Dr Sebastian von Hausegger and Professor Subir Sarkar from the Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics at Oxford, together with their collaborators Dr Nathan Secrest (US Naval Observatory, Washington), Dr Roya Mohayaee (Institut d’Astrophysique, Paris) and Dr Mohamed Rameez (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai), have made a surprising discovery about the Universe. Their paper is in press in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The researchers used observations of over a million quasars and half a million radio sources to test the ‘cosmological principle’ which underlies modern cosmology. It says that when averaged on large scales the Universe is isotropic and homogeneous. This allows a simple mathematical description of space-time – the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker (FLRW) metric – which enormously simplifies the application of Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the Universe as a whole, thus yielding the standard cosmological model. Interpretation of observational data in the framework of this model has however led to the astounding conclusion that about 70% of the Universe is in the form of a mysterious ‘dark energy’ which is causing its expansion rate to accelerate. This has been interpreted as arising from the zero-point fluctuations of the quantum vacuum, with the associated energy scale set by H0, the present rate of expansion of the universe. However, this is quite inexplicable in the successful Standard Model (quantum field theory) of fundamental interactions, the characteristic energy scale of which is higher by a factor of 1044. So, while the standard cosmological model (called ΛCDM) describes the observational data well, its main component, dark energy, has no physical basis.
Testing foundational assumptions
This is what motivated the researchers to re-examine its underlying assumptions. Professor Sarkar says: ‘When the foundations of today’s standard cosmological model were laid a hundred years ago, there was no data. We didn’t even know then that we live in a galaxy – just one among a hundred billion others. Now that we do have data, we can, and should, test these foundational assumptions since a lot rests on them – in particular the inference that dark energy dominates the Universe.’
In fact, the Universe today is manifestly not homogeneous and isotropic. Astronomical surveys reveal a filamentary structure of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and superclusters of clusters … and this ‘cosmic web’ extends to the deepest scales currently probed of about 2 billion light years. The conventional wisdom is that, while clumpy on small scales, the distribution of matter becomes homogeneous when averaged on scales larger than about 300 million light years. The Hubble expansion is smooth and isotropic on large scales, while on small scales the gravitational effect of inhomogeneities give rise to ‘peculiar’ velocities eg our nearest neighbour the Andromeda galaxy is not receding in the Hubble flow – rather it is falling towards us. Back in 1966, the cosmologist Dennis Sciama noted that because of this, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation from the Big Bang could not be uniform on the sky. It must exhibit a ‘dipole anisotropy’ ieappear hotter in the direction of our local motion and colder in the opposite direction. This was indeed found soon afterwards and is attributed to our motion at about 370 km/s towards a particular direction (in the constellation of Crater). Accordingly, a special relativistic ‘boost’ is applied to all cosmological data (redshifts, apparent magnitudes etc) to transform them to the reference frame in which the universe is isotropic, since it is in this ‘cosmic rest frame’ that the Friedmann-Lemaître equations of the standard cosmological model hold. Application of these equations to the corrected data then indicates that the Hubble expansion rate is accelerating, as if driven by Einstein’s Cosmological Constant Λ, aka dark energy.
The cosmological principle
How can we check if this is true? If the dipole anisotropy in the CMB is due to our motion, then there must be a similar dipole in the sky distribution of all cosmologically distant sources. This is due to ‘aberration’ because of the finite speed of light – as was recognised by Oxford astronomer James Bradley in 1727, long before Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity which predicts this effect. Such sources were first identified with radio telescopes; the relativist George Ellis and radio astronomer John Baldwin noted in 1984 that with a uniform sky map of at least a few hundred thousand such sources, this dipole could be measured and compared with the standard expectation. It was not however until this millennium that the first such data became available – the NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS) catalogue of radio sources. The dipole amplitude turned out to be higher than expected, although its direction was consistent with that of the CMB. However, the uncertainties were large, so the significance of the discrepancy was not compelling. Two years ago, the present team of researchers upped the stakes by analysing a bigger catalogue of 1.4 million quasars mapped by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE). They found a similar discrepancy but at much higher significance. Dr von Hausegger comments: ‘If distant sources are not isotropic in the rest frame in which the CMB is isotropic, it implies a violation of the cosmological principle … which means going back to square one! So, we must now seek corroborating evidence to understand what causes this unexpected result.’
In their recent paper, the researchers have addressed this by performing a joint analysis of the NVSS and WISE catalogues after performing various detailed checks to demonstrate their suitability for the purpose. These catalogues are systematically independent and have almost no shared objects so this is equivalent to performing two independent experiments. The dipoles in the two catalogues, made at widely different wavelengths, are found to be consistent with each other. The consistency of the two dipoles improves upon boosting to the frame in which the CMB is isotropic (assuming its dipole to be kinematic in origin), which suggests that cosmologically distant radio galaxies and quasars may have an intrinsic anisotropy in this frame. The joint significance of the discrepancy between the rest frames of radiation and matter now exceeds 5σ (ie a probability of less than 1 in 3.5 million of being a fluke). ‘This issue can no longer be ignored,’ comments Professor Sarkar. ‘The validity of the FLRW metric itself is now in question!’
Potential paradigm-changing finding
New data with which to check this potentially paradigm-changing finding will soon come from the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) to be carried out at the Vera C Rubin Observatory in Chile. Oxford Physics is closely involved in this project, along with many other institutions in the UK and all over the world. Professor Ian Shipsey who has been a member of LSST since 2008, is excited about the prospect of carrying out fundamental cosmological tests. ‘As a particle physicist, I am acutely aware that the foundations of the Standard Model of particle physics are constantly under scrutiny. One of the reasons I joined LSST, and have worked for so long on it, is precisely to enable powerful tests of the foundations of the standard cosmological model,’ he says. To this end, Dr Hausegger and Professor Sarkar are leading projects in the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration to use the forthcoming data to test the homogeneity and isotropy of the Universe. ‘We will soon know if the standard cosmological model and the inference of dark energy are indeed valid,’ concludes Professor Sarkar.
A challenge to the standard cosmological model, to appear in Astrophysical Journal Letters