Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cosmological Backreaction

In the last few weeks a disagreement has surfaced at the arXiv. The disagreement concerns whether backreaction is important in cosmology.

To summarise my take on the whole thing, it seems to me that the two sides of this disagreement are, to a large extent, talking past each other. I don't doubt that there is genuine disagreement where definitions overlap, but, at least to my present understanding, much of the disagreement actually just lies in what should be considered "backreaction". There seems to be a secondary, though related, disagreement concerning whether one should start with observations and use them to methodically construct a model of the universe, or instead start with a model of the universe and then see whether it fits the data. The side that favours first constructing the model would say that a model without any backreaction is entirely self-consistent and fits the data well enough not to be concerned. To the other side this still doesn't prove that backreaction must be negligible.

But OK, what is cosmological backreaction?

Backreaction itself is quite a common term in physical sciences.

In a surprising proportion of calculations about nature we would normally analyse some sort of interesting object, existing within some external system, but in a scenario where the behaviour of the object has no measurable influence on the overall system. Then, calculating predictions essentially amounts to two independent steps: firstly, calculating what the background system is doing, and then calculating how the interesting object will react to that.

However, this type of scenario isn't always accurate. When it isn't, the background system could be described as "backreacting" to the object's behaviour.