Here we LIGO again…

I suddenly smelled mink musk, vintage port, and warm honey on fresh-baked strawberry scones.

“C’mon in, Ramona, the door’s open.”

She oscillated in with a multi-dimensional sinusoidal motion that took my breath away and a smile that brought it back.

“Hi, Sy.  I came right over as soon as I got the news.”

“What news is that, Sugar Lumps?”

“LEGO, Sy, they’ve switched LEGO to science mode!”

“That’s LIGO, sweetheart, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.”  She means well, but she’s Ramona.  “LEGOs are designed to hurt your feet, LIGO’s designed to look at the Universe.”

“Whatever.  I knew you wrote a . whole . series . of . posts . about . it so I thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s worth chasin’ down, doll-face.  Thanks.”symoire

So I headed over to the campus coffee shop.  It just happens to be located between the Astronomy building and the Physics building so I figured it as a good source.  Al was in his usual place at the cash register.

“Hi, Sy.  Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Been busy, Al.  Lotsa science going on these days.”

“Good, good.   Say, have you heard about LEGO goin’ live?”

“That’s LIGO, Al.  Yeah, Ramona told me.  So what’s the word?”

“OK, you know all about how when they first turned it on for engineering tests back in September, it blew everyone’s mind that they caught a signal almost immediately?”

“Yeah, that’s when I started writing about it.  Two 30-solar-mass black holes collided and jolted the gravitational field of the Universe.  When the twin LIGOs detected that jolt, it confirmed three predictions that came out of Einstein’s General Relativity theory.”

“Had you heard about the second signal they caught the day after Christmas, from a couple of smaller black holes?”

“I bet you sold a lot of coffee that week.”

“You couldn’t believe.  Those guys had so much caffeine in ’em they didn’t even notice New Years.”

“So what came out of that?”

“Like I said, these were smaller black holes, about 10 solar masses each instead of 30, and that’s really got the star-modelers scratching their heads.”

“How so?”

“Well, we pretty much know how to make a black hole that’s just a bit heavier than the Sun.  Say a star’s between 1.3 and 3 solar masses.  When it burns enough of its fuel that its heat energy can’t keep it puffed up against gravity the whole thing collapses down to a black hole.”

“What happens if it’s bigger than that?  Wouldn’t you just get a bigger black hole?”

“That’s the thing.  If it’s above that threshold, the outermost infalling matter meets the outgoing explosion and makes an even bigger explosion, a supernova.  So much matter gets blown away that what’s left is too small to be a black hole.  You just get a white dwarf star or a neutron star, depending.”

“But these signals came from black holes 3-10 times that upper limit.  Where did they come from?”

“That’s why the head-scratching, Sy.  I mean, no-one knows how to make even one and yet they seem to be so common that two pairs of ’em found each other and collided less than four months apart.  The whole theory is up for grabs now.”

“So we got all that just from the engineering test phase, eh?  What’ve they done since that?”

“Oh, the usual tinkering and tweaking.  The unit down in Livingston LA is about 25% more sensitive now, especially in the lower-frequency range.  That’s mostly because they found and plugged some light-leaks and light-scattering hot-spots here and there along its five miles of steel pipe.  LIGO doesn’t look at incoming light, but it does use laser light to detect the gravitational variation.  The Hanford WA unit boosted the power going to its laser and they’ve improved stability in its detectors, made ’em more robust against wind and low-frequency seismic activity.  You know, engineer stuff.  So now they say they’re ready to do science.”

“I can’t write that the tweaks’ll let us look deeper into the Universe, ’cause LIGO doesn’t pick up light waves.  How about I say we get a better feel for things?”

“Sounds ’bout right, Sy.”

“Oh, and give me one of those strawberry scones.  For some reason they look really good today.”

~~ Rich Olcott


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