Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Statistics, Space, Skateboarding and Stuff

Over the summer I spent some time working on a video project and article about skateboarding and physics with some of the awesome folks at Perimeter Institute (PI), where I work.

You can find the video here, and the article here. The photos of me throughout this post were also taken while we were putting the article together.

Sweeper, for Duane, Waterloo. Photo: Gabriela Secara

I'm not sure where the original motivation for the article came from, but it began for me some time in June (I think) when I was approached by Colin Hunter, the senior scientific writer at PI, who was interested in profiling physicists and finding out about our passions outside of work, and what makes us tick. Over the next few months we spent a number of mornings and afternoons working on the video and interviews and exchanging lots of emails. One of the most important things for me was getting across the right sense of what skateboarding is to someone from outside of it. Skateboarding has a really strong sense of itself and it's cultural identity. It's nuanced, and generally those of us on the inside find that people on the outside just don't get it. But what made me really stoked on this project and gave me confidence in the whole outcome was that from very early on Colin and I got along, and I could see he got it, and that we both wanted to make something rad that hopefully everyone, including other skaters, physicists and the general public, could take something away from.

(muted) Boneless, tranny to bank, Waterloo. I loved that crazy rainbow bandana. I lost it after (?) burning man. Photo: Gabriela Secara
Stand up, with additional finger pointing action, Cambridge. Photo: Gabriela Secara

I've left the writing of this blog post a bit too long, so I can't remember what I was going to say. Apologies for the rambling.

One of the best things that came out of working on this piece for me was getting feedback from some of my skateboarding idols. The first person I wrote to was John Rattray. John (look at me, pretending we're on first name terms) is a Scottish skateboarder who studied astrophysics at university. I studied for my undergraduate degree in Scotland too, which is already a great connection. The first section I've linked to there is from when John was pro on a (sadly now defunct) British skateboarding company called Blueprint. Blueprint defined what it was to be a skateboarder on these drizzle-covered isles in the early 2000's, and everything they put out was hugely influential on me growing up. Most of it wasn't my style, per se, me being a bowl skater and Blueprint being pretty heavy street, but it didn't stop me loving what they did. John's section from Waiting for the World was inspirational beyond words, and still one of my favourite sections of all time. He had fun (and skated bowls), and skated to an awesome song by the Seahorses (I bought their album on the strength of it, but the album didn't have that song on and generally sucked. You win some...). John then "made it" and went pro for Zero, Jamie Thomas' power company from the USA. The second section I linked to is (I think) his first for them. Again, John kind of broke the mould of the other skaters on the video. They were mostly hammers and rails, but John came through with no complys (before they were cool again) and that same fun energy. Top boy.

Early grab in the slightly over vert pocket, Cambridge. You can see the PI filmers, Max and Craig, in this insta-filtered photo by Renée Hlozek.

I got in touch with John through a mutual Scottish friend (thanks Russ). I was so stoked that he replied to my email. It was another thing that gave me confidence we were doing something that mattered. John responded to some questions that Colin wrote for him. His replies were short, but they really helped me keep my feet on the ground. For example: "Studying physics is an intellectual pursuit and although the act of learning to do something physically complex and demanding can have intellectual benefits they are utterly different. Not to say they're not connected, I mean, they exist in the same universe, as far as we can tell." John's reply there made sure I didn't go ahead on my high horse and say anything stupid about connections between physics and skateboarding. I just stuck with my story, and how I feel about both.

The next person I managed to get in touch with, and who along with John completes the "skateboarders with a link to science dream team", was Rodney Mullen. I mean, holy shit, Rodney Mullen! Renée (the other author of this very blog) met Rodney at TED a few years back. He was really friendly, and came up to her wanting to talk about cosmology after her talk. We exchanged quite a few emails back and forth about this project, and there were just so many encouraging words of inspiration from Rodney that upped my stoke levels through the roof. If you're not a skateboarder, you may not have heard of Rodney Mullen, but then again, you may have. He's one of a few "breakthough" skateboarders that are almost household names. You'll see that from one of the links: the man's given TED talks. But that's not why he's important to skateboarding. Rodney invented pretty much every trick that modern skateboarding relies on: ollies, kickflips, 360 flips, and literally dozens more (there's a section about this on his wikipedia entry!). He invented these tricks in the context of "freestyle," which is a kind of skateboard dancing, in the early 80's. At that time, everyone else was skating vert and doing big airs, but Rodney was skating alone in his barn and changing the world. It took another generation to adapt his style and take these tricks to the streets and to become modern skateboarding as we know it. But no Mullen, no dice. He had to break those barriers and show what could be done, and he had to do it his own way, outside of what was happening at the time.

Why did I think of him as a scientist? I can't tell you really. He's well known in the skateboarding world as being very intelligent, and also being super nice. I took a chance on contacting him, and it worked, and he had lots of awesome things to say. Again, something to make me confident that it was a good thing to be working on this project.

FS rock (to the hilt), Cambridge. If you haven't seen a dozen pictures of me doing this trick, we obviously aren't friends on facebook. Photo: Gabriela Secara.

Now, where was I?

Oh yeah, the filming and photos. It was super fun going on the filming missions from work. First of all, what red-blooded skateboarder wouldn't be hyped to have fully sanctioned days to bunk work and go skate in the sun? Well, as a postdoc I can pretty much do that whenever I want anyway, and I do, and I guess that was kind of one of the points of the video, but still: sanctioned skate-bunk! Me, Colin, and some selection of other PI video/photo types would jump in the car of an afternoon, put on some music, and head to a skatepark. Unless it was the Waterloo park, in which case we'd just get some drinks and walk over from the office. Having a park that close to the office is great: after work skates, lunchtime skates, all easy. Having work that close to the park is great too: somewhere to refill water and have a shower after a Saturday session before heading to the bars.

Taking these non-skateboarders into my world was a bit daunting at times. What if they didn't get it? Filming and photos could have been a show-stopper too. They know how to do their jobs, but what if they didn't get the shots that looked right from a skateboarders perspective? In the end, though, it all turned out really well. There was a good back and forth, with me suggesting angles and tricks, and then compromising when the light was wrong or a different background worked better. Max was also kind enough to let me go through his rough cut and suggest changes and different clips, and Ela let me select the best photos from her. Again, this gave the right balance of something professional that could relate to non-skaters and look good, and something I could be proud of as a skater.

It's hard enough bringing close friends who don't skate to skateparks, and then it's normally lubricated with a good number of street beers. This was work people, and could have been really awkward or weird. I let skateboarding work its magic for me, and just cruised around. I wanted them to see the relaxed side, and the natural side, nothing like "extreme" tricks or anything like that. Skateboarding, like physics, is playful. But, it was hard work shooting sometimes. Doing things over and over for the right angle and light. And it's only me with my shitty bag of tricks. I can't imagine how much more hard work it is for guys chucking themselves down stairs being asked to do it again. Mad respect. The hardest work was the 5-0 right below you. If you know me well, you know I suck at street, and I had to do this 5-0 at least a dozen times before we were all happy.

Street for the kids! FS 5-0, Waterloo. Photo: Gabriela Secara.

I'd better wrap this up. But we haven't even talked about physics yet. Watch this space for some more. Renée and I have been talking about roping in a bottle of Gin for this...

Thanks to everyone who has been involved in this. PI for paying me and everyone else, and publishing and promoting. Max, Craig and Ela for the patience and good work filming and shooting. Colin for being the gaffer and writing an awesome article, and Renée for coming along on a Cambridge morning for moral support (I needed it after that heavy slam).

Zig it up

Monday, 1 December 2014

Why we shouldn't try to have our (Planck) cake and eat it too...

Like many cosmologists, I am eagerly awaiting the next update from the Planck mission.

The previous release of Planck result had me all aflutter, and the release of results from BICEP had the whole community talking/discussing for ages.

But we were told recently that the papers will be released on the 22nd of December 2014. While a conference devoted to the announcement of results (rather than the release of data and papers) is being held this week in Ferrara.

So this morning, with no official press conference and a press release from the team (in French) the only meat to go on was bits of information on Twitter from those at the conference.

So what do we know*?

        *from Twitter/discussions and from the press releases here

Well, first of all there are the beautiful spectra in both temperature and polarisation on small scales (the larger scale measurement is in flux at the moment as the team work hard on systematics).

And some spectacular other images of (parts of) the maps in 353 GHz polarisation
with the colours indicating the dust and the relief showing the galactic magnetic field. Pretty, isn't it?

There are still some interesting tensions with the amplitude of clustering from Planck relative to other measurements of galaxy lensing (from the CFHTLens collaboration). The matter density is Omega_m=0.316 +/- 0.009.

Some important parameters like the scalar spectral index, n_s shift around by around 1 sigma. The optical depth, tau, shifts downwards - which is important for how we understand how the universe reionised (tau  is in the range of 0.71-0.79 from Planck lensing and low-multipole LFI measurements.) The errorbar is still converging, so I look forward to the results in December for the final number on this.

The level of non-Gaussianity detected by Planck including polarisation is consistent with zero.

The number of effective degrees of freedom (Neff) is consistent with the simple picture, Neff = 3 +- 0.2, a number consistent with the WMAP9+ACT numbers we presented a while back before Planck.

Planck have a very robust detection of a non-zero lensing deflection power spectrum (I don't think the term 40sigma really means much when we get to such high confidence!) and detected polarisation B-modes from lensing too.

And Planck have improved the constraints (over WMAP) on dark matter models significantly, ruling out previous results (look for the grey rectangle between the yellow WMAP exclusion limit and the blue exclusion limit).

Also, very importantly, the Planck team have also gotten a great handle on their calibration, which brings the calibration into alignment with WMAP at the 0.3% level.

So this is good news! Some have been commenting that the results aren't 'exciting' enough - but I actually think this is great news. The Planck team should be commended for waiting/checking/testing/understanding their data for as long as possible before releasing the papers: they are being cautious. Also, we as a community are taking small, tough and important steps to narrowing parameter space. Being in the large-data limit makes things hard, and they've been under tremendous pressure too to release the data, but I think we should take our hats off for a moment and congratulate the team on their (amazingly) hard work. The scientific method is gruelling, and we can't always get the great upsets that make for great tweets.

I would have loved more of a press release, live stream or presentation of the results publicly. But I'd rather have a cautious late-December gift of papers than a early rush that they aren't happy with.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Hey grrrl... the reasons why I'm furious about ESA's #shirtgate

The dust hasn't even settled yet on the amazing, incredible feat of human achievement - we have landed on Comet 67P.

HOORAH! Let me take the moment (ok many, many moments) to reiterate how wonderful this is.

And yet it was marred a little bit for me by the ESA #shirtgate incident (note that the hashtag has been reused from a previous incident on the internet, sorry about that folks).

When I opened up my social media this morning to get ready for the pre-announcements and hype (because these moments are what I live for as a scientist) I was shocked by something I saw in a colleague's post. She mentioned that the Rosetta Project Scientist Matt Taylor (@mggtTaylor) was on multiple media sources (an official BBC video, his own, and ESA's twitter feed etc.) wearing a crazy shirt. And sure enough, when I looked it up, this is what I saw:

Ok, wooaah.

There were also articles about the fact that Matt wants to challenge stereotypes of scientists and openly wear his tattoos - and this is something I whole-heartedly support. This is something I've blogged about before. It is extremely important to me that we concentrate on the science that someone has to offer rather on their appearance, because scientists come in all sizes and shapes and we should let them be just like everyone else.

So isn't this a double standard? I spend time writing about how I should be able to wear what I want as a scientist and here I am really upset by his shirt?

This is the really important reason why it is different, in case it wasn't immediately obvious to you right away. It objectifies women.

Matt's shirt portrayed several images of a naked woman, allegedly as a tribute to a sci-fi character.
He also allegedly said  on air (and this is something I'll admit I didn't hear myself - it was relayed to me):  "She's sexy, but I didn't say she was easy." [Edit: I've since been shown the link where Matt gives the "sexy" quote. He's talking about Rosetta, not the woman on his shirt! Thanks to Dave for reminding me to get the facts straight.]

Now - we have a huge problem getting women and girls into STEM fields. And spend lots of energy talking about how women aren't in science and should be (note: a Google search will yield many articles, that is just a recent one!).

And yet, here is a male scientist at a predominantly male science press conference from a male-dominated field - that is going to be broadcast to schools around the world - wearing a shirt objectifying women.

So, obviously the internet exploded. I, and many other people tweeted about it and were very angry, and later Matt changed his shirt (thank goodness before the most watched part of the landing).
But this begs the question, why did Matt choose to wear the shirt? Or rather, did he think about the message it would send? Did he care? Did anyone at the press conference even look at the shirt?

I hope that in the coming days we will hear more from Matt and/or ESA, but I feel like now I need to redouble my efforts to remind young women interested in science that yes, your mind is important. That yes, you are capable of being taken seriously in STEM fields. That yes, we do want you here (come and join me). And that no, your body isn't what defines you.

Until then, I'm going to look at pictures of the glorious mission and hope my anger subsides. It is a great day for science. It is not a super day for getting women into science.

[Edit: Thanks to Summer and Emily at @startorialist for some happier space shirt designs to brighten my day - and more here]

Monday, 29 September 2014

"Black Holes don't exist:" giving context to sensational science news

A friend of mine recently pointed me to this article about how "Black Holes don't exist." The article concerns two recent papers

Since it came out the following edit has been added to the article:

"Due to some confusion, we feel it is important to clarify. The notable word in the title is “mathematically.” In science, there are conflicting predictions that come from different theories, assumptions, and equations–different equations result in different outcomes and different proofs. In short, one set of assumptions leads down one path and give us new (potentially important) things to consider. But there are many paths. It seems that many people were not sure how to situate or read these findings. Hopefully, this clarifies things. We’d like to apologize to anyone who took this out of context or who was confused by the implications. In the coming days and weeks, more physicists will weigh in with their findings. Things will update as they develop. Science on."

And this edit is actually exactly why I wanted to discuss the article. What does a claim like this mean, and how can a non-expert interpret it? The following is basically word-for-word what I wrote in reply to my friend who sent me the article.

I skipped reading the article at first [I have since read it, and you don't learn all that much], as lots of articles like it miss the point with physics. People love to say "Einstein was wrong!" or basically "[New sensational thing about physics hopefully with the word "Quantum" somewhere!]" while not appreciating what is really going on. And it annoys me. A lot. Anyway, onwards with constructive things...

I'm no expert, so I'll be arguing from authority, basically. First things first, Mersini-Houghton, the author, appears a totally respectable physicist who has published highly cited work on a variety of topics in the past, and works at a respectable institution. I'm in no way trying to slander her or her work. It's completely within the confines of work on these topics (black holes, the information paradox), as far as I can tell. Her recent work on these topics isn't highly cited (so far: and that is only a few months, but physics moves fast these days), but citations aren't a perfect gauge of a work's relevance. The important point to take away is: the author is certainly no two-bit crank posting on vixra (I hope I don't get bombarded by any more cranks than usual, but just look at the kind of stuff that goes on there! If you've never lost a few hours on vixra, I highly recommend it.)

What I want to discuss here is how the paper was reported, and more importantly how non-physicists should read reporting on physics in general. It's all about context, and what we mean by "exist" I think...

The paper referred to in the article was published in a respectable journal, so it went through peer review and someone with more knowledge in the field than me thought it was correct. However, let's put it in context. There has been a whole lot of interest in issues related to black holes recently, thanks to a famous paper on "firewalls." ( There seems to be something we don't understand about black holes in that they lead to a paradox that requires giving up one of three major pillars of physics (three according to wikipedia, I thought it was just two: unitarity and locality, but there ya go). The name "firewall" comes from the easy way out: there is a wall in the way that prevents anyone seeing the paradox. I'm not sure how seriously the firewall itself is taken. I think of it as a last resort to sweep things under the rug. But like I said, I'm no expert.

This debate over what to do with firewalls has led to a huge number of papers proposing different resolutions to the problem. To give that a number, the original firewalls paper has gotten 249 citations in the 2 years since it was published. Experimental papers, and confirmed theory papers, get more than that. But for a "pure thought" paper, that is astounding.

(Although, the original AdS/CFT paper, a paper on pure thought depending on your take on AdS/CFT applications, just became INSPIRE's most cited paper. It took over the model of leptons, which is manifestly about the real world, but there ya go, that's physics!)

Many people have said we may need to do away with black holes in one way or another. For example, Hawking argued that there is no paradox if black holes aren't "eternal." Another solution is that black holes are really fuzzy quantum or turbulent things, and that makes the calculation that led to the paradox incorrect.

Okay, enough context. Mersini-Houghton's idea is one of these many that say black holes never form. The idea is that when a star collapses on the way to forming a black hole the "Hawking radiation" kicks in causing a pressure that stops collapse before a true black hole forms. If it never forms, there is a never a paradox. In her second paper out this month she works numerically with collaborator to show this happens in realistic situations (for example breaking the assumption of spherical symmetry).

So, is Mersini-Houghton correct? Her first paper came out in June and hasn't really been picked up in the community. The excitement over firewalls has died down, so maybe it's that. But if she was correct, it would be enough to set people off. It hasn't, so I judge there must be something about it that isn't compelling. Maybe she made some simplifying assumptions that people believe would make her argument wrong in a realistic situation? I'd like to ask an expert. The new numerical work makes me think she is correct, within the parameters she's set herself at least. It's whether those parameters are right.

But do I think it means anything? I'm inclined to say "no" for the following reasons:

1) It appears that we do see black holes out there in space. I'm not familiar with the observations, but as I understand it, it is an established fact. Maybe Mersini-Houghton can get around it, and her system still forms these things, but they aren't "formally" black holes because they miss the little paradoxy bit. Then, for all practical purposes (i.e. in astrophysics), it is a case of walking and quacking like a duck, but without the particular nuanced existential consequences. Practically, then, "black holes" still exist. This has to be true of all the other firewall solutions. The black holes are still there, because we see them, but some little bit in the middle is subtly different.

[edit: the Event Horizon Telescope hopes to directly image black hole event horizons in the coming years. Things like "Saggitarius A*" are pretty good candidates for them. Any other comments about direct evidence for black holes are very welcome!]

Now you have to go out and find an observation that can confirm that. People are trying, but it ain't easy (see this interesting proposal to tell proposed firewall solutions apart observationally using gravitational lensing!). An example discussing Mersini-Houghton's work is that the "bounce" of the star instead of forming a black hole that she predicts could be the source of some high-energy cosmic-ray type things (fast radio bursts in this case). We see stuff like that, and by looking at them in detail maybe you can see what they came from. But this is messy astrophysics, and the number of explanations for these things is often very wide.
I'd like to see whether (i) Mersini-Houghton and co can still make real things that look enough like black holes that they are consistent with what we have seen already, and (ii) if they can make any novel observational prediction to test their theory. If the answer to either of these questions is "no" then they are dead in the water.

2) On a purely philosophical level, Mersini-Houghton's solution doesn't solve the firewall paradox in my opinion. It may solve it "in real life" if there are no collapsing stars that form tricky black holes. But it doesn't solve the problem for theory. In theoretical physics you can still set up a "thought experiment" and if that makes your theory inconsistent then you are in trouble. The whole firewall thing began with a thought experiment. Black holes are solutions to Einstein's theory, as long as they are you can always imagine one just sitting there. Conjure it out of nowhere. It doesn't have to be made by a collapsing star (because in the thought experiment you also conjured the star from nowhere too).
Mersini-Houghton's solution doesn't alter Einstein's theory or quantum mechanics, and so you can still do that thought experiment, and the firewall problem is still there.

So, Mersini-Houghton hasn't solved that problem in my opinion. And indeed, black holes still "exist" in the theory, so for many theorists they are still just as relevant as thought experiment probes of whether we really understand the universe. And many theorists are platonists anyway, so black holes, even of the thought experiment kind, do "exist."

3) Outside of thought experiment, as long as black holes are still this "formal" solution of Einstein's equations (and they are in Mersini-Houghton's theory as far as I can tell) then they do still *really* exist. This is thanks to quantum mechanics, where things are allowed to "pop in and out of the vacuum" ( Black holes do the same thing in quantum gravity, at least in string theory they do as far I know (I've heard people argue that they needn't in other theories, but I don't find these arguments compelling: in quantum theory you need a very good reason for things not to happen, or else they do). So, black holes still exist at the quantum level even in her theory.

Does that have any relevance to real life? Well, virtual particles do. We have very strong evidence that virtual particles are important. They have observable effects on particle collisions. They are the reason the electron has the charge and magnetic properties it does, so probably phones and microchips and such wouldn't work without them. (Does anyone have a better example of the reality of virtual particles? I mean, an accessible one, not just "electroweak precision observables, duh")

What about virtual black holes? (i) I don't know if they suffer form the firewall paradox, because of the popping quantum business, so maybe they aren't a problem. (ii) They are much harder to see. They are intrinsically quantum gravity things, and that is, as far as we know, not relevant to anything we have a hope of measuring on earth. But there is hope, and this is exactly why I study cosmology: the early universe is a lab for very high energy things, and we can hope for signals of quantum gravity in the sky (in fact this is a lot of what Mersini-Houghton did in her earlier career, too).

So, in summary:

* There are lots of theories like this. Maybe this one's right, maybe it isn't.

* There are at least "black hole-like" things out there in space that we have seen.

* Philosophically, black holes-proper still exist in this theory thanks to quantum mechanics.

* We need to come up with observational and experimental tests and consequences of all this. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The "Yes! And?" of science.

I personally believe that the academic "brand" of Impostor Syndrome (IS) is particularly tricky to deal with because underlying it is a certain type of arrogance. It took me quite a lot of time with a coach (thanks to the wonderful SupporTED program I participate in through the TED Fellowship) to realise that I really was arrogant in my Impostor Syndrome: anyone could say what they like about me being talented, but I was holding onto the belief that I the only person qualified to make judgements about myself. So with a slight of hand, I can disregard your positive statement. Easy Peasy. My coach had to bring out the Logical Data Big Guns to deal with me, but she did so, wonderfully. She showed me this internally arrogant attitude was seriously flawed. My data analysis software, my ability to process external feedback, was broken. I realised that I was rejecting data points based on my faulty Bayesian prior, and then refusing to quote the prior when making statistical inference. I know! I know! Bayes would be rolling in his grave! I was shocked, and chose to rename the problem Self-Data Malfunction.

So, if you know that this part of yourself is faulty and you want to repair it, what can you do? Well this is all happening subconsciously to some degree, so it isn't a case of just hearing and accepting the opinions of others. If it were that easy, I would have done it already!

When talking about the issue with people, I often heard a phrase that I realise was intended to be helpful, but to me expressed exactly the wrong idea: "fake it ‘til you make it."

The idea is that even if you don't feel worthy to be in your job, position of authority or degree program, you just "fake it" and act like you are worthy until some time later you realise, hey - you are in fact the woman who deserves to be there! And there are lots of strategies online and in books to help you build up the skills to "fake it".

But this just hit right to the core of my Self-Data Malfunction. If I was "faking it" at all, surely there must be some truth in my "you don't belong here" Bayesian prior? So then maybe my self-data analysis software was right after all! Cue the spiral of non-productive thinking.

And then I remembered a wonderful thing I've learned from doing improvisational comedy (which, by the way, I highly recommend - it's like emotional version of walking in traffic: all the excitement, none of the physical harm). The improve technique is the principle of "Yes! And?"

Here is how it goes.

Say you’re doing an improv scene with someone on stage and they suggest something, like they are your long-lost sister, or the floor you are walking on just happens to be made of fire, rather than rejecting it outright for being crazy (as these improvised suggestions often are), you imagine and accept the universe they've just created. You say "Yes!" to the idea. And? Then you run with it!

The "And?" part means that you build on it and immerse yourself in it. That often involves justifying the suggestion they just made - making it work within the context of the scene and your established characters. And then, ‘hey presto!’, you're doing improv.

When I was thinking about the Self-Data Malfunction, I realised that rather than faking it 'til I make it, I can "Yes! And?" my life in academia. It is incredible what that subtle change in emphasis did for my outlook on academic life.

So, what happens when you find yourself on the shortlist for a job you didn't think you could possibly get? You say yes! And? Go give a great talk/interview! You now live in the reality where you are a viable and attractive candidate for the position. Yes! And?

What about when you think you aren't good enough at writing this code, doing this derivation, finishing this paper? You remember that yes, you already got here, and you have skills that will enable you to tackle the task. And... then you go and smash it!

What happens when you are invited to submit that review paper or chapter and you feel like they may have asked the wrong person by mistake? You remember that yes, you have interesting things to contribute. And you now live in the universe where people want to hear/read them.

And what happens when someone like me wants to write about impostor syndrome, but there have already been great posts by incredibly smart, talented and accomplished men and women (for example John John’s post, Amy Cuddy's post on body language and how it can change your life, Ed Bertschinger's post on his own struggle) on the subject? What if I don’t yet have a faculty post, and the authority that comes with that to be able to write about impostor syndrome without fear of the affect it may have on people’s perception of me?

I remember that yes, I think I have something new to add to the mix, and then I remember that as a graduate student and postdoc I would love to hear from someone who wasn’t so accomplished or high up the academic ladder to tell me about things they’ve learned and are dealing with. And so I write this here blog post!

Does it mean you will always then succeed at things? Definitely not. I imagine your rate of success may be exactly the same as before. But your rate of trying new things, and putting yourself out there and taking risks will definitely improve, and with more opportunities come more chances to do an awesome job and succeed. And as we all know, it's all about statistics really.

It isn't easy to do all the time. The "No, but" voices are much more skilled and generally shriek banshee-like in my head, but this feels to me like a much more holistic way of enabling me to live and grow into my career and my life. The change is slow, but what I find happens is that I start to really enjoy new challenges and scary things, not because I’m trying to prove myself, but because I enjoy taking that journey to the “and” part of myself and find that it isn’t so crazy a world in the first place.

So…. Yes! And?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

BICEP2 and Axions. A few comments.

After our paper on Axions and BICEP2 came out (here) we were contacted quite a bit by various media outlets for comment. One article appeared in Nature News. There is another due to appear in Quebec Science tomorrow. All the answering of interview questions made me think quite hard about explaining this business in a manner understandable by the lay person, and I think I got quite good at it. So I've decided to reproduce for you here the transcript of the interview I gave for Quebec Science. Their article only used a few quotes of mine in the end, but this here is the whole shebang!

(P.S. Sorry for the weird formatting: I'm not really sure what happened)

Monday, 17 March 2014

B-eautiful tensors

That's what BB said.

Yes, I've been waiting my whole life to make a post title like this.
But seriously, if you haven't been hiding under a rock this morning you will have noticed the internet go crazy for the detection by BICEP2 of tensor modes, the 'smoking gun' of inflation. Even the NYTimes got in on the action.

The detection is parameterised by the tensor-to-scalar ratio "r", the ratio of tensor modes to the usual scalar modes whose spectrum we have characterised well with experiments like WMAP, Planck and the ground based experiments like ACT. This detection is r = 0.2 + 0.07 - 0.05 (the two numbers give the upper and lower 68% confidence intervals). This means that the detection is significantly non-zero. Why hello, tensor modes.

The B-mode polarisation spectrum is shown here below, where all the other limits are just that, upper limits. This is pretty awesome if you think about how this fits in with all the efforts of so many.
Figure 1. The BB-mode spectrum from BICEP2 with previous data.

This detection is really exciting, and has implications not only for the specific theory of inflation and the kinds of models it supports - it also allows us to place constraints on other physics. For example, my colleagues David Marsh, Dan Grin, Pedro Ferreira and I wrote a paper investigating what the detection would mean for axion-like particle dark matter. Such a large value of r places a constraint on the energy scale of inflation, H_I, which in the axion model place constraints on the initial misalignment angle - leaving a model that has a high level of fine tuning (fine tuning in physics is generally considered a bad thing, you don't want to have to tweak your model to give you something reasonable, you want that reasonable thing to emerge organically). If we consider very light axions, then this constraint on r tells you about the fraction of the total dark matter that can be made up of these axion-like particles (as a function of their mass).

We show that this new constraint (indicated by the red curve) limits the fraction of the dark matter that can be made up of axions... which helps us rule out parameter space (which is a good thing!) You can read all about it here.

While the claimed detection of B-modes from BICEP2 is awesome and very exciting, it is also important to remain skeptical about possible systematics and issues with the detection. It is a very tough game, and such an important result that we need to make sure we pass all the possible tests we can throw at it. I for one am a little worried about leakage between temperature and polarisation in the spectrum. If you look at the cross-correlation between this measurement and the BICEP1 data, it seems that there is excess power on small scales (large multipoles).

Now it bears repeating that the BICEP2 result on r is only based on the scales between 30< ell<150, but these high ell issues to need to be addressed, as leakage could bias your signal high (make the evidence for tensor modes stronger).
Another thing to worry about are foregrounds. The team have presented reasons why they think foregrounds are not an issue for a signal so large, and it looks like they've done their homework, but I'll spend the next few days digesting the paper in more detail.

Also, this is such a large signal that we need to think about why other experiments have not seen it. In fact, if you consider the figure below from their paper:

you might be worried about a conflict with the results presented by the Planck team last March. First of all this plot is made by marginalising over running of the spectral index, so it is beyond the "vanilla" model + tensor modes (it has another parameter in it, the running of the spectral index, which gives it two free parameters relative to the base LCDM model without tensor modes at all).

So, the bottom line: I am excited by this (and so should you BB!) but there is more to understand and this result needs to be battle tested and confirmed. Long life the scientific process!! 

To BB or not to BB.

Ok, I'm done. Happy BB-day all.