflation.

A quarter of a century ago, our understanding of the state of the Universe was much less precise than today’s concordance cosmology. In those days it was a domain in which theoretical speculation dominated over measurement and observation. Available technology simply wasn’t up to the task of performing large-scale galaxy surveys or detecting slight ripples in the cosmic microwave background. The lack of stringent experimental constraints made cosmology a theorists’ paradise in which many imaginative and esoteric ideas blossomed. Not all of these survived to be included in the concordance model, but inflation proved to be one of the hardiest (and indeed most beautiful) flowers in the cosmological garden.

Although some of the concepts involved had been formulated in the 1970s by Alexei Starobinsky, it was Alan Guth who in 1981 produced the paper in which the inflationary Universe picture first crystallized. At this time cosmologists didn’t know that the Universe was as flat as we now think it to be, but it was still a puzzle to understand why it was even anywhere near flat. There was no particular reason why the Universe should not be extremely curved. After all, the great theoretical breakthrough of Einstein’s general theory of relativity was the realization that space could be curved. Wasn’t it a bit strange that after all the effort needed to establish the connection between energy and curvature, our Universe decided to be flat? Of all the possible initial conditions for the Universe, isn’t this very improbable? As well as being nearly flat, our Universe is also astonishingly smooth. Although it contains galaxies that cluster into immense chains over a hundred million light years long, on scales of billions of light years it is almost featureless. This also seems surprising. Why is the celestial tablecloth so immaculately ironed?

Guth grappled with these questions and realized that they could be resolved rather elegantly if only the force of gravity could be persuaded to change its sign for a very short time just after the Big Bang. If gravity could push rather than pull, then the expansion of the Universe could speed up rather than slow down. Then the Universe could inflate by an enormous factor (1060 or more) in next to no time and, even if it were initially curved and wrinkled, all memory of this messy starting configuration would be lost. Our present-day Universe would be very flat and very smooth no matter how it had started out.

But how could this bizarre period of anti-gravity be realized? Guth hit upon a simple physical mechanism by which inflation might just work in practice. It relied on the fact that in the extreme conditions pertaining just after the Big Bang, matter does not behave according to the classical laws describing gases and liquids but instead must be described by quantum field theory. The simplest type of quantum field is called a scalar field; such objects are associated with particles that have no spin. Modern particle theory involves many scalar fields which are not observed in low-energy interactions, but which may well dominate affairs at the extreme energies of the primordial fireball.

Classical fluids can undergo what is called a phase transition if they are heated or cooled. Water for example, exists in the form of steam at high temperature but it condenses into a liquid as it cools. A similar thing happens with scalar fields: their configuration is expected to change as the Universe expands and cools. Phase transitions do not happen instantaneously, however, and sometimes the substance involved gets trapped in an uncomfortable state in between where it was and where it wants to be. Guth realized that if a scalar field got stuck in such a “false” state, energy – in a form known as vacuum energy – could become available to drive the Universe into accelerated expansion.We don’t know which scalar field of the many that may exist theoretically is responsible for generating inflation, but whatever it is, it is now dubbed the inflaton.

This mechanism is an echo of a much earlier idea introduced to the world of cosmology by Albert Einstein in 1916. He didn’t use the term vacuum energy; he called it a cosmological constant. He also didn’t imagine that it arose from quantum fields but considered it to be a modification of the law of gravity. Nevertheless, Einstein’s cosmological constant idea was incorporated by Willem de Sitter into a theoretical model of an accelerating Universe. This is essentially the same mathematics that is used in modern inflationary cosmology.  The connection between scalar fields and the cosmological constant may also eventually explain why our Universe seems to be accelerating now, but that would require a scalar field with a much lower effective energy scale than that required to drive inflation. Perhaps dark energy is some kind of shadow of the inflaton

Guth wasn’t the sole creator of inflation. Andy Albrecht and Paul Steinhardt, Andrei Linde, Alexei Starobinsky, and many others, produced different and, in some cases, more compelling variations on the basic theme. It was almost as if it was an idea whose time had come. Suddenly inflation was an indispensable part of cosmological theory. Literally hundreds of versions of it appeared in the leading scientific journals: old inflation, new inflation, chaotic inflation, extended inflation, and so on. Out of this activity came the realization that a phase transition as such wasn’t really necessary, all that mattered was that the field should find itself in a configuration where the vacuum energy dominated. It was also realized that other theories not involving scalar fields could behave as if they did. Modified gravity theories or theories with extra space-time dimensions provide ways of mimicking scalar fields with rather different physics. And if inflation could work with one scalar field, why not have inflation with two or more? The only problem was that there wasn’t a shred of evidence that inflation had actually happened.

This episode provides a fascinating glimpse into the historical and sociological development of cosmology in the eighties and nineties. Inflation is undoubtedly a beautiful idea. But the problems it solves were theoretical problems, not observational ones. For example, the apparent fine-tuning of the flatness of the Universe can be traced back to the absence of a theory of initial conditions for the Universe. Inflation turns an initially curved universe into a flat one, but the fact that the Universe appears to be flat doesn’t prove that inflation happened. There are initial conditions that lead to present-day flatness even without the intervention of an inflationary epoch. One might argue that these are special and therefore “improbable”, and consequently that it is more probable that inflation happened than that it didn’t. But on the other hand, without a proper theory of the initial conditions, how can we say which are more probable? Based on this kind of argument alone, we would probably never really know whether we live in an inflationary Universe or not.

But there is another thread in the story of inflation that makes it much more compelling as a scientific theory because it makes direct contact with observations. Although it was not the original motivation for the idea, Guth and others realized very early on that if a scalar field were responsible for inflation then it should be governed by the usual rules governing quantum fields. One of the things that quantum physics tells us is that nothing evolves entirely smoothly. Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle imposes a degree of unpredictability of the behaviour of the inflaton. The most important ramification of this is that although inflation smooths away any primordial wrinkles in the fabric of space-time, in the process it lays down others of its own. The inflationary wrinkles are really ripples, and are caused by wave-like fluctuations in the density of matter travelling through the Universe like sound waves travelling through air. Without these fluctuations the cosmos would be smooth and featureless, containing no variations in density or pressure and therefore no sound waves. Even if it began in a fireball, such a Universe would be silent. Inflation puts the Bang in Big Bang.

The acoustic oscillations generated by inflation have a broad spectrum (they comprise oscillations with a wide range of wavelengths), they are of small amplitude (about one hundred thousandth of the background); they are spatially random and have Gaussian statistics (like waves on the surface of the sea; this is the most disordered state); they are adiabatic (matter and radiation fluctuate together) and they are formed coherently.  This last point is perhaps the most important. Because inflation happens so rapidly all of the acoustic “modes” are excited at the same time. Hitting a metal pipe with a hammer generates a wide range of sound frequencies, but all the different modes of the start their oscillations at the same time. The result is not just random noise but something moderately tuneful. The Big Bang wasn’t exactly melodic, but there is a discernible relic of the coherent nature of the sound waves in the pattern of cosmic microwave temperature fluctuations seen in the Cosmic Microwave Background. The acoustic peaks seen in the  Planck  angular spectrum  provide compelling evidence that whatever generated the pattern did so coherently.

There are very few alternative theories on the table that are capable of reproducing these results, but does this mean that inflation really happened? Do they “prove” inflation is correct? More generally, is the idea of inflation even testable?

So did inflation really happen? Does Planck prove it? Will we ever know?

It is difficult to talk sensibly about scientific proof of phenomena that are so far removed from everyday experience. At what level can we prove anything in astronomy, even on the relatively small scale of the Solar System? We all accept that the Earth goes around the Sun, but do we really even know for sure that the Universe is expanding? I would say that the latter hypothesis has survived so many tests and is consistent with so many other aspects of cosmology that it has become, for pragmatic reasons, an indispensable part our world view. I would hesitate, though, to say that it was proven beyond all reasonable doubt. The same goes for inflation. It is a beautiful idea that fits snugly within the standard cosmological and binds many parts of it together. But that doesn’t necessarily make it true. Many theories are beautiful, but that is not sufficient to prove them right.

When generating theoretical ideas scientists should be fearlessly radical, but when it comes to interpreting evidence we should all be unflinchingly conservative. The Planck measurements have also provided a tantalizing glimpse into the future of cosmology, and yet more stringent tests of the standard framework that currently underpins it. Primordial fluctuations produce not only a pattern of temperature variations over the sky, but also a corresponding pattern of polarization. This is fiendishly difficult to measure, partly because it is such a weak signal (only a few percent of the temperature signal) and partly because the primordial microwaves are heavily polluted by polarized radiation from our own Galaxy. Polarization data from Planck are yet to be released; the fiendish data analysis challenge involved is the reason for the delay.  But there is a crucial target that justifies these endeavours. Inflation does not just produce acoustic waves, it also generates different modes of fluctuation, called gravitational waves, that involve twisting deformations of space-time. Inflationary models connect the properties of acoustic and gravitational fluctuations so if the latter can be detected the implications for the theory are profound. Gravitational waves produce very particular form of polarization pattern (called the B-mode) which can’t be generated by acoustic waves so this seems a promising way to test inflation. Unfortunately the B-mode signal is expected to be very weak and the experience of WMAP suggests it might be swamped by foregrounds. But it is definitely worth a go, because it would add considerably to the evidence in favour of inflation as an element of physical reality.

But would even detection of primordial gravitational waves really test inflation? Not really. The problem with inflation is that it is a name given to a very general idea, and there are many (perhaps infinitely many) different ways of implementing the details, so one can devise versions of the inflationary scenario that produce a wide range of outcomes. It is therefore unlikely that there will be a magic bullet that will kill inflation dead. What is more likely is a gradual process of reducing the theoretical slack as much as possible with observational data, such as is happening in particle physics. For example, we have not yet identified the inflaton field (nor indeed any reasonable candidate for it) but we are gradually improving constraints on the allowed parameter space. Progress in this mode of science is evolutionary not revolutionary.

Many critics of inflation argue that it is not a scientific theory because it is not falsifiable. I don’t think falsifiability is a useful concept in this context; see my many posts relating to Karl Popper. Testability is a more appropriate criterion. What matters is that we have a systematic way of deciding which of a set of competing models is the best when it comes to confrontation with data. In the case of inflation we simply don’t have a compelling model to test it against. For the time being therefore, like it or not, cosmic inflation is clearly the best model we have. Maybe someday a worthy challenger will enter the arena, but this has not happened yet.

Most working cosmologists are as aware of the difficulty of testing inflation as they are of its elegance. There are also those  who talk as if inflation were an absolute truth, and those who assert that it is not a proper scientific theory (because it isn’t falsifiable). I can’t agree with either of these factions. The truth is that we don’t know how the Universe really began; we just work on the best ideas available and try to reduce our level of ignorance in any way we can. We can hardly expect  the secrets of the Universe to be so easily accessible to our little monkey brains.

Why the Universe is (probably) not rotating

Posted in Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by telescoper

Just a quick post to point you towards a nice blog post by Jason McEwen entitled Is the Universe rotating? It’s a general rule that if  an article has a question for a title then the answer to that question is probably “no”, and “probably no” is indeed the answer in this case.

The item relates to a paper by McEwen et al whose abstract is given here:

We perform a definitive analysis of Bianchi VII_h cosmologies with WMAP observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) temperature anisotropies. Bayesian analysis techniques are developed to study anisotropic cosmologies using full-sky and partial-sky, masked CMB temperature data. We apply these techniques to analyse the full-sky internal linear combination (ILC) map and a partial-sky, masked W-band map of WMAP 9-year observations. In addition to the physically motivated Bianchi VII_h model, we examine phenomenological models considered in previous studies, in which the Bianchi VII_h parameters are decoupled from the standard cosmological parameters. In the two phenomenological models considered, Bayes factors of 1.7 and 1.1 units of log-evidence favouring a Bianchi component are found in full-sky ILC data. The corresponding best-fit Bianchi maps recovered are similar for both phenomenological models and are very close to those found in previous studies using earlier WMAP data releases. However, no evidence for a phenomenological Bianchi component is found in the partial-sky W-band data. In the physical Bianchi VII_h model we find no evidence for a Bianchi component: WMAP data thus do not favour Bianchi VII_h cosmologies over the standard Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) cosmology. It is not possible to discount Bianchi VII_h cosmologies in favour of LCDM completely, but we are able to constrain the vorticity of physical Bianchi VII_h cosmologies at $(\omega/H)_0 < 8.6 \times 10^{-10}$ with 95% confidence.

For non-experts the Bianchi cosmologies are based on exact solutions of Einstein’s equations for general relativity which obey the condition that they are spatially homogeneous but not necessarily isotropic. If you find that concept hard to understand, imagine a universe which looks the same everywhere but which is pervaded by a uniform magnetic field: that would be homogeneous (because every place is identical) but anisotropic (because there is a preferred direction – along the magnetic field lines). Another example of would be s a universe which is, for reasons known only to itself, rotating; the preferred direction here is the axis of rotation. The complete classification of all Bianchi space-times is discussed here. I also mentioned them and showed some pictures on this blog here.

As Jason’s post explains, observations of the cosmic microwave background by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) suggest  that there is something a little bit fishy about it: it seems to be have an anomalous large-scale asymmetry not expected in the standard cosmology. These suggestions seem to be confirmed by Planck, though the type of analysis done for WMAP has not yet been performed for Planck. The paper mentioned above investigates whether the WMAP asymmetry could be accounted for by one particular Bianchi cosmology, i.e. Bianchi VII_h. This is quite a complicated model which has negative spatial curvature, rotation (vorticity) and shear; formally speaking, it is the most general Bianchi model of any type that includes the standard Friedmann cosmology as a special case.

The question whether such a complicated model actually provides a better fit to the data than the much simpler standard model is one naturally answered by Bayesian techniques that trade off the increased complexity of a more sophisticated model  against the improvement in goodness-of-fit achieved by having more free parameters.  Using this approach McEwen et al. showed that, in simple  terms, while a slight improvement in fit is indeed gained by adding a Bianchi VII_h component to the model,  the penalty paid in terms of increased complexity means that the alternative model is not significantly more probable than the simple one. Ockham’s Razor strikes again! Although this argument does not definitively exclude the possibility that the Universe is rotating, it does put limits on how much rotation there can be. It also excludes one possible explanation of the  peculiar pattern  of the temperature fluctuations seen by WMAP.

So what does cause the anomalous behaviour of the cosmic microwave background?

I have no idea.

WMAP: The Last Judgement

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by telescoper

It seems the the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or rather the estimable team of people working on it, have produced yet another set of maps and key results. I believe this will be the final release from WMAP. The paper is on the arXiv here and it represents a synthesis of no less than nine years of measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation:

Here’s the abstract:

We present the final nine-year maps and basic results from the WMAP mission. We provide new nine-year full sky temperature maps that were processed to reduce the asymmetry of the effective beams. Temperature and polarization sky maps are examined to separate CMB anisotropy from foreground emission, and both types of signals are analyzed in detail. The WMAP mission has resulted in a highly constrained LCDM cosmological model with precise and accurate parameters in agreement with a host of other cosmological measurements. When WMAP data are combined with finer scale CMB, baryon acoustic oscillation, and Hubble constant measurements, we find that Big Bang nucleosynthesis is well supported and there is no compelling evidence for a non-standard number of neutrino species (3.26+/-0.35). The model fit also implies that the age of the universe is 13.772+/-0.059 Gyr, and the fit Hubble constant is H0 = 69.32+/-0.80 km/s/Mpc. Inflation is also supported: the fluctuations are adiabatic, with Gaussian random phases; the detection of a deviation of the scalar spectral index from unity reported earlier by WMAP now has high statistical significance (n_s = 0.9608+/-0.0080); and the universe is close to flat/Euclidean, Omega_k = -0.0027 (+0.0039/-0.0038). Overall, the WMAP mission has resulted in a reduction of the cosmological parameter volume by a factor of 68,000 for the standard six-parameter LCDM model, based on CMB data alone. For a model including tensors, the allowed seven-parameter volume has been reduced by a factor 117,000. Other cosmological observations are in accord with the CMB predictions, and the combined data reduces the cosmological parameter volume even further. With no significant anomalies and an adequate goodness-of-fit, the inflationary flat LCDM model and its precise and accurate parameters rooted in WMAP data stands as the standard model of cosmology.

The main reason for posting this is to acknowledge the remarkable impact WMAP has had on the field of cosmology. The standard model does indeed account for most available cosmological data extremely well. I’m not entirely sure about the “no significant anomalies” bit in the last sentence, in fact, but I won’t argue with it as it depends entirely upon what you mean by significant. It’s not exactly proven that the fluctuations have “random phases” either. We’ll just have to see whether data from Planck, due to be released next year, will reveal evidence of any physics beyond the standard framework WMAP did so much to establish.

SPT and the CMB

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been remiss in not yet passing on news  from the South Pole Telescope, which has recently produced a number of breakthrough scientific results, including:  improved cosmological constraints from the SPT-SZ cluster survey (preprint here); a new catalogue of 224 SZ-selected cluster candidates from the first 720 square-degrees of the survey (preprint here); the first measurement of galaxy bias from the gravitational lensing of the CMB (preprint here); the first CMB-based constraint on the evolution of the ionized fraction during the epoch of reionization (preprint here); the most-significant detection of non-Gaussianity induced from the gravitational lensing of the CMB (preprint here); and the most precise measurement of the CMB damping tail and improved constraints on models of Inflation (preprint here).

Here’s the graph that drew my eye (from this paper). It shows the (angular) power spectrum of the cosmic microwave for very high (angular) frequency spherical harmonics; the resolution of SPT allows it to probe finer details of the spectrum that WMAP (also shown, at lower l).


This is an amazing graph, especially for oldies like me who remember being so impressed by the emergence of the first “acoustic peak” at around l=200 way back in the days of Boomerang and Maxima and gobsmacked by WMAP’s revelation of the second and third. Now there are at least six acoustic peaks, although of progressively lower amplitude. The attenuation of the CMB fluctuations at high frequencies is the result of diffusion damping – similar to the way high-frequency sound waves are attenuated when they pass through a diffusive medium (e.g. a gas).  The phenomenon in this case is usually called Silk Damping, as it was first worked out back in the 1960s by Joe Damping Silk.

Anyway, there’ll be a lot more CMB news early (?) next year from Planck which will demonstrate yet again that cosmic microwave background physics has certainly come a long way from pigeon shit

COBE and after…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 24, 2012 by telescoper

An item on the BBC website yesterday reminds me that it is twenty years since the announcement, in April 1992, of the discovery of temperature variations across the sky in the cosmic microwave background radiation by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). Was it really so long ago?

At the time the announcement was made as I actually in the USA. In fact,  I was at the University of Kansas for about a month working on this paper with Adrian Melott and Sergei Shandarin, which eventually came out early in 1993. I remember it very well because we started the project, did all the calculations and wrote up the paper within the short time I was there. Oh what it is to be a postdoc, having only research to think about and none of the other distractions that come with more senior positions.

Anyway, the COBE announcement hit the news while I was there and it got a lot of press coverage. I even did a TV interview myself, for a local cable news channel. Nor surprisingly, they were pretty clueless about the physics of the cosmic microwave background; what had drawn them to the story was George Smoot’s comment that seeing the pattern of fluctuations was “like seeing the face of God”. They were disappointed when I answered their questions about God with “I don’t know, I’m an atheist”.

The Face of God?

I didn’t know at the time that the way the announcement of the COBE discovery was handled had caused such ructions. Apparently George Smoot let his enthusiasm get the better of him, broke ranks with the rest of the COBE team, and did his own press conference which led to accusations that he was trying to steal the limelight and a big falling-out between Smoot and other members of the team, especially John Mather. It’s unfortunate that this cast a shadow over what was undoubtedly one of the most important science discoveries of the twentieth century. Without COBE there would have been no WMAP and no Planck, and our understanding of the early Universe and the formation of galaxies and large-scale structure would still be in the dark ages.

As a lowly postdoc at the time, living a hand-to-mouth existence on short-term contracts, I didn’t realise that I would still be working in cosmology twenty years later, let alone become a Professor.  Nor could I have predicted how much cosmology would change over the next two decades. Most of all, though, I never even imagined that I’d find myself travelling to Stockholm as a guest of the Nobel Foundation to attend the ceremony and banquet at which the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to George Smoot and John Mather for the COBE discovery. It was a wonderful one-in-a-lifetime experience, made all the nicer because Smoot and Mather seemed to have made peace at last.

Where were you when the COBE results came out?