Monday, August 25, 2014

A Supervoid cannot explain the Cold Spot

In my last post, I mentioned the claim that the Cold Spot in the cosmic microwave background is caused by a very large void — a "supervoid" — lying between us and the last scattering surface, distorting our vision of the CMB, and I promised to say a bit more about it soon. Well, my colleagues (Mikko, Shaun and Syksy) and I have just written a paper about this idea which came out on the arXiv last week, and in this post I'll try to describe the main ideas in it.

First, a little bit of background. When we look at sky maps of the CMB such as those produced by WMAP or Planck, obviously they're littered with very many hot and cold spots on angular scales of about one degree, and a few larger apparent "structures" that are discernible to the naked eye or human imagination. However, as I've blogged about before, the human imagination is an extremely poor guide to deciding whether a particular feature we see on the sky is real, or important: for instance, Stephen Hawking's initials are quite easy to see in the WMAP CMB maps, but this doesn't mean that Stephen Hawking secretly created the universe.

So to discover whether any particular unusual features are actually significant or not we need a well-defined statistical procedure for evaluating them. The statistical procedure used to find the Cold Spot involved filtering the CMB map with a special wavelet (a spherical Mexican hat wavelet, or SMHW), of a particular width (in this case $6^\circ$), and identifying the pixel direction with the coldest filtered temperature with the direction of the Cold Spot. Because of the nature of the wavelet used, this ensures that the Cold Spot is actually a reasonably sizable spot on the sky, as you can see in the image below:

The Cold Spot in the CMB sky. Image credit: WMAP/NASA.

Well, so we've found a cold spot. To elevate it to the status of "Cold Spot" in capitals and worry about how to explain it, we first need to quantify how unusual it is. Obviously it is unusual compared to other spots on our observed CMB, but this is true by construction and not very informative. Instead the usual procedure quite rightly compares the properties of the cold spots found in random Gaussian maps using exactly the same SMHW technique to the properties of the Cold Spot in our CMB. It is this procedure which results in the conclusion that our Cold Spot is statistically significant at roughly the "3-sigma level", i.e. only about 1 in every 1000 random maps has a coldest spot that is as "cold" as* our Cold Spot.** (The reason why I'm putting scare quotes around everything should become clear soon!)

So there appears to be a need to explain the existence of the Cold Spot using additional new physics of some kind. One such idea that that of the supervoid: a giant region hundreds of millions of light years across which is substantially emptier than the rest of the universe and lies between us and the Cold Spot. The emptiness of this region has a gravitational effect on the CMB photons that pass through it on their way to us, making them look colder (this is called the integrated Sachs-Wolfe or ISW effect) — hence the Cold Spot.

Now this is a nice idea in principle. In practice, unfortunately, it suffers from a problem: the ISW effect is very weak, so to produce an effect capable of "explaining" the Cold Spot the supervoid would need to be truly super — incredibly large and incredibly empty. And no such void has actually been seen in the distribution of galaxies (a previous claim to have seen it turned out to not be backed up by further analysis).

It was therefore quite exciting when in May a group of astronomers, led by Istvan Szapudi of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, announced that they had found evidence for the existence of a large void in the right part of the sky. Even more excitingly, in a separate theoretical paper, Finelli et al. claimed to have modeled the effect of this void on the CMB and proven that it exactly fit the observations, and that therefore the question had been effectively settled: the Cold Spot was caused by a supervoid.

Except ... things aren't quite that simple. For a start, the void they claimed to have found doesn't actually have a large ISW effect — in terms of central temperature, less than one-seventh what would be needed to explain the Cold Spot. So Finelli et al. relied on a rather curious argument: that the second-order effect (in perturbation theory terms) of this void on CMB photons was somehow much larger than the first-order (i.e. ISW) effect. A puzzling inversion of our understanding of perturbation theory, then!

In fact there were a number of other reasons to be a bit suspicious of the claim, among which were that N-body simulations don't show this kind of unusual effect, and that several other larger and deeper voids have already been found that aren't aligned with Cold Spot-like CMB features. In our paper we provide a fuller list of these reasons to be skeptical before diving into the details of the calculation, where one might get lost in the fog of equations.

At the end of the day we were able to make several substantive points about the Cold Spot-as-a-supervoid hypothesis:
  1. Contrary to the claim by Finelli et al., the void that has been found is neither large enough nor deep enough to leave a large effect on the CMB, either through the ISW effect or its second-order counterpart — in simple terms, it is not a super enough supervoid.
  2. In order to explain the Cold Spot one needs to postulate a supervoid that is so large and so deep that the probability of its existence is essentially zero; if such a supervoid did exist it would be more difficult to explain that the Cold Spot currently is!
  3. The possible ISW effect of any kind of void that could reasonably exist in our universe is already sufficiently accounted for in the analysis using random maps that I described above.
  4. There's actually very little need to postulate a supervoid to explain the central temperature of the Cold Spot — the fact that we chose the coldest spot in our CMB maps already does that!
Point number 1 requires a fair bit of effort and a lot of equations to prove (and coincidentally it was also shown in an independent paper by Jim Zibin that appeared just a day before ours), but in the grand scheme of things it is probably not a supremely interesting one. It's nice to know that our perturbation theory intuition is correct after all, of course, but mistakes happen to the best of us, so the fact that one paper on the arXiv contains a mistake somewhere is not tremendously important.

On the other hand, point 2 is actually a fairly broad and important one. It is a result that cosmologists with a good intuition would perhaps have guessed already, but that we are able to quantify in a useful way: to be able to produce even half the temperature effect actually seen in the Cold Spot would require a hypothetical supervoid almost twice as large and twice as empty as the one seen by Szapudi's team, and the odds of such a void existing in our universe would be something like a one-in-a-million or one-in-a-billion (whereas the Cold Spot itself is at most a one-in-a-thousand anomaly in random CMB maps). A supervoid therefore cannot help to explain the Cold Spot.***

Point 3 is again something that many people probably already knew, but equally many seem to have forgotten or ignored, and something that has not (to my knowledge) been stated explicitly in any paper. My particular favourite though is point 4, which I could — with just a tiny bit of poetic licence — reword as the statement that
"the Cold Spot is not unusually cold; if anything, what's odd about it is only that it is surrounded by a hot ring"
I won't try to explain the second part of that statement here, but the details are in our paper (in particular Figure 7, in case you are interested). Instead what I will do is to justify the first part by reproducing Figure 6 of our paper here:

The averaged temperature anisotropy profile at angle $\theta$ from the centre of the Cold Spot (in red),  and the corresponding 1 and $2\sigma$ contours from the coldest spots in 10,000 random CMB maps (blue). Figure from arXiv:1408.4720.

What the blue shaded regions show is the confidence limits on the expected temperature anisotropy $\Delta T$ at angles $\theta$ from the direction of the coldest spots found in random CMB maps using exactly the SMHW selection procedure. The red line, which is the measured temperature for our actual Cold Spot, never goes outside the $2\sigma$ equivalent confidence region. In particular, at the centre of the Cold Spot the red line is pretty much exactly where we would expect it to be. The Cold Spot is not actually unusually cold.

Just before ending, I thought I'd also mention that Syksy has written about this subject on his own blog (in Finnish only): as I understand it, one of the points he makes is that this form of peer review on the arXiv is actually more efficient than the traditional one that takes place in journals.

Update: You might also want to have a look at Shaun's take on the same topic, which covers the things I left out here ...

* People often compare other properties of the Cold Spot to those in random maps, for instance its kurtosis or other higher-order moments, but for our purposes here the total filtered temperature will suffice.

** Although as Zhang and Huterer pointed out a few years ago, this analysis doesn't account for the particular choice of the SMHW filter or the particular choice of $6^\circ$ width — in other words, that it doesn't account for what particle physicists call the "look-elsewhere effect". Which means it is actually much less impressive.

*** If we'd actually seen a supervoid which had the required properties, we'd have a proximate cause for the Cold Spot, but also a new and even bigger anomaly that required an explanation. But as we haven't, the point is moot.