Thursday, March 27, 2014

A new cosmological coincidence problem?

One of the consequences of the BICEP2 data from last week, should it hold up to scrutiny, and be seen by other experiments (I hope it holds up to scrutiny and is seen by other experiments), is that there is a significant lack of "power" in the temperature anisotropies on large angular scales.

What that sentence means is that when you look at the CMB in very large patches on the sky (about the size of the moon and bigger) its temperature fluctuates from patch to patch less than we would expect.

This was already somewhat the case before the BICEP2 discovery, but BICEP2 made it much more significant. The reason for this will hopefully turn into a post of its own one day, but, essentially, the primordial gravitational waves that BICEP2 has hopefully discovered would themselves have seeded temperature anisotropies on these large angular scales. Previously, we could just assume that the primordial gravitational waves had a really small amplitude and thus didn't affect the temperature much at all. Now, however, it seems like they might be quite large and therefore, this apparent lack of power becomes much more pertinent.

That's all fine and is something that any model of inflation that hopes to explain the origin of these gravitational waves will need to explain, despite what many cosmologists already writing papers on the ArXiv seem to want to believe (links withheld). As a side, ever-so-slightly-frustrated, note, the only papers I've seen that have actually analysed the data, rather than repeating old claims, have confirmed this problem that was clear from, at the latest, the day after the announcement.

But why does it imply a "cosmological coincidence problem"? And why is it a new coincidence problem? What's the old one?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The human machine: finely-tuned sensors

The previous post in this series can be found here.

All good machines need sensors, and we are no different. Everyone is familiar with the five classic senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing, but we often forget just how amazingly finely tuned these senses are, and many people have little appreciation of just how complex the biology behind each sense is. In this week's post, I hope to give you an understanding of how one of our senses, smell, functions and how, in light of recent evidence, is far more sensitive than we previously thought.

Microscopic sensors

The olfactory system is an extremely complex one, but it is built up from fairly simple base units. The sense of smell is of course located in the nose, but more specifically it is a patch of tissue approximately 3 square centimetres in size at the roof of the nasal cavity that is responsible for all of the olfactory ability in humans. This is known as the olfactory epithelium and contains a range of cell types, the most important of which is the olfactory receptor neuron. There are roughly 40 million of these cells packed into this tiny space and their job is to bind odorant molecules and trigger neuronal signals up to the brain to let it know which odorants they've detected. They achieve this using a subset of a huge family of receptors that I've written about before, the G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These receptors are proteins that sit in the membranes of cells and recognise various ligands (i.e. molecules for which they have a specific affinity) and relay that information into the cell. There are over 800 GPCRs in the human genome and they participate in a broad range of processes, from neurotransmission to inflammation, but the king of the GPCRs has to be the olfactory family, which make up over 50% of all the GPCRs in our genome.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Preliminary: Cosmological impacts of BICEP2 + Planck

If anybody is interested, I'm currently drip-tweeting some of the constraints one can obtain from considering Planck and BICEP2 data together. BICEP2 did do a bit of this in their paper, but they only considered specific scenarios. They were also often a bit coy about the implications of the combined analysis. I'll try not to be ;-).

The results should only be seen as indicative, these aren't published, and never will be in this form (maybe they could be cited if used in a paper though!). They were provided to me by Sussex Uni's resident obtaining-cosmology-from-the-CMB expert Antony Lewis, after a hurried Tuesday adding the BICEP2 data to the Planck cosmology pipeline (i.e. CosmoMC) and may contain mistakes.

Antony has himself also made some of these results public at the Cosmo Coffee website.

Questions here, or on Twitter are most welcome. If you want to see specific cosmologies, I'll do my best to show them (if I have them), or ask Antony very nicely to provide them (no guarantees, of course).

I'll also write a summary article of all the more interesting bits and pieces later today, or tomorrow.

You can find my Twitter account here: @just_shaun. Feel free to share!

Friday, March 14, 2014

"A major discovery", BICEP2 and B-modes

[Added note (on Monday): Well, wow, the rumours were, if anything, understated. I'm happy to go on record that, unless a mistake has been made, this is the greatest scientific discovery of the 21st century, and may remain so even once the century is over. I (and others) will write many more detailed summaries of what was observed over time, but BICEP2 have announced a discovery of primordial B-modes, which is extremely strong evidence of cosmological inflation (if it turns out to be scale invariant, inflation is as true as most accepted science). Matt Strassler has a good hastily written summary here. As does Liam McAllister at Lubos Motl's blog, here. Of course, this is just one experiment and maybe they've made a mistake, but the results look very robust at the moment.

Congratulations on being alive today readers! We just learned about how particles work at energies \(10^{13}\) times greater than even the LHC can probe, and about what was happening at a time much, much less than a nanosecond after the beginning of the Big Bang.]


[Added note (on Sunday): It seems highly probable that these rumours are essentially true. Although the precise details of the results aren't yet public, the BICEP2 PI, John Kovac, has sent a widely distributed email with the following information: Data and scientific papers with results from the BICEP2 experiment will go public and be viewable here at 2:45pm GMT on Monday. At the same time a technical webcast will begin at this address.

It's going to be an exciting day!]


The cosmology rumour mill exploded today. Harvard Astrophysics have issued a press release stating that, on Monday, they will announce a "major discovery".

This is the only hard-evidence of anything interesting on the way and it could be an announcement of anything that fits under the label of "astrophysics". This is important to keep in mind. However, for one reason or another (that is hard to nail down), cosmologists are suggesting that it is going to be about cosmology. The speculation is that it will be about the BICEP2 experiment, which has been measuring the polarisation in the CMB. The speculation is that BICEP2 have seen primordial "B-mode" polarisation.

If this speculation is true, this would be a result immense in its significance.

Primordial B-modes would be a smoking gun signal of primordial gravitational waves. This, alone, makes such a discovery important. Gravitational waves have not yet been observed, but are a prediction from general relativity. Therefore, such a discovery would be on the same level of significance as the discovery of the Higgs particle. We were almost certain it would be there, but it is good to finally see it.

However, the potential significance of such a result goes further because these primordial gravitational waves would need a source. The theory of cosmological inflation would/could be such a source. Inflation is a compelling theory, not without some problems, for how the universe evolved in its very earliest stages. If it occurred when the universe had a large enough temperature, it would generate primordial gravitational waves large enough to tickle the CMB enough to make these B-modes visible in the polarisation. As of yet, inflation has passed quite a few observational tests, but nothing has been seen that could be described as smoking gun evidence. A spectrum of primordial gravitational waves would very nearly be such a smoking gun. If the spectrum was scale invariant (i.e. if the gravitational waves have the same amplitude on all distance scales) that would be a smoking gun for inflation and accolades, Nobel Prizes, etc, etc, would flow accordingly.

All of this is just speculation, but some of it does seem to be coming from reputable sources. And some of my colleagues have been talking about tip-offs from people who wish to remain anonymous, so I figured I'd collect all the speculation I know of here in a post (let me know if I've missed anything):

The PI of BICEP2, John Kovac, gave a talk at the annual COSMO conference last year that had some pretty ambitious claims for how sensitive BICEP2 and similar experiments were going to be, so... well... we'll know on Monday. It should also be noted that, although the existence of these gravitational waves is a prediction of inflation, their amplitude is a free parameter and an amplitude this big is potentially a little surprising (for me, lower temperature inflation models just seem more compelling, others might disagree).

Twitter: @just_shaun

[Edit: The video of John Kovac's talk can be found here]

Friday, March 7, 2014

Quantum mechanics and the Planck-spectrum

[The following is a guest post from Bjoern Malte Schaefer. Bjoern is one of the curators of the Cosmology Question of the Week blog, which is worth checking out. This post is a historical look at some of the early parts in the history of quantum mechanics, in particular, the black-body spectrum. Questions are welcome and I'll make sure he sees any of them. Image captions (and hyper-links, in this case) are, as usual, by me, because guest posters don't ever seem to provide their own.]

Two unusual systems

Quantum mechanics surprises with the statement that the microscopic world works very differently from the macroscopic world. Therefore, it took a while until quantum mechanics was formally established as the theory of the microworld. In particular, despite the fact that two of the natural systems on which theories of quantum mechanics could initially be tested were very simple, even from the point of view of the physicists of the time, one needed to introduce a number of novel concepts for their description. These two physical systems were the hydrogen atom and the spectrum of a thermal radiation source. The hydrogen atom was the lightest of all atoms with the most simply structured spectrum. It exhibited many regularities involving rational numbers relating its discrete energy levels. It could only be ionised once implying that it had only a single electron and from these reasons it was the obvious test case for any theory of mechanics in the quantum regime. Werner Heisenberg was the first to be successful in solving this quantum mechanical analogue of the Kepler-problem, i.e. the equation of motion of a charge moving in a Coulomb-potential, paving the way for a systematic understanding of atomic spectra, their fine structure, the theory of chemical bonds, interactions of atoms with fields and ultimately quantum electrodynamics.

The Planck-spectrum was equally puzzling: It is the distribution of photon energies emitted from a body at thermal equilibrium and does not, in particular, require any further specification of the body apart that it should be black, meaning ideally emitting and absorbing radiation irrespective of wave length: From this point of view it is really the simplest macroscopic body one could imagine because its internal structure does not matter. In contrast to the hydrogen atom it is described with a continuous spectrum. In fact, there are at least two beautiful examples of Planck-spectra in Nature: the thermal spectrum of the Sun and the cosmic microwave background. The solution to the Planck-spectrum involves quantum mechanics, quantum statistics and relativity, and unites three of the four the great constants of Nature: the Planck-quantum h, the Boltzmann-constant \(k_B\) and the speed of light c.

The spectrum (basically intensity against wavelength or frequency) of the light from the sun (in yellow) and a blackbody with the same temperature (grey). I'm actually surprised by how similar they are.

Limits of the Planck-spectrum

Although criticised at the time by many physicists as phenomenological, the high energy part of the Planck-spectrum is relatively straightforward to understand, as had been realised by Wilhelm Wien: Starting with the result that photons as relativistic particles carry energies proportional to their frequency as well as momenta inversely proportional to their wave length (the constant of proportionality in both cases being the Planck-constant h), imposing isotropy of the photon momenta and assuming a thermal distribution of energies according to Boltzmann leads directly to Wien's result which is an excellent fit at high photon energies but shows discrepancies at low photon energies, implying that at low temperatures the system exhibits quantum behaviour of some type.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The human machine: picoscale engineering

The previous post in this series can be found here.

Over the course of my 'human machine' series of posts I've tried to convey the intricacy and beauty of our biological engineering, and demonstrate that we are incredibly well-engineered machines whose complexity and originality go all the way down to the atomic level. In this week's post, I will be exemplifying this with one of the best cases that I can think of; how we transport oxygen around our bodies. I feel that this is a great story to tell because it is one that most people might think that they know well, but that actually is far more complex and subtle than it may appear, and that demonstrates how our lives are highly dependent on perfectly evolved processes working on the subatomic scale.

"It will have blood, they say."

I'm sure that anyone reading this blog is fully aware that we need oxygen to survive (although if you want a more detail explanation of exactly why then I direct your attention to a previous post of mine available here), and anyone remembering their primary school biology will know that oxygen is transported around the body by the circulatory system, i.e. the blood. Most of the cells within your blood are the famous red blood cells (to distinguish them from the immune cells - the white blood cells), which are, unsurprisingly, responsible for blood's distinctive colour - earning them the respect of horror movie aficionados everywhere. You have roughly 20-30 trillion red blood cells in you as you read this, each of which is about 7 microns (i.e. 7 millionths of a metre) in diameter. They shoot around your body, taking roughly 20 seconds to make one circulation, and have just one job; take oxygen from the lungs (where there's lots of it) to the tissues (where there's not). So specific are they to this job that they don't even bother having a nucleus, thereby removing all possibility of them doing anything else. 

Human red blood cells - you make 2 million every second!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Particle Fever

The video above is a trailer of an upcoming documentary about CERN and the discovery of the Higgs particle. This documentary looks wonderful and important. CERN has triumphed again at outreach and is simply leagues ahead of basically everyone else in science when it comes to this sort of thing. If anyone is surprised or wonders how CERN is able to get such a relatively large sum of science funding (though only relative to other science funding) then don't be. This sort of thing matters and makes a difference. People care about CERN because they know about CERN and they know about CERN because documentaries like this are made, made well, marketed well and received well.

The documentary itself will be released March 5, in New York, and hopefully will be viewable in most major locations, eventually, after that.

My only gripe is that it is coming 18 months after the Higgs discovery. I know that part of the motivation for this is that people want to make sure the science is definitely true before disseminating it, otherwise things can become confusing for the less engaged viewer. However, in July 2012 those guys were reasonably sure that they'd found something. This research is owned as much by the public as it is by the researchers. CERN did do a great job on that day by holding press releases, announcing the discovery live, with live web-streams, and with public level discussions, at the moment, of what the implications were. And, of course, this is all great, and I love CERN for it. But maybe it can be done even better.

Here's (potentially) how...

This documentary will probably be reasonably widely viewed. It looks like it is potentially headed for some major awards and it is being reviewed very favourably by a bunch of major newspapers and film critics.

Imagine if the film had been released, and widely viewed, immediately prior to the discovery's announcement, and the climax of the film was all the researchers, scientists, students, engineers, and everyone involved in this experiment waiting, full of anticipation, not knowing the result. The viewer now has a reasonable understanding of what the researchers were looking for and how they were hoping to find it. Now everyone is waiting, full of anticipation, not knowing the result. Then, we cut to the actual, live, not even the majority of the scientists know the result, announcement of the detection. The general viewer will now share in this discovery, that their taxes paid for (and who's future taxes will pay for future experiments) in the moment.

That's not just great for science outreach, it is genuinely good theatre for everyone involved (even if there isn't a detection). But most importantly it allows this sharing of not just the result, but the acquisition of the result. The public feels like they were there, like they took part, like it is also their discovery. And, to bring back the bottom line, when funding is next being decided, they want to be able to contribute to, and participate in, more discoveries like this.

Instead, people could tune in to the discovery, and see the researchers and scientists, etc, and their excitement, without being able to share in it.

Having said all of that, 18 months isn't that long. So, when the documentary is released, go watch it, and remember that this stuff happened less than two years ago. This is the present.

Twitter: @just_shaun