Understanding the how our universe came to be what it is today and what will be its final destiny is one of the biggest challenges in science. The awe-inspiring display of countless stars on a clear night gives us some idea of the magnitude of the problem, and yet that is only part of the story. The deeper riddle lies in what we cannot see, at least not directly: dark matter and dark energy. With dark matter pulling the universe together and dark energy causing it to expand faster, cosmologists need to know exactly how much of those two is out there in order to refine their models.
At ETH Zurich, scientists from the Department of Physics and the Department of Computer Science have now joined forces to improve on standard methods for estimating the dark matter content of the universe through artificial intelligence. They used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms for cosmological data analysis that have a lot in common with those used for facial recognition by Facebook and other social media. Their results have recently been published in the scientific journal
Physical Review D
Facial recognition for cosmology
While there are no faces to be recognized in pictures taken of the night sky, cosmologists still look for something rather similar, as Tomasz Kacprzak, a researcher in the group of Alexandre Refregier at the Institute of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, explains: “Facebook uses its algorithms to find eyes, mouths or ears in images; we use ours to look for the tell-tale signs of dark matter and dark energy.” As dark matter cannot be seen directly in telescope images, physicists rely on the fact that all matter – including the dark variety – slightly bends the path of light rays arriving at the Earth from distant galaxies. This effect, known as “weak gravitational lensing”, distorts the images of those galaxies very subtly, much like far-away objects appear blurred on a hot day as light passes through layers of air at different temperatures.
Cosmologists can use that distortion to work backwards and create mass maps of the sky showing where dark matter is located. Next, they compare those dark matter maps to theoretical predictions in order to find which cosmological model most closely matches the data. Traditionally, this is done using human-designed statistics such as so-called correlation functions that describe how different parts of the maps are related to each other. Such statistics, however, are limited as to how well they can find complex patterns in the matter maps.
Neural networks teach themselves
“In our recent work, we have used a completely new methodology”, says Alexandre Refregier. “Instead of inventing the appropriate statistical analysis ourselves, we let computers do the job.” This is where Aurelien Lucchi and his colleagues from the Data Analytics Lab at the Department of Computer Science come in. Together with Janis Fluri, a PhD student in Refregier’s group and lead author of the study, they used machine learning algorithms called deep artificial neural networks and taught them to extract the largest possible amount of information from the dark matter maps.