Category: gravitational waves

Can We Test Gravitational Waves For Wave-Particle Duality?

“Although we have every reason to believe that gravitational waves are simply the quantum analog of electromagnetic waves, we have, unlike the electromagnetic photon, not yet risen to the technological challenges of directly detecting the gravitational particle that’s the counterpart of gravitational waves: the graviton.

Theorists are still calculating the uniquely quantum effects that should arise and are working together with experimentalists to design tabletop tests of quantum gravity, all while gravitational wave astronomers puzzle over how a future-generation detector might some day reveal the quantum nature of these waves. Although we expect gravitational waves to exhibit wave-particle duality, until we detect it, we cannot know for certain. Here’s hoping that our curiosity compels us to invest in it, that nature cooperates, and that we find out the answer once and for all!”

One of the revolutionary discoveries of the quantum world was that every particle that we know of also behaves as a wave. Photons are the quanta associated with light, and every light wave is made up of a discrete number of photons. Particles like electrons also can behave as waves; if you send them through a double slit, even one-at-a-time, they’ll produce an interference pattern.

So what about gravitational waves? We’ve seen the wave part; could we ever test them for the “particle” part of that? Find out today!

Has LIGO Just Detected The ‘Trifecta’ Signal That All Astronomers Have Been Hoping For?

“Of course, all of this is just preliminary at this point. The LIGO collaboration has yet to announce a definitive detection of any type, and the IceCube event may turn out to be either a foreground, unrelated neutrino or a spurious event entirely. No electromagnetic signal has been announced, and there might not be one at all. Science moves slowly and carefully, as it should, and all of what’s been written here is a best-case scenario for the optimistic hopefuls out there, not a slam-dunk by any means.

But if we keep watching the sky in these three fundamentally different ways, and keep increasing and improving the precision at which we do so, it’s only a matter of time before the right natural event gives us the signal every astronomer has been waiting for. Just a generation ago, multi-messenger astronomy was nothing but a dream. Today, it’s not just the future of astronomy, but the present as well. There’s no moment in science quite as exciting as being on the cusp of an unprecedented breakthrough.”

There haven’t been any official releases, announcements, or claimed discoveries, but many of you may be aware that back in April, LIGO turned on again and began searching the Universe for gravitational waves, this time with improved range and sensitivity. Over that time, some 24 candidate events have been seen, and the most recent one, from July 28, 2019, is perhaps something special. Located 2.9 billion light years away and likely to be a black hole-black hole merger, it just happens to coincide with the arrival of a cosmic neutrino, in both space and time, as seen by IceCube.

Electromagnetic follow-ups are currently underway, and this could mark the first threefold multi-messenger astronomy signal ever! Watch this one closely, as it could herald a new dawn for astronomy in human history!

Ask Ethan: Why Do Gravitational Waves Travel Exactly At The Speed Of Light?

We know that the speed of electromagnetic radiation can be derived from Maxwell’s equation[s] in a vacuum. What equations (similar to Maxwell’s – perhaps?) offer a mathematical proof that Gravity Waves must travel [at the] speed of light?

If you were to somehow make the Sun disappear, you would still see its emitted light for 8 minutes and 20 seconds: the amount of time it takes light to travel from the Sun to the Earth across 150,000,000 km of space. But what about gravitation? Would the Earth continue to orbit where the Sun was for that same 8 minutes and 20 seconds, or would it fly off in a straight line immediately?

There are two ways to look at this puzzle: theoretically and experimentally/observationally. From a theoretical point of view, this represents one of the most profound differences from Newton’s gravitation to Einstein’s, and demonstrates what a revolutionary leap General Relativity was. Observationally, we only had indirect measurements until 2017, where we determined the speed of gravity and the speed of light were equal to 15 significant digits!

Gravitational waves do travel at the speed of light, which equals the speed of gravity to a better precision than ever. Here’s how we know.

Ask Ethan: Why Haven’t We Found Gravitational Waves In Our Own Galaxy?

“Why are all the known gravitational wave sources (coalescing binaries) in the distant universe? Why none has been detected in our neighborhood? […] My guess (which is most probably wrong) is that the detectors need to be precisely aligned for any detection. Hence all the detection until now are serendipitous.”

On September 14, 2015, our view of the Universe changed forever with the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Since then, we’ve detected a variety of black hole and neutron star binaries in the final, end-stages of coalescence, culminating in a spectacular merger. But they’re all hundreds of millions or even billions of light-years away!

Simultaneously, we know that we have neutron stars and black holes in binary systems here in our own galaxy. But of all the gravitational waves that LIGO and Virgo have detected, none of these objects are among them. This remains true, even though we can identify many of them from their electromagnetic signatures.

Why haven’t we found gravitational waves in our own galaxy? Give us a better observatory and we will! Here’s the full scientific story on that.

Ask Ethan: Why Don’t Gravitational Waves Get Weaker Like The Gravitational Force Does?

“You have stated:
1) The strength of gravity varies with the square of the distance.
2) The strength of gravity waves, as detected by LIGO, varies directly with the distance.
So the question is, how can those two be the same thing?”

Here’s a puzzling fact for you: if you get ten times as far away from a source of gravitational waves, how much less would you expect the signal to be in your gravitational wave detector? For light, brightness falls off as the inverse of the distance squared: it would be 1/100th as bright. For the gravitational force, it also falls off as the inverse of distance squared: 1/100th the force. But for gravitational waves, the signal strength only drops as the inverse of the distance; the signal would be 1/10th the original strength.

Why is this? Believe it or not, it’s mandated by physics! Come find out the deep truth behind why on this special* edition of Ask Ethan!

(* – special because I had to derive this myself; nobody gives the full explanation anywhere I can find!)

Ask Ethan: Are Gravitational Waves Themselves Affected By Gravity?

“Are gravitational waves themselves subject to gravity? That is, if a gravitational wave were to pass by a galaxy cluster, would its form get distorted (even though the wave, itself, is a distortion of space-time)? One side of me says gravitational waves are a form of energy so therefore must be affected by gravity. The other side of me says “Nah – that just doesn’t make sense!"”

Think about the fabric of space itself. All the masses and forms of energy in the Universe cause space itself to curve, while the curved space itself alters the path along which any matter or form of energy will travel. Massless particles, like photons, are bent by the fabric of space itself. But what about gravitational waves? Are they also subject to this, or does gravitation lack a self-interaction that it would require for this to be possible?

For a very long time, this was a question that was theoretical only. But over the last three years, we’ve observed a slew of gravitational waves, allowing this idea to be tested for the first time.

What were the results? Gravitational waves are affected by gravity, in at least three different observable ways. Come find out how today!

Five Surprising Truths About Black Holes From LIGO

1.) The largest merging black holes are the easiest to see, and they don’t appear to get larger than about 50 solar masses. One of the best things about looking for gravitational waves is that it’s easier to see them from farther away than it is for a light source. Stars appear dimmer in proportion to their distance squared: a star 10 times the distance is just one-hundredth as bright. But gravitational waves are dimmer in direct proportion to distance: merging black holes 10 times as far away produce 10% the signal.

As a result, we can see very massive objects to very great distances, and yet we don’t see black holes merging with 75, 100, 150, or 200+ solar masses. 20-to-50 solar masses are common, but we haven’t seen anything above that yet. Perhaps the black holes arising from ultra-massive stars truly are rare.”

Well, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations have put their head together to re-analyze the full suite of their scientific data, and guess what they found: a total of 11 merger events, including ten black hole-black hole mergers. Now that we’re in the double digits, we can actually start to say some incredibly meaningful things about what’s present in the Universe, what we’ve seen, and what that means for what comes next. Which black holes are the most common? How frequently do these mergers occur? What’s the highest-mass black hole binary that LIGO could detect? And how many black holes do we expect to find when run III starts up in 2019?

The answers are coming! Come see what we know so far, and learn five surprising truths about black holes, courtesy of our findings from LIGO!

Ask Ethan: If Light Contracts And Expands With Space, How Do We Detect Gravitational Waves?

“If the wavelength of light stretches and contracts with space-time, then how can LIGO detect gravitational waves. [Those waves] stretch and contract the two arms of the LIGO detector and so the the light waves within the the two arms [must] stretch and contract too. Wouldn’t the number of wavelengths of light in each arm remain the same hence cause no change in the interference pattern, rendering [gravitational waves] undetectable?”

Three years ago, we detected the very first gravitational wave ever seen, as the signal from two massive, merging black holes rippled through the Universe, carrying with it the energy of three solar masses turned into pure energy via Einstein’s E = mc^2. Since that time, we’ve discovered more gravitational waves, mostly from black hole-black hole mergers but also from a neutron star-neutron star merger.

But how did we do it? The LIGO detectors function by having two perpendicular laser beams bounce back-and-forth in a long vacuum chamber, only to recombine them at the end. As the gravitational waves pass through, the arm lengths extend and compress, changing the path length. But the wavelength of the light inside changes, too! Doesn’t this mean the effects should cancel out, and we shouldn’t see an interference pattern?

It’s what you might intuit, but it’s not right. The scientific truth is fascinating, and allows us to detect these waves anyway. Here’s how it all works!

Ask Ethan: If Mass Curves Spacetime, How Does It Un-Curve Again?

“We are taught that mass warps spacetime, and the curvature of spacetime around mass explains gravity – so that an object in orbit around Earth, for example, is actually going in a straight line through curved spacetime. Ok, that makes sense, but when mass (like the Earth) moves through spacetime and bends it, why does spacetime not stay bent? What mechanism un-warps that area of spacetime as the mass moves on?”

You’ve very likely heard that according to Einstein, matter tells spacetime how to curve, and that curved spacetime tells matter how to move. This is true, but then why doesn’t spacetime remain curved when a mass that was once there is no longer present? Does something cause space to snap back to its prior, un-bent position? As it turns out, we need to think pretty hard about General Relativity to get this right in the first place at all. It isn’t just the locations and magnitudes of masses that determine how objects move through space, but a series of subtle effects that must all be added together to get it right. When we do, we find out that uncurving this space actually results in gravitational radiation: ripples in space that have been observed and confirmed.

The deciding results are actually decades old, and were indirect evidence for gravitational waves long before LIGO. Come get the answer today!

Black Hole Mergers Might Actually Make Gamma-Ray Bursts, After All

“If there is a gamma-ray signal associated with black hole-black hole mergers, it heralds a revolution in physics. Black holes may have accretion disks and may often have infalling matter surrounding them, being drawn in from the interstellar medium. In the case of binary black holes, there may also be the remnants of planets and the progenitor stars floating around, as well as the potential to be housed in a messy, star-forming region. But the central black holes themselves cannot emit any radiation. If something’s emitted from their location, it must be due to the accelerated matter surrounding them. In the absence of magnetic fields anywhere near the strength of neutron stars, it’s unclear how such an energetic burst could be generated.”

In 2015, the very first black hole-black hole merger was seen by the LIGO detectors. Interestingly, the NASA Fermi team claimed the detection of a transient event well above their noise floor, beginning just 0.4 seconds after the arrival of the gravitational wave signal. On the other hand, the other gamma-ray detector in space, ESA’s Integral, not only saw nothing, but claimed the Fermi analysis was flawed. Subsequent black hole-black hole mergers showed no such signal, but they were all of far lower masses than that very first signal from September 14, 2015. Now, however, a reanalysis of the data is available from the Fermi team themselves, validating their method and indicating that, indeed, a 3-sigma result was seen during that time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there was something real there, but it’s suggestive enough that it’s mandatory we continue to look for electromagnetic counterparts to black hole-black hole mergers.

The Universe continues to be full of surprises, and the idea that black hole mergers may make gamma-rays, after all, would be a revolutionary one! Come get the full story today.