Archive for gravitational waves

The Great Gravitational Wave Source Follow-Up

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 1, 2016 by telescoper

I recently noticed on the arXiv  an interesting paper with 1562 authors!

Here is the abstract:

A gravitational-wave transient was identified in data recorded by the Advanced LIGO detectors on 2015 September 14. The event candidate, initially designated G184098 and later given the name GW150914, is described in detail elsewhere. By prior arrangement, preliminary estimates of the time, significance, and sky location of the event were shared with 63 teams of observers covering radio, optical, near-infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray wavelengths with ground- and space-based facilities. In this Letter we describe the low-latency analysis of the gravitational wave data and present the sky localization of the first observed compact binary merger. We summarize the follow-up observations reported by 25 teams via private Gamma-ray Coordinates Network Circulars, giving an overview of the participating facilities, the gravitational wave sky localization coverage, the timeline and depth of the observations. As this event turned out to be a binary black hole merger, there is little expectation of a detectable electromagnetic signature. Nevertheless, this first broadband campaign to search for a counterpart of an Advanced LIGO source represents a milestone and highlights the broad capabilities of the transient astronomy community and the observing strategies that have been developed to pursue neutron star binary merger events. Detailed investigations of the electromagnetic data and results of the electromagnetic follow-up campaign will be disseminated in the papers of the individual teams.

This is interesting not so much for the result – there wasn’t really any expectation of finding an electromagnetic counterpart of a binary black-hole merger – but that it’s the first example of the kind of mass mobilisation of astronomers that will be needed when gravitational-wave astronomy gets going in earnest. Astronomers working on transient sources such as gamma-ray bursts are already used to this kind of operation, but there’s going to be a lot more of it in the future!

 

Making Massive Black Hole Binaries Merge

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by telescoper

Many fascinating questions remain unanswered by last week’s detection of gravitational waves produced by a coalescing binary black hole system (GW150914) by LIGO. One of these is whether the fact that the similarity of the component masses (29 and 36 times the mass of the Sun respectively) is significant.

An interesting paper appeared on the arXiv last week by Marchant et al. that touches on this. Here is the abstract (you can click on it to make it larger):

BinaryBH

 

Although there is some technical jargon, the point is relatively clear. It appears that very masssive, very low metallicity binary stars can evolve into black hole binary systems via supernova explosions without disrupting their orbit. The term ‘low metallicity’ characteristises stars that form from primordial material (i.e. basically hydrogen and helium) early in the cycle of stellar evolution. Such material has very different opacity properties from material with significant quantities of heavier elements in it, which alters the dynamical evolution considerably.

(Remember that to an astrophysicist, chemistry is extremely simple. Hydrogen and helium make up most of the atomic matter in the Universe; all the rest is called “metals” including carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen…. )

Anyway, this theoretical paper is relevant because the mass ratios produced by this mechanism are expected to be of order unity, as is the case of GW150914.  One observation doesn’t prove much, but it’s definitely Quite Interesting…

Incidentally, it has been reported that another gravitational wave source may have been detected by LIGO, in October last year. This isn’t as clean a signal as the first, so it will require further analysis before a definitive result is claimed, but it too seems to be a black hole binary system with a mass ratio of order unity…

You wait forty years for a gravitational wave signal from a binary black hole merger and then two come along in quick succession…

 

 

 

Lessons from LIGO

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 13, 2016 by telescoper

At the end of a very exciting week I had the pleasure last night of toasting LIGO and the future of gravitational wave astronomy with champagne at the RAS Club in London. Two members of the LIGO collaboration were there, Alberto Vecchio and Mike Cruise (both from Birmingham); Alberto had delivered a very nice talk earlier in the day summarising the LIGO discovery while Mike made a short speech at the club.

This morning I found this interesting video produced by California Institute of Technology (CalTech) which discusses the history of the LIGO experiment:

It has taken over 40 years of determination and hard work to get this far. You can see pictures of some of the protagonists from Thursday’s press conference, such as Kip Thorne, when they were much younger. I bet there were times during the past four decades when they must have doubted that they would ever get there, but they kept the faith and now can enjoy the well-deserved celebrations. They certainly will all be glad they stuck with gravitational waves now, and all must be mighty proud!

Mike Cruise made two points in his speech that I think are worth repeating here. One is that we think of the LIGO discovery is a triumph of physics. It is that, of course. But the LIGO consortium of over a thousand people comprises not only physicists, but also various kinds of engineers, designers, technicians and software specialists. Moreover the membership of LIGO is international. It’s wonderful that people from all over the world can join forces, blend their skils and expertise, and achieve something remarkable. There’s a lesson right there for those who would seek to lead us into small-minded isolationism.

The other point was that the LIGO discovery provides a powerful testament for university research. LIGO was a high-risk experiment that took decades to yield a result. It’s impossible to imagine any commercial company undertaking such an endeavour, so this could only have happened in an institution (or, more correctly, a network of institutions) committed to “blue skies” science. This is research done for its own sake, not to create a short-term profit but to enrich our understanding of the Universe. Asking  profound questions and trying to answer them is one of the things that makes us human. It’s a pity we are so obsessed with wealth and property that we need to be reminded of this, but clearly we do.

The current system of Research Assessment in the UK requires university research to generate “impact” outside the world of academia in a relatively short timescale. That pressure is completely at odds with experiments like LIGO. Who would start a physics experiment now that would take 40 years to deliver?  I’ve said it time and time again to my bosses at the University of Sussex that if you’re serious about supporting physics you have to play a long game because it requires substantial initial investment and generates results only very slowly.  I worry what future lies in store for physics if the fixation on market-driven research continues much longer.

Finally, I couldn’t resist making a comment about another modern fixation – bibliometrics. The LIGO discovery paper in Physical Review Letters has 1,004 authors. By any standard this is an extraordinarily significant article, but because it has over a thousand authors it stands to be entirely excluded by the Times Higher when they compile the next World University Rankings.  Whatever the science community or the general public thinks about the discovery of gravitational waves, the bean-counters deem it worthless. We need to take a stand against this sort of nonsense.

 

 

 

 

LIGO at the Royal Astronomical Society

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 12, 2016 by telescoper

image

My monthly trip to London for the Royal Astronomical Society Meeting allowed me not only to get out of the office for the day but also to attend a nice talk by Alberto Vecchio about yesterday’s amazing results.

I hear that we will be having champagne at the club later on to celebrate. In the meantime here’s a little Haiku I wrote on the theme:

Two black holes collide
A billion years ago.
LIGO feels the strain.

LIGO: Live Reaction Blog

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 11, 2016 by telescoper

So the eagerly awaited press conference happened this afternoon. It started in unequivocal fashion.

“We detected gravitational gravitational waves. We did it!”

As rumoured, the signal corresponds to the coalescence of two black holes, of masses 29 and 36 times the mass of the Sun.

The signal arrived in September 2015, very shortly after Advanced LIGO was switched on. There’s synchronicity for you! The LIGO collaboration have done wondrous things getting their sensitivity down to such a level that they can measure such a tiny effect, but there still has to be an event producing a signal to measure. Collisions of two such massive black holes are probably extremely rare so it’s a bit of good fortune that one happened just at the right time. Actually it was during an engineering test!

Here are the key results:

 

LIGO

 

Excellent signal to noise! I’m convinced! Many congratulations to everyone involved in LIGO! This has been a heroic effort that has taken many years of hard slog. They deserve the highest praise, as do the funding agencies who have been prepared to cover the costs of this experiment over such a long time. Physics of this kind is a slow burner, but it delivers spectacularly in the end!

You can find the paper here, although the server seems to be struggling to cope! One part of the rumour was wrong, however, the result is not in Nature, but in Physical Review Letters. There will no doubt be many more!

And right on cue here is the first batch of science papers!

No prizes for guessing where the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics is heading, but in a collaboration of over 1000 people across the world which few will receive the award?

So, as usual, I had a day filled with lectures, workshops and other meetings so I was thinking I would miss the press conference entirely, but in the end I couldn’t resist interrupting a meeting with the Head of the Department of Mathematics to watch the live stream…

P.S. A quick shout out the UK teams involved in this work, including many old friends in the Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University (see BBC News item here) and Jim Hough and Sheila Rowan from Glasgow. If any of them are reading this, enjoy your trip to Stockholm!

LIGO Newsflash

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 5, 2016 by telescoper

This morning I heard the same rumour from two distinct (and possibly independent) sources. That’s not enough to prove that the rumour is true, but perhaps enough to make it  repeating here.

The rumour is that, on Thursday 11th February in Washington DC at 10.40am 10.30am local time (15.40 15.30GMT), the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) will announce the direct experimental detection of gravitational waves.

If true this is immensely exciting, but I reiterate that it is, for the time being at least, only a rumour.

I will add more as soon as I get it. Please feel free to provide updates through the comments. Likewise if you have information to the contrary…

 

UPDATE: 9th February 2016. An official announcement of the forthcoming announcement has now been announced. It will take place at 10.30 local time in Washington (15.30 GMT), although it is believed the first ten minutes will involve a couple of songs by the popular vocal artist Beyoncé.

 

On the Theory of Gravitational Wave Rumour Sources

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff, Uncategorized with tags , , on January 12, 2016 by telescoper

There has been a great deal of excitement almost nowhere in the astrophysics community since it was announced recently that rumours of the detection of gravitational waves had yet again begun to circulate, so I thought I would add here a brief discussion of the theoretical background to these phenomena.

The standard theoretical model of such rumours is that they are  produced from time to time during the lifetime of a supermassive science project after periods of relative quiescence. It is thought that they are associated with a perceived lack of publicity which might threaten funding and lead to financial collapse of the project. This stimulates a temporary emission of hype produced by vigorous gossip-mongering which acts to inflate the external profile of the project, resisting external pressures and restoring equilibrium. This general phenomenon is not restricted to gravitational wave detection, but also occurs across many other branches of Big Science, especially cosmology and particle physics.

However, observations of the latest outburst suggest support for a rival theory, in which rumours are produced not by the project itself but by some other body or bodies in orbit around it or even perhaps entirely independent of it. Although there is evidence in favour of this theory, it is relatively new and many questions remain to be answered. In particular it is not known what the effect of rumours produced in this way might be on the long-term evolution of the project or on the source itself.

Lawrence Krauss is 61.

 

 

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