Triton Station

Big Trouble in a Deep Void

The following is a guest post by Indranil Banik, Moritz Haslbauer, and Pavel Kroupa (bios at end) based on their new paper

Modifying gravity to save cosmology

Cosmology is currently in a major crisis because of many severe tensions, the most serious and well-known being that local observations of how quickly the Universe is expanding (the so-called ‘Hubble constant’) exceed the prediction of the standard cosmological model, ΛCDM. This prediction is based on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the most ancient light we can observe – which is generally thought to have been emitted about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. For ΛCDM to fit the pattern of fluctuations observed in the CMB by the Planck satellite and other experiments, the Hubble constant must have a particular value of 67.4 ± 0.5 km/s/Mpc. Local measurements are nearly all above this ‘Planck value’, but are consistent with each other. In our paper, we use a local value of 73.8 ± 1.1 km/s/Mpc using a combination of supernovae and gravitationally lensed quasars, two particularly precise yet independent techniques.

This unexpectedly rapid local expansion of the Universe could be due to us residing in a huge underdense region, or void. However, a void wide and deep enough to explain the Hubble tension is not possible in ΛCDM, which is built on Einstein’s theory of gravity, General Relativity. Still, there is quite strong evidence that we are indeed living within a large void with a radius of about 300 Mpc, or one billion light years. This evidence comes from many surveys covering the whole electromagnetic spectrum, from radio to X-rays. The most compelling evidence comes from analysis of galaxy number counts in the near-infrared, giving the void its name of the Keenan-Barger-Cowie (KBC) void. Gravity from matter outside the void would pull more than matter inside it, making the Universe appear to expand faster than it actually is for an observer inside the void. This ‘Hubble bubble’ scenario (depicted in Figure 1) could solve the Hubble tension, a possibility considered – and rejected – in several previous works (e.g. Kenworthy+ 2019). We will return to their objections against this idea.

Figure 1: Illustration of the Universe’s large scale structure. The darker regions are voids, and the bright dots represent galaxies. The arrows show how gravity from surrounding denser regions pulls outwards on galaxies in a void. If we were living in such a void (as indicated by the yellow star), the Universe would expand faster locally than it does on average. This could explain the Hubble tension. Credit: Technology Review

One of the main objections seemed to be that since such a large and deep void is incompatible with ΛCDM, it can’t exist. This is a common way of thinking, but the problem with it was clear to us from a very early stage. The first part of this logic is sound – assuming General Relativity, a hot Big Bang, and that the state of the Universe at early times is apparent in the CMB (i.e. it was flat and almost homogeneous then), we are led to the standard flat ΛCDM model. By studying the largest suitable simulation of this model (called MXXL), we found that it should be completely impossible to find ourselves inside a void with the observed size and depth (or fractional underdensity) of the KBC void – this possibility can be rejected with more confidence than the discovery of the Higgs boson when first announced. We therefore applied one of the leading alternative gravity theories called Milgromian Dynamics (MOND), a controversial idea developed in the early 1980s by Israeli physicist Mordehai Milgrom. We used MOND (explained in a simple way here) to evolve a small density fluctuation forwards from early times, studying if 13 billion years later it fits the density and velocity field of the local Universe. Before describing our results, we briefly introduce MOND and explain how to use it in a potentially viable cosmological framework. Astronomers often assume MOND cannot be extended to cosmological scales (typically >10 Mpc), which is probably true without some auxiliary assumptions. This is also the case for General Relativity, though in that case the scale where auxiliary assumptions become crucial is only a few kpc, namely in galaxies.

MOND was originally designed to explain why galaxies rotate faster in their outskirts than they should if one applies General Relativity to their luminous matter distribution. This discrepancy gave rise to the idea of dark matter halos around individual galaxies. For dark matter to cluster on such scales, it would have to be ‘cold’, or equivalently consist of rather heavy particles (above a few thousand eV/c2, or a millionth of a proton mass). Any lighter and the gravity from galaxies could not hold on to the dark matter. MOND assumes these speculative and unexplained cold dark matter haloes do not exist – the need for them is after all dependent on the validity of General Relativity. In MOND once the gravity from any object gets down to a certain very low threshold called a0, it declines more gradually with increasing distance, following an inverse distance law instead of the usual inverse square law. MOND has successfully predicted many galaxy rotation curves, highlighting some remarkable correlations with their visible mass. This is unexpected if they mostly consist of invisible dark matter with quite different properties to visible mass. The Local Group satellite galaxy planes also strongly favour MOND over ΛCDM, as explained using the logic of Figure 2 and in this YouTube video.

Figure 2: the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way and Andromeda mostly lie within thin planes. These are difficult to form unless the galaxies in them are tidal dwarfs born from the interaction of two major galaxies. Since tidal dwarfs should be free of dark matter due to the way they form, the satellites in the satellite planes should have rather weak self-gravity in ΛCDM. This is not the case as measured from their high internal velocity dispersions. So the extra gravity needed to hold galaxies together should not come from dark matter that can in principle be separated from the visible.

To extend MOND to cosmology, we used what we call the νHDM framework (with ν pronounced “nu”), originally proposed by Angus (2009). In this model, the cold dark matter of ΛCDM is replaced by the same total mass in sterile neutrinos with a mass of only 11 eV/c2, almost a billion times lighter than a proton. Their low mass means they would not clump together in galaxies, consistent with the original idea of MOND to explain galaxies with only their visible mass. This makes the extra collisionless matter ‘hot’, hence the name of the model. But this collisionless matter would exist inside galaxy clusters, helping to explain unusual configurations like the Bullet Cluster and the unexpectedly strong gravity (even in MOND) in quieter clusters. Considering the universe as a whole, νHDM has the same overall matter content as ΛCDM. This makes the overall expansion history of the universe very similar in both models, so both can explain the amounts of deuterium and helium produced in the first few minutes after the Big Bang. They should also yield similar fluctuations in the CMB because both models contain the same amount of dark matter. These fluctuations would get somewhat blurred by sterile neutrinos of such a low mass due to their rather fast motion in the early Universe. However, it has been demonstrated that Planck data are consistent with dark matter particles more massive than 10 eV/c2. Crucially, we showed that the density fluctuations evident in the CMB typically yield a gravitational field strength of 21 a0 (correcting an earlier erroneous estimate of 570 a0 in the above paper), making the gravitational physics nearly identical to General Relativity. Clearly, the main lines of early Universe evidence used to argue in favour of ΛCDM are not sufficiently unique to distinguish it from νHDM (Angus 2009).

The models nonetheless behave very differently later on. We estimated that for redshifts below about 50 (when the Universe is older than about 50 million years), the gravity would typically fall below a0 thanks to the expansion of the Universe (the CMB comes from a redshift of 1100). After this ‘MOND moment’, both the ordinary matter and the sterile neutrinos would clump on large scales just like in ΛCDM, but there would also be the extra gravity from MOND. This would cause structures to grow much faster (Figure 3), allowing much wider and deeper voids.


Figure 3: Evolution of the density contrast within a 300 co-moving Mpc sphere in different Newtonian (red) and MOND (blue) models, shown as a function of the Universe’s size relative to its present size (this changes almost linearly with time). Notice the much faster structure growth in MOND. The solid blue line uses a time-independent external field on the void, while the dot-dashed blue line shows the effect of a stronger external field in the past. This requires a deeper initial void to match present-day observations.

We used this basic framework to set up a dynamical model of the void. By making various approximations and trying different initial density profiles, we were able to simultaneously fit the apparent local Hubble constant, the observed density profile of the KBC void, and many other observables like the acceleration parameter, which we come to below. We also confirmed previous results that the same observables rule out standard cosmology at 7.09σ significance. This is much more than the typical threshold of 5σ used to claim a discovery in cases like the Higgs boson, where the results agree with prior expectations.

One objection to our model was that a large local void would cause the apparent expansion of the Universe to accelerate at late times. Equivalently, observations that go beyond the void should see a standard Planck cosmology, leading to a step-like behaviour near the void edge. At stake is the so-called acceleration parameter q0 (which we defined oppositely to convention to correct a historical error). In ΛCDM, we expect q0 = 0.55, while in general much higher values are expected in a Hubble bubble scenario. The objection of Kenworthy+ (2019) was that since the observed q0 is close to 0.55, there is no room for a void. However, their data analysis fixed q0 to the ΛCDM expectation, thereby removing any hope of discovering a deviation that might be caused by a local void. Other analyses (e.g. Camarena & Marra 2020b) which do not make such a theory-motivated assumption find q0 = 1.08, which is quite consistent with our best-fitting model (Figure 4). We also discussed other objections to a large local void, for instance the Wu & Huterer (2017) paper which did not consider a sufficiently large void, forcing the authors to consider a much deeper void to try and solve the Hubble tension. This led to some serious observational inconsistencies, but a larger and shallower void like the observed KBC void seems to explain the data nicely. In fact, combining all the constraints we applied to our model, the overall tension is only 2.53σ, meaning the data have a 1.14% chance of arising if ours were the correct model. The actual observations are thus not the most likely consequence of our model, but could plausibly arise if it were correct. Given also the high likelihood that some if not all of the observational errors we took from publications are underestimates, this is actually a very good level of consistency.

Figure 4: The predicted local Hubble constant (x-axis) and acceleration parameter (y-axis) as measured with local supernovae (black dot, with red error ellipses). Our best-fitting models with different initial void density profiles (blue symbols) can easily explain the observations. However, there is significant tension with the prediction of ΛCDM based on parameters needed to fit Planck observations of the CMB (green dot). In particular, local observations favour a higher acceleration parameter, suggestive of a local void.

Unlike other attempts to solve the Hubble tension, ours is unique in using an already existing theory (MOND) developed for a different reason (galaxy rotation curves). The use of unseen collisionless matter made of hypothetical sterile neutrinos is still required to explain the properties of galaxy clusters, which otherwise do not sit well with MOND. In addition, these neutrinos provide an easy way to explain the CMB and background expansion history, though recently Skordis & Zlosnik (2020) showed that this is possible in MOND with only ordinary matter. In any case, MOND is a theory of gravity, while dark matter is a hypothesis that more matter exists than meets the eye. The ideas could both be right, and should be tested separately.

A dark matter-MOND hybrid thus appears to be a very promising way to resolve the current crisis in cosmology. Still, more work is required to construct a fully-fledged relativistic MOND theory capable of addressing cosmology. This could build on the theory proposed by Skordis & Zlosnik (2019) in which gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, which was considered to be a major difficulty for MOND. We argued that such a theory would enhance structure formation to the required extent under a wide range of plausible theoretical assumptions, but this needs to be shown explicitly starting from a relativistic MOND theory. Cosmological structure formation simulations are certainly required in this scenario – these are currently under way in Bonn. Further observations would also help greatly, especially of the matter density in the outskirts of the KBC void at distances of about 500 Mpc. This could hold vital clues to how quickly the void has grown, helping to pin down the behaviour of the sought-after MOND theory.

There is now a very real prospect of obtaining a single theory that works across all astronomical scales, from the tiniest dwarf galaxies up to the largest structures in the Universe & its overall expansion rate, and from a few seconds after the birth of the Universe until today. Rather than argue whether this theory looks more like MOND or standard cosmology, what we should really do is combine the best elements of both, paying careful attention to all observations.


Authors

Indranil Banik is a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow in the Helmholtz Institute for Radiation and Nuclear Physics (HISKP) at the University of Bonn, Germany. He did his undergraduate and masters at Trinity College, Cambridge, and his PhD at Saint Andrews under Hongsheng Zhao. His research focuses on testing whether gravity continues to follow the Newtonian inverse square law at the low accelerations typical of galactic outskirts, with MOND being the best-developed alternative.

Moritz Haslbauer is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn. He obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Vienna and his masters from the University of Bonn. He works on the formation and evolution of galaxies and their distribution in the local Universe in order to test different cosmological models and gravitational theories. Prof. Pavel Kroupa is his PhD supervisor.

Pavel Kroupa is a professor at the University of Bonn and professorem hospitem at Charles University in Prague. He went to school in Germany and South Africa, studied physics in Perth, Australia, and obtained his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK. He researches stellar populations and their dynamics as well as the dark matter problem, therewith testing gravitational theories and cosmological models.

Link to the published science paper.

YouTube video on the paper

Contact: ibanik@astro.uni-bonn.de.

Indranil Banik’s YouTube channel.