LIGO, a new kind of astronomy

Like thousands of physics geeks around the world, I was glued to the tube Thursday morning for the big LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) announcement.  As I watched the for-the-public videos (this is a good one), I was puzzled by one aspect of the LIGO setup.  The de-puzzling explanation spotlit just how different gravitational astronomy will be from what we’re used to.

There are two LIGO installations, 2500 miles apart, one near New Orleans and the other near Seattle.  Each one looks like a big L with steel-pipe arms 4 kilometers long.  By the way, both arms are evacuated to eliminate some sources of interference and a modest theoretical consideration.

LIGO3The experiment consists of shooting laser beams out along both arms, then comparing the returned beams.

Some background: Einstein conquered an apparent relativity paradox.  If Ethel on vehicle A is speeding (like, just shy of light-speed speeding) past Fred on vehicle B, Fred sees that Ethel’s yardstick appears to be shorter than his own yardstick.  Meanwhile, Ethel is quite sure that Fred’s yardstick is the shorter one.

Einstein explained that both observations are valid.  Fred and Ethel can agree with each other but only after each takes proper account of their relative motion.  “Proper account” is a calculation called the Lorenz transformation.   What Fred (for instance) should do is divide what he thinks is the length of Ethel’s yardstick by √[1-(v/c)²] to get her “proper” length.  (Her relative velocity is v, and c is the speed of light.)

Suppose Fred’s standing in the lab and Ethel’s riding a laser beam.  Here’s the puzzle: wouldn’t the same Fred/Ethel logic apply to LIGO?  Wouldn’t the same yardstick distortion affect both the interferometer apparatus and the laser beams?

Well, no, for two reasons.  First, the Lorenz effect doesn’t even apply, because the back-and-forth reflected laser beams are standing waves.  That means nothing is actually traveling.  Put another way, if Ethel rode that light wave she’d be standing as still as Fred.

The other reason is that the experiment is less about distance traveled and more about time of flight.

Suppose you’re one of a pair of photons (no, entanglement doesn’t enter into the game) that simultaneously traverse the interferometer’s beam-splitter mirror.  Your buddy goes down one arm, strikes the far-end mirror and comes back to the detector.  You take the same trip, but use the other arm.

The beam lengths are carefully adjusted so that under normal circumstances, when the two of you reach the detector you’re out of step.   You peak when your buddy troughs and vice-versa.  The waves cancel and the detector sees no light.

Now a gravitational wave passes by (red arcs in the diagram).  In general, the wave will affect the two arms differently.  In the optimal case, the wave front hits one arm broadside but cuts across the perpendicular one.  Suppose the wave is in a space-compression phase when it hits.  The broadside arm, beam AND apparatus, is shortened relative to the other one which barely sees the wave at all.

The local speed of light (miles per second) in a vacuum is constant.  Where space is compressed, the miles per second don’t change but the miles get smaller.  The light wave slows down relative to the uncompressed laboratory reference frame.  As a result, your buddy in the compressed arm takes just a leetle longer than you do to complete his trip to the detector.  Now the two of you are in-step.  The detector sees light, there is great rejoicing and Kip Thorne gets his Nobel Prize.

But the other wonderful thing is, LIGO and neutrino astronomy are humanity’s first fundamentally new ways to investigate our off-planet Universe.  Ever since Galileo trained his crude telescope on Jupiter the astronomers have been using electromagnetic radiation for that purpose – first visible light, then infra-red and radio waves.  In 1964 we added microwave astronomy to the list.  Later on we put up satellites that gave us the UV and gamma-ray skies.

The astronomers have been incredibly ingenious in wringing information out of every photon, but when you look back it’s all photons.  Gravitational astronomy offers a whole new path to new phenomena.  Who knows what we’ll see.

~~ Rich Olcott


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