The Big Ring Circus | In the Dark


At the annual AAS Meeting in New Orleans last week there was an announcement of a result that made headlines in the media (see, e.g., here and here). There is also a press release from the University of Central Lancashire.

Here is a video of the press conference:

I was busy last week so didn’t have time to read the details so refrained from commenting on this issue at the time of the announcement. Now that I am back in circulation, I have time to read the details, but unfortunately was unable to find even a preprint describing this “discovery”. The press conference doesn’t contain much detail either so it’s impossible to say anything much about the significance of the result, which is claimed (without explanation) to be 5.2σ (after “doing some statistics”). I see the “Big Ring” now has its own wikipedia page, the only references on which are to press reports, not peer-reviewed scientific papers or even preprints.

So is this structure “so big it challenges our understanding of the universe”?

Based on the available information it is impossible to say. The large-scale structure of the Universe comprises a complex network of walls and filaments known as the cosmic web which I have written about numerous times on this blog. This structure is so vast and complicated that it is very easy to find strange shapes in it but very hard to determine whether or not they indicate anything other than an over-active imagination.

To assess the significance of the Big Ring or other structures in a proper scientific fashion, one has to calculate how probable that structure is given a model. We have a standard model that can be used for this purpose, but to simulate very structures is not straightforward because it requires a lot of computing power even to simulate just the mass distribution. In this case one also has to understand how to embed Magnesium absorption too, something which may turn out to trace the mass in a very biased way. Moreover, one has to simulate the observational selection process too, so one is doing a fair comparison between observations and predictions.

I have seen no evidence that this has been done in this case. When it is, I’ll comment on the details. I’m not optimistic however, as the description given in the media accounts contains numerous falsehoods. For example, quoting the lead author:

The Cosmological Principle assumes that the part of the universe we can see is viewed as a ‘fair sample’ of what we expect the rest of the universe to be like. We expect matter to be evenly distributed everywhere in space when we view the universe on a large scale, so there should be no noticeable irregularities above a certain size.

This just isn’t correct. The standard cosmology has fluctuations on all scales. Although the fluctuation amplitude decreases with scale, there is no scale at which the Universe is completely smooth. See the discussion, for example, here. We can see correlations on very large angular scales in the cosmic microwave background which would be absent if the Universe were completely smooth on those scales. The observed structure is about 400 Mpc in size, which does not seem to be to be particularly impressive.

I suspect that the 5.2σ figure mentioned above comes from some sort of comparison between the observed structure and a completely uniform background, in which case it is meaningless.

My main comment on this episode is that I think it’s very poor practice to go hunting headlines when there isn’t even a preprint describing the results. That’s not the sort of thing PhD supervisors should be allowing their PhD students to do. As I have mentioned before on this blog, there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

In the long run, this kind of media circus, driven by hype rather than science, does nobody any good.

P.S. I was going to joke that ring-like structures can be easily explained by circular reasoning, but decided not to.

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