Tag Archives: cosmology

The Big Bang: What We Know and How We Know It

When most people think of the Big Bang, they imagine a single moment: a whole universe emerging from nothing. That’s not really how it worked, though. The Big Bang refers not to one event, but to a whole scientific theory. Using Einstein’s equations and some simplifying assumptions, we physicists can lay out a timeline for the universe’s earliest history. Different parts of this timeline have different evidence: some are meticulously tested, others we even expect to be wrong! It’s worth talking through this timeline and discussing what we know about each piece, and how we know it.

We can see surprisingly far back in time. As we look out into the universe, we see each star as it was when the light we see left it: longer ago the further the star is from us. Looking back, we see changes in the types of stars and galaxies: stars formed without the metals that later stars produced, galaxies made of those early stars. We see the universe become denser and hotter, until eventually we reach the last thing we can see: the cosmic microwave background, a faint light that fills our view in every direction. This light represents a change in the universe, the emergence of the first atoms. Before this, there were ions: free nuclei and electrons, forming a hot plasma. That plasma constantly emitted and absorbed light. As the universe cooled, the ions merged into atoms, and light was free to travel. Because of this, we cannot see back beyond this point. Our model gives detailed predictions for this curtain of light: its temperature, and even the ways it varies in intensity from place to place, which in turn let us hone our model further.

In principle, we could “see” a bit further. Light isn’t the only thing that travels freely through the universe. Neutrinos are almost massless, and pass through almost everything. Like the cosmic microwave background, the universe should have a cosmic neutrino background. This would come from much earlier, from an era when the universe was so dense that neutrinos regularly interacted with other matter. We haven’t detected this neutrino background yet, but future experiments might. Gravitational waves meanwhile, can also pass through almost any obstacle. There should be gravitational wave backgrounds as well, from a variety of eras in the early universe. Once again these haven’t been detected yet, but more powerful gravitational wave telescopes may yet see them.

We have indirect evidence a bit further back than we can see things directly. In the heat of the early universe the first protons and neutrons were merged via nuclear fusion, becoming the first atomic nuclei: isotopes of hydrogen, helium, and lithium. Our model lets us predict the proportions of these, how much helium and lithium per hydrogen atom. We can then compare this to the oldest stars we see, and see that the proportions are right. In this way, we know something about the universe from before we can “see” it.

We get surprised when we look at the universe on large scales, and compare widely separated regions. We find those regions are surprisingly similar, more than we would expect from randomness and the physics we know. Physicists have proposed different explanations for this. The most popular, cosmic inflation, suggests that the universe expanded very rapidly, accelerating so that a small region of similar matter was blown up much larger than the ordinary Big Bang model would have, projecting those similarities across the sky. While many think this proposal fits the data best, we still aren’t sure it’s the right one: there are alternate proposals, and it’s even controversial whether we should be surprised by the large-scale similarity in the first place.

We understand, in principle, how matter can come from “nothing”. This is sometimes presented as the most mysterious part of the Big Bang, the idea that matter could spontaneously emerge from an “empty” universe. But to a physicist, this isn’t very mysterious. Matter isn’t actually conserved, mass is just energy you haven’t met yet. Deep down, the universe is just a bunch of rippling quantum fields, with different ones more or less active at different times. Space-time itself is just another field, the gravitational field. When people say that in the Big Bang matter emerged from nothing, all they mean is that energy moved from the gravitational field to fields like the electron and quark, giving rise to particles. As we wind the model back, we can pretty well understand how this could happen.

If we extrapolate, winding Einstein’s equations back all the way, we reach a singularity: the whole universe, according to those equations, would have emerged from a single point, a time when everything was zero distance from everything else. This assumes, though, that Einstein’s equations keep working all the way back that far. That’s probably wrong, though. Einstein’s equations don’t include the effect of quantum mechanics, which should be much more important when the universe is at its hottest and densest. We don’t have a complete theory of quantum gravity yet (at least, not one that can model this), so we can’t be certain how to correct these equations. But in general, quantum theories tend to “fuzz out” singularities, spreading out a single point over a wider area. So it’s likely that the universe didn’t actually come from just a single point, and our various incomplete theories of quantum gravity tend to back this up.

So, starting from what we can see, we extrapolate back to what we can’t. We’re quite confident in some parts of the Big Bang theory: the emergence of the first galaxies, the first stars, the first atoms, and the first elements. Back far enough and things get more mysterious, we have proposals but no definite answers. And if you try to wind back up to the beginning, you find we still don’t have the right kind of theory to answer the question. That’s a task for the future.

What Tells Your Story

I watched Hamilton on Disney+ recently. With GIFs and songs from the show all over social media for the last few years, there weren’t many surprises. One thing that nonetheless struck me was the focus on historical evidence. The musical Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and it preserves a surprising amount of the historian’s care for how we know what we know, hidden within the show’s other themes. From the refrain of “who tells your story”, to the importance of Eliza burning her letters with Hamilton (not just the emotional gesture but the “gap in the narrative” it created for historians), to the song “The Room Where It Happens” (which looked from GIFsets like it was about Burr’s desire for power, but is mostly about how much of history is hidden in conversations we can only partly reconstruct), the show keeps the puzzle of reasoning from incomplete evidence front-and-center.

Any time we try to reason about the past, we are faced with these kinds of questions. They don’t just apply to history, but to the so-called historical sciences as well, sciences that study the past. Instead of asking “who” told the story, such scientists must keep in mind “what” is telling the story. For example, paleontologists reason from fossils, and thus are limited by what does and doesn’t get preserved. As a result after a century of studying dinosaurs, only in the last twenty years did it become clear they had feathers.

Astronomy, too, is a historical science. Whenever astronomers look out at distant stars, they are looking at the past. And just like historians and paleontologists, they are limited by what evidence happened to be preserved, and what part of that evidence they can access.

These limitations lead to mysteries, and often controversies. Before LIGO, astronomers had an idea of what the typical mass of a black hole was. After LIGO, a new slate of black holes has been observed, with much higher mass. It’s still unclear why.

Try to reason about the whole universe, and you end up asking similar questions. When we see the movement of “standard candle” stars, is that because the universe’s expansion is accelerating, or are the stars moving as a group?

Push far enough back and the evidence doesn’t just lead to controversy, but to hard limits on what we can know. No matter how good our telescopes are, we won’t see light older than the cosmic microwave background: before that background was emitted the universe was filled with plasma, which would have absorbed any earlier light, erasing anything we could learn from it. Gravitational waves may one day let us probe earlier, and make discoveries as surprising as feathered dinosaurs. But there is yet a stronger limit to how far back we can go, beyond which any evidence has been so diluted that it is indistinguishable from random noise. We can never quite see into “the room where it happened”.

It’s gratifying to see questions of historical evidence in a Broadway musical, in the same way it was gratifying to hear fractals mentioned in a Disney movie. It’s important to think about who, and what, is telling the stories we learn. Spreading that lesson helps all of us reason better.

Halloween Post: Superstimuli for Physicists

For Halloween, this blog has a tradition of covering “the spooky side” of physics. This year, I’m bringing in a concept from biology to ask a spooky physics “what if?”

In the 1950’s, biologists discovered that birds were susceptible to a worryingly effective trick. By giving them artificial eggs larger and brighter than their actual babies, they found that the birds focused on the new eggs to the exclusion of their own. They couldn’t help trying to hatch the fake eggs, even if they were so large that they would fall off when they tried to sit on them. The effect, since observed in other species, became known as a supernormal stimulus, or superstimulus.

Can this happen to humans? Some think so. They worry about junk food we crave more than actual nutrients, or social media that eclipses our real relationships. Naturally, this idea inspires horror writers, who write about haunting music you can’t stop listening to, or holes in a wall that “fit” so well you’re compelled to climb in.

(And yes, it shows up in porn as well.)

But this is a physics blog, not a biology blog. What kind of superstimulus would work on physicists?

Abstruse goose knows what’s up

Well for one, this sounds a lot like some criticisms of string theory. Instead of a theory that just unifies some forces, why not unify all the forces? Instead of just learning some advanced mathematics, why not learn more, and more? And if you can’t be falsified by any experiment, well, all that would do is spoil the fun, right?

But it’s not just string theory you could apply this logic to. Astrophysicists study not just one world but many. Cosmologists study the birth and death of the entire universe. Particle physicists study the fundamental pieces that make up the fundamental pieces. We all partake in the euphoria of problem-solving, a perpetual rush where each solution leads to yet another question.

Do I actually think that string theory is a superstimulus, that astrophysics or particle physics is a superstimulus? In a word, no. Much as it might look that way from the news coverage, most physicists don’t work on these big, flashy questions. Far from being lured in by irresistible super-scale problems, most physicists work with tabletop experiments and useful materials. For those of us who do look up at the sky or down at the roots of the world, we do it not just because it’s compelling but because it has a good track record: physics wouldn’t exist if Newton hadn’t cared about the orbits of the planets. We study extremes because they advance our understanding of everything else, because they give us steam engines and transistors and change everyone’s lives for the better.

Then again, if I had fallen victim to a superstimulus, I’d say that anyway, right?

*cue spooky music*

The Multiverse You Can Visit Is Not the True Multiverse

I don’t want to be the kind of science blogger who constantly complains about science fiction, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

When I blogged about zero-point energy a few weeks back, there was a particular book that set me off. Ian McDonald’s River of Gods depicts the interactions of human and AI agents in a fragmented 2047 India. One subplot deals with a power company pursuing zero-point energy, using an imagined completion of M theory called M* theory. This post contains spoilers for that subplot.

What frustrated me about River of Gods is that the physics in it almost makes sense. It isn’t just an excuse for magic, or a standard set of tropes. Even the name “M* theory” is extremely plausible, the sort of term that could get used for technical reasons in a few papers and get accidentally stuck as the name of our fundamental theory of nature. But because so much of the presentation makes sense, it’s actively frustrating when it doesn’t.

The problem is the role the landscape of M* theory plays in the story. The string theory (or M theory) landscape is the space of all consistent vacua, a list of every consistent “default” state the world could have. In the story, one of the AIs is trying to make a portal to somewhere else in the landscape, a world of pure code where AIs can live in peace without competing with humans.

The problem is that the landscape is not actually a real place in string theory. It’s a metaphorical mathematical space, a list organized by some handy coordinates. The other vacua, the other “default states”, aren’t places you can travel to, there just other ways the world could have been.

Ok, but what about the multiverse?

There are physicists out there who like to talk about multiple worlds. Some think they’re hypothetical, others argue they must exist. Sometimes they’ll talk about the string theory landscape. But to get a multiverse out of the string theory landscape, you need something else as well.

Two options for that “something else” exist. One is called eternal inflation, the other is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And neither lets you travel around the multiverse.

In eternal inflation, the universe is expanding faster and faster. It’s expanding so fast that, in most places, there isn’t enough time for anything complicated to form. Occasionally, though, due to quantum randomness, a small part of the universe expands a bit more slowly: slow enough for stars, planets, and maybe life. Each small part like that is its own little “Big Bang”, potentially with a different “default” state, a different vacuum from the string landscape. If eternal inflation is true then you can get multiple worlds, but they’re very far apart, and getting farther every second: not easy to visit.

The many-worlds interpretation is a way to think about quantum mechanics. One way to think about quantum mechanics is to say that quantum states are undetermined until you measure them: a particle could be spinning left or right, Schrödinger’s cat could be alive or dead, and only when measured is their state certain. The many-worlds interpretation offers a different way: by doing away with measurement, it instead keeps the universe in the initial “undetermined” state. The universe only looks determined to us because of our place in it: our states become entangled with those of particles and cats, so that our experiences only correspond to one determined outcome, the “cat alive branch” or the “cat dead branch”. Combine this with the string landscape, and our universe might have split into different “branches” for each possible stable state, each possible vacuum. But you can’t travel to those places, your experiences are still “just on one branch”. If they weren’t, many-worlds wouldn’t be an interpretation, it would just be obviously wrong.

In River of Gods, the AI manipulates a power company into using a particle accelerator to make a bubble of a different vacuum in the landscape. Surprisingly, that isn’t impossible. Making a bubble like that is a bit like what the Large Hadron Collider does, but on a much larger scale. When the Large Hadron Collider detected a Higgs boson, it had created a small ripple in the Higgs field, a small deviation from its default state. One could imagine a bigger ripple doing more: with vastly more energy, maybe you could force the Higgs all the way to a different default, a new vacuum in its landscape of possibilities.

Doing that doesn’t create a portal to another world, though. It destroys our world.

That bubble of a different vacuum isn’t another branch of quantum many-worlds, and it isn’t a far-off big bang from eternal inflation. It’s a part of our own universe, one with a different “default state” where the particles we’re made of can’t exist. And typically, a bubble like that spreads at the speed of light.

In the story, they have a way to stabilize the bubble, stop it from growing or shrinking. That’s at least vaguely believable. But it means that their “portal to another world” is just a little bubble in the middle of a big expensive device. Maybe the AI can live there happily…until the humans pull the plug.

Or maybe they can’t stabilize it, and the bubble spreads and spreads at the speed of light destroying everything. That would certainly be another way for the AI to live without human interference. It’s a bit less peaceful than advertised, though.

Zero-Point Energy, Zero-Point Diagrams

Listen to a certain flavor of crackpot, or a certain kind of science fiction, and you’ll hear about zero-point energy. Limitless free energy drawn from quantum space-time itself, zero-point energy probably sounds like bullshit. Often it is. But lurking behind the pseudoscience and the fiction is a real physics concept, albeit one that doesn’t really work like those people imagine.

In quantum mechanics, the zero-point energy is the lowest energy a particular system can have. That number doesn’t actually have to be zero, even for empty space. People sometimes describe this in terms of so-called virtual particles, popping up from nothing in particle-antiparticle pairs only to annihilate each other again, contributing energy in the absence of any “real particles”. There’s a real force, the Casimir effect, that gets attributed to this, a force that pulls two metal plates together even with no charge or extra electromagnetic field. The same bubbling of pairs of virtual particles also gets used to explain the Hawking radiation of black holes.

I’d like to try explaining all of these things in a different way, one that might clear up some common misconceptions. To start, let’s talk about, not zero-point energy, but zero-point diagrams.

Feynman diagrams are a tool we use to study particle physics. We start with a question: if some specific particles come together and interact, what’s the chance that some (perhaps different) particles emerge? We start by drawing lines representing the particles going in and out, then connect them in every way allowed by our theory. Finally we translate the diagrams to numbers, to get an estimate for the probability. In particle physics slang, the number of “points” is the total number of particles: particles in, plus particles out. For example, let’s say we want to know the chance that two electrons go in and two electrons come out. That gives us a “four-point” diagram: two in, plus two out. A zero-point diagram, then, means zero particles in, zero particles out.

A four-point diagram and a zero-point diagram

(Note that this isn’t why zero-point energy is called zero-point energy, as far as I can tell. Zero-point energy is an older term from before Feynman diagrams.)

Remember, each Feynman diagram answers a specific question, about the chance of particles behaving in a certain way. You might wonder, what question does a zero-point diagram answer? The chance that nothing goes to nothing? Why would you want to know that?

To answer, I’d like to bring up some friends of mine, who do something that might sound equally strange: they calculate one-point diagrams, one particle goes to none. This isn’t strange for them because they study theories with defects.

For some reason, they didn’t like my suggestion to use this stamp on their papers

Normally in particle physics, we think about our particles in an empty, featureless space. We don’t have to, though. One thing we can do is introduce features in this space, like walls and mirrors, and try to see what effect they have. We call these features “defects”.

If there’s a defect like that, then it makes sense to calculate a one-point diagram, because your one particle can interact with something that’s not a particle: it can interact with the defect.

A one-point diagram with a wall, or “defect”

You might see where this is going: let’s say you think there’s a force between two walls, that comes from quantum mechanics, and you want to calculate it. You could imagine it involves a diagram like this:

A “zero-point diagram” between two walls

Roughly speaking, this is the kind of thing you could use to calculate the Casimir effect, that mysterious quantum force between metal plates. And indeed, it involves a zero-point diagram.

Here’s the thing, though: metal plates aren’t just “defects”. They’re real physical objects, made of real physical particles. So while you can think of the Casimir effect with a “zero-point diagram” like that, you can also think of it with a normal diagram, more like the four-point diagram I showed you earlier: one that computes, not a force between defects, but a force between the actual electrons and protons that make up the two plates.

A lot of the time when physicists talk about pairs of virtual particles popping up out of the vacuum, they have in mind a picture like this. And often, you can do the same trick, and think about it instead as interactions between physical particles. There’s a story of roughly this kind for Hawking radiation: you can think of a black hole event horizon as “cutting in half” a zero-point diagram, and see pairs of particles going out from the black hole…but you can also do a calculation that looks more like particles interacting with a gravitational field.

This also might help you understand why, contra the crackpots and science fiction writers, zero-point energy isn’t a source of unlimited free energy. Yes, a force like the Casimir effect comes “from the vacuum” in some sense. But really, it’s a force between two particles. And just like the gravitational force between two particles, this doesn’t give you unlimited free power. You have to do the work to move the particles back over and over again, using the same amount of power you gained from the force to begin with. And unlike the forces you’re used to, these are typically very small effects, as usual for something that depends on quantum mechanics. So it’s even less useful than more everyday forces for this.

Why do so many crackpots and authors expect zero-point energy to be a massive source of power? In part, this is due to mistakes physicists made early on.

Sometimes, when calculating a zero-point diagram (or any other diagram), we don’t get a sensible number. Instead, we get infinity. Physicists used to be baffled by this. Later, they understood the situation a bit better, and realized that those infinities were probably just due to our ignorance. We don’t know the ultimate high-energy theory, so it’s possible something happens at high energies to cancel those pesky infinities. Without knowing exactly what happened, physicists would estimate by using a “cutoff” energy where they expected things to change.

That kind of calculation led to an estimate you might have heard of, that the zero-point energy inside single light bulb could boil all the world’s oceans. That estimate gives a pretty impressive mental image…but it’s also wrong.

This kind of estimate led to “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics”, that the cosmological constant, the force that speeds up the expansion of the universe, is 120 orders of magnitude higher than its actual value (if it isn’t just zero). If there really were energy enough inside each light bulb to boil the world’s oceans, the expansion of the universe would be quite different than what we observe.

At this point, it’s pretty clear there is something wrong with these kinds of “cutoff” estimates. The only unclear part is whether that’s due to something subtle or something obvious. But either way, this particular estimate is just wrong, and you shouldn’t take it seriously. Zero-point energy exists, but it isn’t the magical untapped free energy you hear about in stories. It’s tiny quantum corrections to the forces between particles.

Guest Post: On the Real Inhomogeneous Universe and the Weirdness of ‘Dark Energy’

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a paper by a colleague of mine, Mohamed Rameez, that generated some discussion. Since I wasn’t up for commenting on the paper’s scientific content, I thought it would be good to give Rameez a chance to explain it in his own words, in a guest post. Here’s what he has to say:


In an earlier post, 4gravitons had contemplated the question of ‘when to trust the contrarians’, in the context of our about-to-be-published paper in which we argue that accounting for the effects of the bulk flow in the local Universe, there is no evidence for any isotropic cosmic acceleration, which would be required to claim some sort of ‘dark energy’.

In the following I would like to emphasize that this is a reasonable view, and not a contrarian one. To do so I will examine the bulk flow of the local Universe and the historical evolution of what appears to be somewhat dodgy supernova data. I will present a trivial solution (from data) to the claimed ‘Hubble tension’.  I will then discuss inhomogeneous cosmology, and the 2011 Nobel prize in Physics. I will proceed to make predictions that can be falsified with future data. I will conclude with some questions that should be frequently asked.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not necessarily shared by my collaborators. 

The bulk flow of the local Universe:

The largest anisotropy in the Cosmic Microwave Background is the dipole, believed to be caused by our motion with respect to the ‘rest frame’ of the CMB with a velocity of ~369 km s^-1. Under this view, all matter in the local Universe appear to be flowing. At least out to ~300 Mpc, this flow continues to be directionally coherent, to within ~40 degrees of the CMB dipole, and the scale at which the average relative motion between matter and radiation converges to zero has so far not been found.

This is one of the most widely accepted results in modern cosmology, to the extent that SN1a data come pre ‘corrected’ for it.

Such a flow has covariant consequences under general relativity and this is what we set out to test.

Supernova data, directions in the sky and dodgyness:

Both Riess et al 1998 and Perlmutter et al 1999 used samples of supernovae down to redshifts of 0.01, in which almost all SNe at redshifts below 0.1 were in the direction of the flow.

Subsequently in Astier et al 2006, Kowalsky et al 2008, Amanullah et al 2010 and Suzuki et al 2011, it is reported that a process of outlier rejection was adopted in which data points >3\sigma from the Hubble diagram were discarded. This was done using a highly questionable statistical method that involves adjusting an intrinsic dispersion term \sigma_{\textrm{int}} by hand until a \chi^2/\textrm{ndof} of 1 is obtained to the assumed \LambdaCDM model. The number of outliers rejected is however far in excess of 0.3% – which is the 3\sigma expectation. As the sky coverage became less skewed, supernovae with redshift less than ~0.023 were excluded for being outside the Hubble flow. While the Hubble diagram so far had been inferred from heliocentric redshifts and magnitudes, with the introduction of SDSS supernovae that happened to be in the direction opposite to the flow, peculiar velocity ‘corrections’ were adopted in the JLA catalogue and supernovae down to extremely low redshifts were reintroduced. While the early claims of a cosmological constant were stated as ‘high redshift supernovae were found to be dimmer (15% in flux) than the low redshift supernovae (compared to what would be expected in a \Lambda=0 universe)’, it is worth noting that the peculiar velocity corrections change the redshifts and fluxes of low redshift supernovae by up to ~20 %.

When it was observed that even with this ‘corrected’ sample of 740 SNe, any evidence for isotropic acceleration using a principled Maximum Likelihood Estimator is less than 3\sigma , it was claimed that by adding 12 additional parameters (to the 10 parameter model) to allow for redshift and sample dependence of the light curve fitting parameters, the evidence was greater than 4\sigma .

As we discuss in Colin et al. 2019, these corrections also appear to be arbitrary, and betray an ignorance of the fundamentals of both basic statistical analysis and relativity. With the Pantheon compilation, heliocentric observables were no longer public and these peculiar velocity corrections initially extended far beyond the range of any known flow model of the Local Universe. When this bug was eventually fixed, both the heliocentric redshifts and magnitudes of the SDSS SNe that filled in the ‘redshift desert’ between low and high redshift SNe were found to be alarmingly discrepant. The authors have so far not offered any clarification of these discrepancies.

Thus it seems to me that the latest generation of ‘publicly available’ supernova data are not aiding either open science or progress in cosmology.

A trivial solution to the ‘Hubble tension’?

The apparent tension between the Hubble parameter as inferred from the Cosmic Microwave Background and low redshift tracers has been widely discussed, and recent studies suggest that redshift errors as low as 0.0001 can have a significant impact. Redshift discrepancies as big as 0.1 have been reported. The shifts reported between JLA and Pantheon appear to be sufficient to lower the Hubble parameter from ~73 km s^-1 Mpc^-1 to ~68 km s^-1 Mpc^-1.

On General Relativity, cosmology, metric expansion and inhomogeneities:

In the maximally symmetric Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker solution to general relativity, there is only one meaningful global notion of distance and it expands at the same rate everywhere. However, the late time Universe has structure on all scales, and one may only hope for statistical (not exact) homogeneity. The Universe is expected to be lumpy. A background FLRW metric is not expected to exist and quantities analogous to the Hubble and deceleration parameters will vary across the sky.  Peculiar velocities may be more precisely thought of as variations in the expansion rate of the Universe. At what rate does a real Universe with structure expand? The problems of defining a meaningful average notion of volume, its dynamical evolution, and connecting it to observations are all conceptually open.

On the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics:

The Fitting Problem in cosmology was written in 1987. In the context of this work and the significant theoretical difficulties involved in inferring fundamental physics from the real Universe, any claims of having measured a cosmological constant from directionally skewed, sparse samples of intrinsically scattered observations should have been taken with a grain of salt.  By honouring this claim with a Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy may have induced runaway prestige bias in favour of some of the least principled analyses in science, strengthening the confirmation bias that seems prevalent in cosmology.

This has resulted in the generation of a large body of misleading literature, while normalizing the practice of ‘massaging’ scientific data. In her recent video about gravitational waves, Sabine Hossenfelder says “We should not hand out Nobel Prizes if we don’t know how the predictions were fitted to the data”. What about when the data was fitted (in 1998-1999) using a method that has been discredited in 1989 to a toy model that has been cautioned against in 1987, leading to a ‘discovery’ of profound significance to fundamental physics?

A prediction with future cosmological data:

With the advent of high statistics cosmological data in the future, such as from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, I predict that the Hubble and deceleration parameters inferred from supernovae in hemispheres towards and away from the CMB dipole will be found to be different in a statistically significant (>5\sigma ) way. Depending upon the criterion for selection and blind analyses of data that can be agreed upon, I would be willing to bet a substantial amount of money on this prediction.

Concluding : on the amusing sociology of ‘Dark Energy’ and manufactured concordance:

Of the two authors of the well-known cosmology textbook ‘The Early Universe’, Edward Kolb writes these interesting papers questioning dark energy while Michael Turner is credited with coining the term ‘Dark Energy’.  Reasonable scientific perspectives have to be presented as ‘Dark Energy without dark energy’. Papers questioning the need to invoke such a mysterious content that makes up ‘68% of the Universe’ are quickly targeted by inane articles by non-experts or perhaps well-meant but still misleading YouTube videos. Much of this is nothing more than a spectacle.

In summary, while the theoretical debate about whether what has been observed as Dark Energy is the effect of inhomogeneities is ongoing, observers appear to have been actively using the most inhomogeneous feature of the local Universe through opaque corrections to data, to continue claiming that this ‘dark energy’ exists.

It is heartening to see that recent works lean toward a breaking of this manufactured concordance and speak of a crisis for cosmology.

Questions that should be frequently asked:

Q. Is there a Hubble frame in the late time Universe?

A. The Hubble frame is a property of the FLRW exact solution, and in the late time Universe in which galaxies and clusters have peculiar motions with respect to each other, an equivalent notion does not exist. While popular inference treats the frame in which the CMB dipole vanishes as the Hubble frame, the scale at which the bulk flow of the local Universe converges to that frame has never been found. We are tilted observers.

Q. I am about to perform blinded analyses on new cosmological data. Should I correct all my redshifts towards the CMB rest frame?

A. No. Correcting all your redshifts towards a frame that has never been found is a good way to end up with ‘dark energy’. It is worth noting that while the CMB dipole has been known since 1994, supernova data have been corrected towards the CMB rest frame only after 2010, for what appear to be independent reasons.

Q. Can I combine new data with existing Supernova data?

A. No. The current generation of publicly available supernova data suffer from the natural biases that are to be expected when data are compiled incrementally through a human mediated process. It would be better to start fresh with a new sample.

Q. Is ‘dark energy’ fundamental or new physics?

A. Given that general relativity is a 100+ year old theory and significant difficulties exist in describing the late time Universe with it, it is unnecessary to invoke new fundamental physics when confronting any apparent acceleration of the real Universe. All signs suggest that what has been ascribed to dark energy are the result of a community that is hell bent on repeating what Einstein supposedly called his greatest mistake.

Digging deeper:

The inquisitive reader may explore the resources on inhomogeneous cosmology, as well as the works of George Ellis, Thomas Buchert and David Wiltshire.

When to Trust the Contrarians

One of my colleagues at the NBI had an unusual experience: one of his papers took a full year to get through peer review. This happens often in math, where reviewers will diligently check proofs for errors, but it’s quite rare in physics: usually the path from writing to publication is much shorter. Then again, the delays shouldn’t have been too surprising for him, given what he was arguing.

My colleague Mohamed Rameez, along with Jacques Colin, Roya Mohayaee, and Subir Sarkar, wants to argue against one of the most famous astronomical discoveries of the last few decades: that the expansion of our universe is accelerating, and thus that an unknown “dark energy” fills the universe. They argue that one of the key pieces of evidence used to prove acceleration is mistaken: that a large region of the universe around us is in fact “flowing” in one direction, and that tricked astronomers into thinking its expansion was accelerating. You might remember a paper making a related argument back in 2016. I didn’t like the media reaction to that paper, and my post triggered a response by the authors, one of whom (Sarkar) is on this paper as well.

I’m not an astronomer or an astrophysicist. I’m not qualified to comment on their argument, and I won’t. I’d still like to know whether they’re right, though. And that means figuring out which experts to trust.

Pick anything we know in physics, and you’ll find at least one person who disagrees. I don’t mean a crackpot, though they exist too. I mean an actual expert who is convinced the rest of the field is wrong. A contrarian, if you will.

I used to be very unsympathetic to these people. I was convinced that the big results of a field are rarely wrong, because of how much is built off of them. I thought that even if a field was using dodgy methods or sloppy reasoning, the big results are used in so many different situations that if they were wrong they would have to be noticed. I’d argue that if you want to overturn one of these big claims you have to disprove not just the result itself, but every other success the field has ever made.

I still believe that, somewhat. But there are a lot of contrarians here at the Niels Bohr Institute. And I’ve started to appreciate what drives them.

The thing is, no scientific result is ever as clean as it ought to be. Everything we do is jury-rigged. We’re almost never experts in everything we’re trying to do, so we often don’t know the best method. Instead, we approximate and guess, we find rough shortcuts and don’t check if they make sense. This can take us far sometimes, sure…but it can also backfire spectacularly.

The contrarians I’ve known got their inspiration from one of those backfires. They saw a result, a respected mainstream result, and they found a glaring screw-up. Maybe it was an approximation that didn’t make any sense, or a statistical measure that was totally inappropriate. Whatever it was, it got them to dig deeper, and suddenly they saw screw-ups all over the place. When they pointed out these problems, at best the people they accused didn’t understand. At worst they got offended. Instead of cooperation, the contrarians are told they can’t possibly know what they’re talking about, and ignored. Eventually, they conclude the entire sub-field is broken.

Are they right?

Not always. They can’t be, for every claim you can find a contrarian, believing them all would be a contradiction.

But sometimes?

Often, they’re right about the screw-ups. They’re right that there’s a cleaner, more proper way to do that calculation, a statistical measure more suited to the problem. And often, doing things right raises subtleties, means that the big important result everyone believed looks a bit less impressive.

Still, that’s not the same as ruling out the result entirely. And despite all the screw-ups, the main result is still often correct. Often, it’s justified not by the original, screwed-up argument, but by newer evidence from a different direction. Often, the sub-field has grown to a point that the original screwed-up argument doesn’t really matter anymore.

Often, but again, not always.

I still don’t know whether to trust the contrarians. I still lean towards expecting fields to sort themselves out, to thinking that error alone can’t sustain long-term research. But I’m keeping a more open mind now. I’m waiting to see how far the contrarians go.

Congratulations to James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz!

The 2019 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to James Peebles for work in cosmology and to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the first observation of an exoplanet.

Peebles introduced quantitative methods to cosmology. He figured out how to use the Cosmic Microwave Background (light left over from the Big Bang) to understand how matter is distributed in our universe, including the presence of still-mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Mayor and Queloz were the first team to observe a planet outside of our solar system (an “exoplanet”), in 1995. By careful measurement of the spectrum of light coming from a star they were able to find a slight wobble, caused by a Jupiter-esque planet in orbit around it. Their discovery opened the floodgates of observation. Astronomers found many more planets than expected, showing that, far from a rare occurrence, exoplanets are quite common.

It’s a bit strange that this Nobel was awarded to two very different types of research. This isn’t the first time the prize was divided between two different discoveries, but all of the cases I can remember involve discoveries in closely related topics. This one didn’t, and I’m curious about the Nobel committee’s logic. It might have been that neither discovery “merited a Nobel” on its own, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think of shared Nobels as “lesser” than non-shared ones. It would make sense if the Nobel committee thought they had a lot of important results to “get through” and grouped them together to get through them faster, but if anything I have the impression it’s the opposite: that at least in physics, it’s getting harder and harder to find genuinely important discoveries that haven’t been acknowledged. Overall, this seems like a very weird pairing, and the Nobel committee’s citation “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” is a pretty loose justification.

Amplitudes 2019

It’s that time of year again, and I’m at Amplitudes, my field’s big yearly conference. This year we’re in Dublin, hosted by Trinity.

Which also hosts the Book of Kells, and the occasional conference reception just down the hall from the Book of Kells

Increasingly, the organizers of Amplitudes have been setting aside a few slots for talks from people in other fields. This year the “closest” such speaker was Kirill Melnikov, who pointed out some of the hurdles that make it difficult to have useful calculations to compare to the LHC. Many of these hurdles aren’t things that amplitudes-people have traditionally worked on, but are still things that might benefit from our particular expertise. Another such speaker, Maxwell Hansen, is from a field called Lattice QCD. While amplitudeologists typically compute with approximations, order by order in more and more complicated diagrams, Lattice QCD instead simulates particle physics on supercomputers, chopping up their calculations on a grid. This allows them to study much stronger forces, including the messy interactions of quarks inside protons, but they have a harder time with the situations we’re best at, where two particles collide from far away. Apparently, though, they are making progress on that kind of calculation, with some clever tricks to connect it to calculations they know how to do. While I was a bit worried that this would let them fire all the amplitudeologists and replace us with supercomputers, they’re not quite there yet, nonetheless they are doing better than I would have expected. Other speakers from other fields included Leron Borsten, who has been applying the amplitudes concept of the “double copy” to M theory and Andrew Tolley, who uses the kind of “positivity” properties that amplitudeologists find interesting to restrict the kinds of theories used in cosmology.

The biggest set of “non-traditional-amplitudes” talks focused on using amplitudes techniques to calculate the behavior not of particles but of black holes, to predict the gravitational wave patterns detected by LIGO. This year featured a record six talks on the topic, a sixth of the conference. Last year I commented that the research ideas from amplitudeologists on gravitational waves had gotten more robust, with clearer proposals for how to move forward. This year things have developed even further, with several initial results. Even more encouragingly, while there are several groups doing different things they appear to be genuinely listening to each other: there were plenty of references in the talks both to other amplitudes groups and to work by more traditional gravitational physicists. There’s definitely still plenty of lingering confusion that needs to be cleared up, but it looks like the community is robust enough to work through it.

I’m still busy with the conference, but I’ll say more when I’m back next week. Stay tuned for square roots, clusters, and Nima’s travel schedule. And if you’re a regular reader, please fill out last week’s poll if you haven’t already!

Book Review: We Have No Idea

I have no idea how I’m going to review this book.

Ok fine, I have some idea.

Jorge Cham writes Piled Higher and Deeper, a webcomic with possibly the most accurate depiction of grad school available. Daniel Whiteson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the ATLAS collaboration (one of the two big groups that make measurements at the Large Hadron Collider). Together, they’ve written a popular science book covering everything we don’t know about fundamental physics.

Writing a book about what we don’t know is an unusual choice, and there was a real risk it would end up as just a superficial gimmick. The pie chart on the cover presents the most famous “things physicists don’t know”, dark matter and dark energy. If they had just stuck to those this would have been a pretty ordinary popular physics book.

Refreshingly, they don’t do that. After blazing through dark matter and dark energy in the first three chapters, the rest of the book focuses on a variety of other scientific mysteries.

The book contains a mix of problems that get serious research attention (matter-antimatter asymmetry, high-energy cosmic rays) and more blue-sky “what if” questions (does matter have to be made out of particles?). As a theorist, I’m not sure that all of these questions are actually mysterious (we do have some explanation of the weird “1/3” charges of quarks, and I’d like to think we understand why mass includes binding energy), but even in these cases what we really know is that they follow from “sensible assumptions”, and one could just as easily ask “what if” about those assumptions instead. Overall, these “what if” questions make the book unique, and it would be a much weaker book without them.

“We Have No Idea” is strongest when the authors actually have some idea, i.e. when Whiteson is discussing experimental particle physics. It gets weaker on other topics, where the authors seem to rely more on others’ popular treatments (their discussion of “pixels of space-time” motivated me to write this post). Still, they at least seem to have asked the right people, and their accounts are on the more accurate end of typical pop science. (Closer to Quanta than IFLScience.)

The book’s humor really ties it together, often in surprisingly subtle ways. Each chapter has its own running joke, initially a throwaway line that grows into metaphors for everything the chapter discusses. It’s a great way to help the audience visualize without introducing too many new concepts at once. If there’s one thing cartoonists can teach science communicators, it’s the value of repetition.

I liked “We Have No Idea”. It could have been more daring, or more thorough, but it was still charming and honest and fun. If you’re looking for a Christmas present to explain physics to your relatives, you won’t go wrong with this book.