Archive for gravitational waves

Grave Wave Doubts?

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 1, 2018 by telescoper


I noticed this morning that this week’s New Scientist cover feature (by Michael Brooks)is entitled Exclusive: Grave doubts over LIGO’s discovery of gravitational waves. The article is behind a paywall – and I’ve so far been unable to locate a hard copy in Maynooth so I haven’t read it yet but it is about the so-called `Danish paper’ that pointed out various unexplained features in LIGO data associated with the first detection of gravitational waves of a binary black hole merger.

I did know this piece was coming, however, as I spoke to the author on the phone some time ago to clarify some points I made in previous blog posts on this issue (e.g. this one and that one). I even ended up being quoted in the article:

Not everyone agrees the Danish choices were wrong. “I think their paper is a good one and it’s a shame that some of the LIGO team have been so churlish in response,” says Peter Coles, a cosmologist at Maynooth University in Ireland.

I stand by that comment, as I think certain members – though by no means all – of the LIGO team have been uncivil in their reaction to the Danish team, implying that they consider it somehow unreasonable that the LIGO results such be subject to independent scrutiny. I am not convinced that the unexplained features in the data released by LIGO really do cast doubt on the detection, but unexplained features there undoubtedly are. Surely it is the job of science to explain the unexplained?

It is an important aspect of the way science works is that when a given individual or group publishes a result, it should be possible for others to reproduce it (or not as the case may be). In normal-sized laboratory physics it suffices to explain the experimental set-up in the published paper in sufficient detail for another individual or group to build an equivalent replica experiment if they want to check the results. In `Big Science’, e.g. with LIGO or the Large Hadron Collider, it is not practically possible for other groups to build their own copy, so the best that can be done is to release the data coming from the experiment. A basic problem with reproducibility obviously arises when this does not happen.

In astrophysics and cosmology, results in scientific papers are often based on very complicated analyses of large data sets. This is also the case for gravitational wave experiments. Fortunately, in astrophysics these days, researchers are generally pretty good at sharing their data, but there are a few exceptions in that field.

Even allowing open access to data doesn’t always solve the reproducibility problem. Often extensive numerical codes are needed to process the measurements and extract meaningful output. Without access to these pipeline codes it is impossible for a third party to check the path from input to output without writing their own version, assuming that there is sufficient information to do that in the first place. That researchers should publish their software as well as their results is quite a controversial suggestion, but I think it’s the best practice for science. In any case there are often intermediate stages between `raw’ data and scientific results, as well as ancillary data products of various kinds. I think these should all be made public. Doing that could well entail a great deal of effort, but I think in the long run that it is worth it.

I’m not saying that scientific collaborations should not have a proprietary period, just that this period should end when a result is announced, and that any such announcement should be accompanied by a release of the data products and software needed to subject the analysis to independent verification.

Given that the detection of gravitational waves is one of the most important breakthroughs ever made in physics, I think this is a matter of considerable regret. I also find it difficult to understand the reasoning that led the LIGO consortium to think it was a good plan only to go part of the way towards open science, by releasing only part of the information needed to reproduce the processing of the LIGO signals and their subsequent statistical analysis. There may be good reasons that I know nothing about, but at the moment it seems to me to me to represent a wasted opportunity.

CLARIFICATION: The LIGO Consortium released data from the first observing run (O1) – you can find it here – early in 2018, but this data set was not available publicly at the time of publication of the first detection, nor when the team from Denmark did their analysis.

I know I’m an extremist when it comes to open science, and there are probably many who disagree with me, so here’s a poll I’ve been running for a year or so on this issue:

Any other comments welcome through the box below!

UPDATE: There is a (brief) response from LIGO (& VIRGO) here.


The Success of LISA Pathfinder

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 8, 2018 by telescoper

Back in Maynooth, in between lecture and computer lab session, I only have time for a quick post so I’ll take the opportunity to share the recent news from LISA Pathfinder (which is basically a technology demonstrator mission intended to establish the feasibility of a proposed space-based gravitational wave facility called LISA). LISA Pathfinder is ostensibly an extremely simple experiment, consisting of two metal cubes (made of a gold-platinum mixture) about 38cm apart. The question it tries to answer is how accurately these two cubes can be put an ideal “free-fall” state, i.e. when the only force acting on them is gravity. I say `ostensibly’ however, in full knowledge that is an extremely challenging task that requires lots of clever design and painstaking work.

Initial signs were promising, and the confidence has now been justified by a paper in Physical Review Letters. Here is the abstract:

This is the key figure:

This confirms that the spacecraft has more than matched the sensitivity requirement demanded of it. Congratulations to the LISA Pathfinder mission on an outstanding success!


GW170608—The underdog

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 20, 2017 by telescoper

Interesting post from a gravitational wave researcher, telling the inside story of the latest gravitational wave detection (a binary black hole merger) announced last week.



Christopher Berry

Detected in June, GW170608 has had a difficult time. It was challenging to analyse, and neglected in favour of its louder and shinier siblings. However, we can now introduce you to our smallest chirp-mass binary black hole system!

Family of adorable black holes The growing family of black holes. From Dawn Finney.

Our family of binary black holes is now growing large. During our first observing run (O1) we found three: GW150914, LVT151012 and GW151226. The advanced detector observing run (O2) ran from 30 November 2016 to 25 August 2017 (with a couple of short breaks). From our O1 detections, we were expecting roughly one binary black hole per month. The first same in January, GW170104, and we have announced the first detection which involved Virgo from August, GW170814, so you might be wondering what happened in-between? Pretty much everything was dropped following the detection of our first…

View original post 1,790 more words

And then there were five….

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 17, 2017 by telescoper

…black hole mergers detected via gravitational waves, that is. Here are the key measurements for Number 5, codename GW170608. More information can be found here.

Here is the abstract of the discovery paper:

On June 8, 2017 at 02:01:16.49 UTC, a gravitational-wave signal from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes was observed by the two Advanced LIGO detectors with a network signal-to-noise ratio of 13. This system is the lightest black hole binary so far observed, with component masses 12+7-2 M⊙ and 7+2-2 M⊙ (90% credible intervals). These lie in the range of measured black hole masses in low-mass X-ray binaries, thus allowing us to compare black holes detected through gravitational waves with electromagnetic observations. The source’s luminosity distance is 340 +140-140Mpc, corresponding to redshift 0.07+0.03-0.03. We verify that the signal waveform is consistent with the predictions of general relativity.

This merger seems to have been accompanied by a lower flux of press releases than previous examples…

Determining the Hubble Constant the Bernard Schutz way

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2017 by telescoper

In my short post about Monday’s announcement of the detection of a pair of coalescing neutron stars (GW170817), I mentioned that one of the results that caught my eye in particular was the paper about using such objects to determine the Hubble constant.

Here is the key result from that paper, i.e. the posterior distribution of the Hubble constant H0 given the data from GW170817:

You can also see latest determinations from other methods, which appear to be in (slight) tension; you can read more about this here. Clearly the new result from GW170817 yields a fairly broad range for H0 but, as I said in my earlier post, it’s very impressive to be straddling the target with the first salvo.

Anyway, I just thought I’d mention here that the method of measuring the Hubble constant using coalescing binary neutron stars was invented by none other than Bernard Schutz of Cardiff University, who works in the Data Innovation Institute (as I do). The idea was first published in September 1986 in a Letter to Nature. Here is the first paragraph:

I report here how gravitational wave observations can be used to determine the Hubble constant, H 0. The nearly monochromatic gravitational waves emitted by the decaying orbit of an ultra–compact, two–neutron–star binary system just before the stars coalesce are very likely to be detected by the kilometre–sized interferometric gravitational wave antennas now being designed1–4. The signal is easily identified and contains enough information to determine the absolute distance to the binary, independently of any assumptions about the masses of the stars. Ten events out to 100 Mpc may suffice to measure the Hubble constant to 3% accuracy.

In in the paper, Bernard points out that a binary coalescence — such as the merger of two neutron stars — is a self calibrating `standard candle’, which means that it is possible to infer directly the distance without using the cosmic distance ladder. The key insight is that the rate at which the binary’s frequency changes is directly related to the amplitude of the gravitational waves it produces, i.e. how `loud’ the GW signal is. Just as the observed brightness of a star depends on both its intrinsic luminosity and how far away it is, the strength of the gravitational waves received at LIGO depends on both the intrinsic loudness of the source and how far away it is. By observing the waves with detectors like LIGO and Virgo, we can determine both the intrinsic loudness of the gravitational waves as well as their loudness at the Earth. This allows us to directly determine distance to the source.

It may have taken 31 years to get a measurement, but hopefully it won’t be long before there are enough detections to provide greater precision – and hopefully accuracy! – than the current methods can manage!

Above all, congratulations to Bernard for inventing a method which has now been shown to work very well!

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.