Archive for Advanced LIGO

GW News Day

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 16, 2017 by telescoper

Well, it has certainly been an eventful last day in India!

Over a hundred people gathered at IUCAA to see this evening’s press conference, which basically confirmed most of the rumours that had been circulating that a Gamma Ray Burst had been detected in both GW and EM radiation. I won’t write in detail about today’s announcement because (a) a really useful page of resources has been prepared by the group at IUCAA. Check out the fact sheet and (b) I haven’t really had time to digest all the science yet.

I will mention a couple of things, however. One is that the signal-to-noise ratio of this detection is a whopping 32.4, a value that astronomers can usually only dream of! The other is that neutron star coalescence offer the possibility to bypass the traditional `distance ladder’ approaches to get an independent measurement of the Hubble constant. The value obtained is in the range 62 to 107 km s-1 Mpc-1, which is admittedly fairly broad, but is based on only one observation of this type. It is extremely impressive to be straddling the target with the very first salvo.

The LIGO collaboration is over a thousand people. Add to that the staff of no fewer than seventy observatories (including seven in space). With all that’s going in the world, it’s great to see what humans of different nations across the globe can do when they come together and work towards a common goal. Scientific results of this kind will remembered long after the silly ramblings of our politicians and other fools have been forgotten.

I took part in a panel discussion after the results were presented, but sadly I won’t be here to see tomorrow’s papers. I hope people will save cuttings or post weblinks if there are any articles!

UPDATE: Here is a selection of the local press coverage.

Indian LIGO


As if these thrilling science results weren’t enough I finally managed to meet my old friend and former collaborator Varun Sahni (who was away last week). An invitation to dinner at his house was not to be resisted on my last night here, which explains why I didn’t write a post immediately after the press conference. Still, of got plenty of papers to read on the plane tomorrow so maybe I’ll do something when I get back.

Tomorrow morning I get up early to return to Mumbai for the flight home, and am not likely to be online again until Wednesday UK time.

Thanks to all at IUCAA (and TIFR) for making my stay so pleasant and interesting. It’s been 23 years since I was last here. I hope it’s not so long before I’m back again!


Gravitational Waves Flash!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 13, 2017 by telescoper

I got up early this morning to hitch a ride in a car to Mumbai so that I can give a talk this afternoon. We left Pune about 6am and got here about 8.30 so the trip was a quite a bit quicker than coming here! I’ll post about that and include some pictures when I get a moment, but first I’ll post a quick announcement.

There will be an announcement on Monday 16th October at 10am EDT (3pm BST; 7.30pm in Pune) by `the National Science Foundation (NSF) as it brings together scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo collaborations, as well as representatives for some 70 observatories’. Further details can be found here. The European Southern Observatory has also announced that it will be holding a press conference on Monday about an `unprecedented discovery’.

The fact that it involves LIGO, Virgo and representatives of other observatories strongly suggests that this announcement will address the subject of the rumours that were flying around in August. In other words, it’s likely that on Monday we will hear about the first detecting of a coalescing binary neutron star system with an optical counterpart. Exciting times!

I’ll be back in Pune by Monday and will probably be able to watch the announcement and will update if and when I can.

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2017 by telescoper

Usually at this time of year I make a point of watching the live announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics, but this time I was otherwise engaged. On the other hand, this year was the least surprising announcement I can remember for a long time. Confirming almost everyone’s expectations, the award goes to Rainer Weiss (MIT), Barry C. Barish (Caltech) and Kip S. Thorne (Caltech) “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. You can see the full citation here.

Perhaps one surprise the split (50% to Weiss and 25% each to Barish and Thorne). I suppose the reason is that it divides the prize equally between MIT and Caltech. Ronald Drever, who had shared in other awards for the LIGO discovery (e.g the Gruber,  Shaw and Kavli prizes), sadly passed away earlier this year.

Anyway,  heartiest congratulations to the winners and also to all the other members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration who collectively earned this award! That includes the Gravitational Physics group at Cardiff University who will no doubt be getting pissed celebrating in appropriate style.

Two thoughts. One is that the LIGO Collaboration is very large (the papers have over a thousand authors) but the Nobel Prize rules do not allow this award to be divided among more than three people. This is a problem for `Big Science’ which is always done by large teams. In a real sense, the Nobel Prize for physics reflects the way physics was done when it was founded, over a hundred years ago. It seems to me the limitation perpetuates the myth of the lone genius, when science doesn’t really work like that nowadays. I’m not sure it ever did, actually. I  wonder if they’ll ever change?

Another thing that struck me is that the interval between discovery and award seems to be decreasing. For example, he Cosmic Microwave Background was discovered in 1965, but Penzias and Wilson were not awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery until 1978. I attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2005, when George Smoot and John Mather were award the prize for COBE which had happened over a decade earlier. This time the gap between discovery and award is just two years. I suppose that proves that we live in an accelerating universe (Nobel Prize 2011).

Anyway there are too many people in LIGO for them all to be able to attend the Prize Ceremony and Banquet in Stockholm in December, but I hope the winners don’t just give their invitations to senior members of the LIGO collaboration. Perhaps some form of lottery might be organized to allow early career researchers to attend?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I had the honour to be invited to the 2006 Nobel Prize ceremony. As a matter of fact, I still have this:

The chocolate has probably gone off by now, though. I stress that I attended not as a winner but as a guest of the Nobel Foundation. It was a wonderful occasion, of which I have very special memories. I’m sure everyone who does get to attend will have a ball! (Geddit?)

Although the Nobel Prize has its limitations as a true reflection of scientific contributions, I still has value in that for once the news media are talking about a great human achievement which contrasts with much of the stuff we have to hear about these days.

LIGO, Leaks and NGC 4993

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 23, 2017 by telescoper

No matter what the official policy may be, the more people there are in a collaboration the more likely it is that someone will let their excitement get to their head and start leaking news and starting rumours either directly or indirectly via social media. And so it came to pass last Friday that the following tweet appeared:

I didn’t comment on the time as I thought it might be unreliable – as it indeed it still may be – but now New Scientist has amplified the signal I feel I can’t really be blamed for mentioning it here.

The rumours going round identify the optical counterpart as being in the galaxy NGC 4993 , a red band image of which, from the Second Digitized Sky Survey (DSS2) is shown below:

NGC 4993 is the fuzzy blob slightly above and to the left of the centre of the image. It’s a fairly nondescript lenticular galaxy in a group that can be found in the constellation of Hydra. It lies in the constellation of Hydra, was actually first discovered by William Herschel and it is about 10 arcmin across on the sky. It’s quite nearby, as these things go, with a distance of about 124 million light years (i.e. 40 Mpc or so) and is about 14th magnitude.

If there is an optical counterpart to a gravitational wave event coming from this galaxy then that suggests it may be a coalescence of neutron stars. The black hole mergers that appear to be responsible to the three existing gravitational wave signals that are claimed to have been detected are not expected to release optical light. Confirmation of this interpretation can be found by where the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed yesterday:

Look familiar? HST was, in fact, observing a `BNS-Merger’ (which is short for `Binary Neutron Star’)…


If this rumour is true then it’s obviously exciting, but there are questions to be asked. Chief among these is how sure is the identification of the counterpart? A transient optical source in NGC4993 may have been observed at the same time as a gravitational wave signal was detected,  but the ability of LIGO to resolve positions on the sky is very poor. On the other hand, the European VIRGO experiment joined Advanced LIGO for the ongoing `O2′ observing run (which ends in a couple of days). Although VIRGO is less sensitive than LIGO having a third detector does improve the localization of the source – assuming, of course, that it detects a signal. Even in that case it certainly won’t be possible to pinpoint the GW source to within 10 arc minutes, which is the precision needed to place it definitely within NGC 4993.

Anyway, we wait and see what, if anything, has been found. If it is a claimed detection then I hope that LIGO and VIRGO will release sufficient data to enable the analysis to be checked and verified. That’s what most of the respondents to my poll seem to hope too!

On the Time Lags of the LIGO signals

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 10, 2017 by telescoper

It seems that a lot of rumours are flying around on social media and elsewhere about the discussions that have been going on here in Copenhagen between members of the Niels Bohr Institute and of the LIGO scientific collaboration concerning matters arising from the `Danish Paper‘.  The most prominent among these appears to be the LIGO team and the Danish team have agreed on everything and that the Danish authors have conceded that they were mistaken in their claims. I have even been told that my recent blog posts gave the impression that this was the case. I’m not sure how, as all I’ve said is that the discussions reached agreement on some matters. I did not say what matters or whose position had changed.

I feel, therefore, that some clarification is necessary. Since I am a member of neither party to this controversy I have to tread carefully, and there are some things which I feel I should not discuss at all. I was invited to participate in the discussions as a neutral observer as a courtesy and I certainly don’t want to betray any confidences. On one thing, however, I can be perfectly clear. The Danish team (Cresswell et al.) have not retracted their claims and they reject the suggestion that their paper was wrong.

To reinforce this, I draw your attention to the fact that a revised version of `The Danish Paper’ has now been accepted for publication (in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics) and that this paper is now available on the arXiv. The referees raised a large number of queries, and in response to them all the revised version is almost double the length of the original.

Here is the arXiv entry page:

The main body of the paper has not been significantly modified and their main result – of an unexplained 7ms correlation in the background signal (referred to in the abstract as `noise’) – has not “gone away”. If you want to understand more, read the paper!

I’m sure there will be much more discussion of this and I will comment as appropriate when appropriate. In the meantime this remains very much a live issue.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I did read over part of the revised version of the Danish paper and made some suggestions with regard to style and flow. I therefore have a mention in the acknowledgments of the final version. I was warned that I might expect some trouble for agreeing to be associated with the paper in this way but, as  Sam Spade says in The Maltese Falcon `I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble’…

The ‘Danish Paper’ and How Science Works

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 27, 2017 by telescoper

I’m off work today but couldn’t resist posting a very quick update on the controversial claims of inconsistencies in the recent detection of gravitational waves by LIGO.

If you’re following the story you will know that it started with a paper on the arXiv by Cresswell et al.,  a group mainly based in Denmark, which is why the paper is now frequently referred to as ‘The Danish Paper’ although its authors actually come from all round the world.

Well the same group have now  written a rejoinder to the LIGO critique of their analysis. They’re clearly sticking to their guns, at least on their claim that the residuals left after removing the gravitational wave events from the two time series are correlated, which they should not be if they are simply noise.

Hopefully the public airing this controversy had received will lead to other independent groups downloading and analysing the data, which is all in the public domain, and we’ll eventually arrive at the truth.

Contrary to the opinion of one of my Cardiff colleagues I think this is how science works and, importantly, how it should be seen to work. Science  is a process of investigation, and it doesn’t come to an end when  results have been published in refereed journals. 

 The more the public see how science really works – warts and all – the better they will understand its strengths as well as its limitations.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this discussion I think we will find that the ‘Danish Paper’ has helped advance our understanding, and for that the authors deserve a great deal of credit.


Newsflash: another LIGO detection!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 1, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve just heard the news that  LIGO has just announced the detection of another gravitational-wave signal, which has been given the identifier GW170104; it was detected on 4th January 2017.

The event was the merger of a black-hole binary system a redshift z=0.2, which is a proper distance of about 800 Mpc in the standard cosmological model, the most distant event yet detected. There are also tantalising hints that at least one of the black holes had spin opposite the orbital angular momentum, which implies it may have originated in a globular cluster. For more details please see the refereed paper.

If you’d rather just look at the plot here is the evidence for the event, in the form of coincident signals at the two components of LIGO:


I reckon there’s a good chance of seeing members of the Cardiff University Gravitational Physics group celebrating in the pub later this evening!

It’s also a reasonable inference given the rate of detection of these events so far that we’re going to see many more in the very near future!