Posts Tagged ‘B-mode Polarisation’

I thought it was about time I gave another update on currently the most important story in astrophysics – the BICEP2 team’s possible detection of B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background. I have previously blogged about this story, for example here, here and here. But, just to quickly recap, in March the BICEP2 team announced that they had detected the B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), and argued that it was evidence of gravitational waves and cosmological inflation in the very early Universe.

Since then, controversy has been the order of the day as other astrophysicists and cosmologists have argued that the BICEP2 detection was not due to the CMB at all, but rather to emission from dust in our own Milky Way galaxy. BICEP2 on their own do not have sufficient data to rule out this possibility, something they concede in their published paper. However, it would seem that the European satellite Planck do, as it has not only observed the whole sky (including the part of the sky observed by BICEP2), but has done so at five different frequencies, compared to BICEP2’s single frequency measurement.

In the last few days, it has been announced that the BICEP2 team will formally collaborate and share data with the Planck team, which I think is good news in sorting out the controversy over the BICEP2 detection sooner rather than later.

The BICEP2 team and Planck team have announced that they will collaborate and share data to help clear up the controversy over the source of the B-mode polarisation detected by BICEP2.

The BICEP2 team and Planck team have announced that they will collaborate and share data to help clear up the controversy over the source of the B-mode polarisation detected by BICEP2.

Although the Planck measurements of the polarisation of dust in our Milky Way will presumably become public at some point (as is normal with publicly funded science projects), this would not be for many more months. By formally collaborating with Planck, the BICEP2 team will get not only earlier access to the Planck data, but just as importantly will get the experts in the Planck collaboration working with them to properly interpret the Planck measurements. It is hoped by all in the astrophysics and cosmology communities that this collaboration between BICEP2 and Planck will lead to the issue of the origin of the detected B-mode polarisation being sorted out in a timely fashion, possibly even by the end of this year.

We shall have to wait and see!

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To most of us, inflation is a nasty thing which sees the money in our pocket being worth less as prices go up. It’s a bad thing! But, in cosmology, a theory called cosmic inflation explains very neatly several key properties of the Universe. The theory of cosmic inflation was first suggested by Alan Guth in 1980, and yesterday (Monday the 17th of March 2014) a team led by John Kovak of Harvard University announced the first direct evidence that cosmic inflation did actually happen. There is also a Cardiff University involvement in this project.

The story on the confirmation of cosmic inflation as it appeared on the BBC science website.

The story on the confirmation of cosmic inflation as it appeared on the BBC science website.

What is cosmic inflation?

In 1980, particle physicist Alan Guth was pondering some of the observed properties of the Universe, and he came up with the idea of cosmic inflation. The observed properties he was hoping to explain with his theory were

  • the “Horizon problem”
  • the “Flatness problem”
  • the “Magnetic-monopole problem”

The Horizon problem

When the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) (the prediction of which I blogged about here) was discovered in 1964 it was recognised that it was most probably the “echo” of the Big Bang. By 1967 Bruce Partridge and David Wilkinson of Princeton University showed that the CMBR was the same from all parts of the sky down to a level of 0.1% of its 3 Kelvin temperature.

It was realised soon after this that this presented a problem, the so called “horizon problem”. It is actually perplexing that different parts of the sky should have the same CMBR temperature because when we look in different parts of the sky we are looking at parts of space which have not had the time to be in contact with each other in any way; they are simply too far apart. Therefore, a patch of sky in one direction with a particular CMBR temperature should have no knowledge of the CMBR temperature of a patch of sky in a different direction.

This is a little bit like switching on a heater in the centre of a large room. Everyone knows that it will take time for the whole room to come to the same temperature, and if the room were really really big you would not expect the corners which are far away from the heater to have the same temperature as the centre of the room next to the heater after just a few minutes. The heat just hasn’t had enough time to spread throughout the room. So, if you found that the whole room was at the same temperature, even though the heat hadn’t had enough time to spread throughout the room, it would be a bit of a puzzle. That is, in essence, the “horizon problem”.

The flatness problem

Einstein showed in his theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity, that gravity causes space to bend. A Universe with lots of matter in it will have a different geometry (shape) to a Universe with less matter in it. The so-called “critical density” of the Universe would be a density that would give it a flat geometry. It was realised since the 1960s that the density of the Universe seemed to be very close to the critical density. Why should this be, when it could have any value. It could be much much more or much much less? If you do the mathematics, for the density to be within about a factor of two of the critical density today means it had to have been incredibly close to the critical density in the earliest moments of the Universe. Close to about one part in 10^{60}!! This is the “flatness problem”.

The magnetic monopole problem

In electricity, we are all familiar with positive and negative charges. James Clerk Maxwell showed in the mid 1800s that electricity and magnetism are part of the same force, electromagnetism. And yet, you never find a magnetic monopole, you always find magnetic poles come in pairs, they always have both a north and south pole. Theoretically there is no reason why one shouldn’t find just e.g. a north pole on its own, without a south pole. This is the “magnetic monopole problem”.

What is cosmic inflation?

Alan Guth’s idea of cosmic inflation suggested that when the Universe was incredibly young, some 10^{-36} seconds old, it went through a brief period of very rapid expansion. This period ended when the Universe was about 10^{-33} \text{ or } 10^{-32} seconds old, but in this incredibly brief period Guth argued that the Universe grew from being much smaller than a proton to something about the size of a marble. After this brief period of very rapid expansion (inflation), the expansion of the Universe settled down to the more sedate rate of expansion that we see today.

How does cosmic inflation solve these three problems?

The horizon problem is solved by inflation because the very rapid expansion which inflation proposes would allow parts of the Universe which are now too far apart to have ever communicated with each other to have been close enough together before inflation. So, going back to my analogy with the room being heated, it is as if the room started off really small, so small that all parts of it could come to the same temperature, then it suddenly expanded so that the room we are now looking at is much much bigger.

The flatness problem is solved by cosmic inflation by drawing the analogy between the geometry of the Universe and a curved surface. If a curved surface is large enough, then on a local scale it is always going to look flat. An easy analogy to understand this is the surface of our Earth. We all know it is spherical, but on a local scale it appears flat. If the Universe underwent a period of cosmic inflation, then we are seeing such a small part of it that the small part we see is always going to appear flat, no matter what the overall geometry.

The magnetic monopole problem is solved by cosmic inflation in the following manner. The idea is that magnetic monopoles were created in large quantities before the period of cosmic inflation. They should still exist today, but because the Universe expanded so rapidly during cosmic inflation, their number density (how many there are per unit volume) is so tiny that we haven’t found any in the part of the Universe which we are able to observe.

The discovery made by BICEP2

Until yesterday, there had been no direct evidence of anything that cosmic inflation predicted, only agreement between the theory and things which had already been observed. One prediction of the theory is that the CMBR should be polarised in a particular way with a particular amount of polarisation (you can think of polarisation as a particular twisting of radiation, instead of vibrating in all directions it only vibrates in particular directions). The BICEP2 experiment (“Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization”, the “2” indicates it is the second generation of this experiment) has been using the South Pole Telescope which is, as the name implies, at the Earth’s south pole, and has been looking for a particular signature in the CMBR – the “B-mode polarisation” as it is called.

Yesterday the team announced that they had, for the first time, detected this B-mode polarisation, which is the most direct evidence yet that the theory of cosmic inflation is correct. This polarisation comes about due to gravitational waves in the very very early Universe, so the detection of the B-mode polarisation is also direct evidence of gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein but have never been directly detected before.

If you want to read the actual announcement paper you can find the pre-print by following this link here. Here is a screen capture of the first page of the paper.

The first page of the paper announcing the detection of evidence for cosmic inflation.

The first page of the paper announcing the detection of evidence for cosmic inflation. Notice that Cardiff University has an involvement with Peter Ade being the first author in the alphabetical list.

Superimposed on the variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background (red and blue blobs) is the evidence for the B-mode polarisation (the small swirls or black lines).

Superimposed on the variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave background (red and blue blobs) is the evidence for the B-mode polarisation (the small black swirls).

This is very exciting news for cosmology and our understanding of the earliest moments of the Universe. It suggests that our model of the early Universe, including the theory of cosmic inflation, is correct (or at least is on the right tracks). Little by little, astronomers are unfolding the mysteries of the very earliest moments of creation!

If you want to read a more technical (but still non-specialist) explanation, then this story in Sky & Telescope is pretty good. Or, you may prefer this from Sean Carroll’s blog.

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