A Three-dog Night Would Be So Cool

“So we’ve got three fundamentally different messengers from the stars, Mr Feder.  The past couple of years have given us several encouraging instances of receiving two messengers from the same event.  If we ever receive all three messengers from the same event, that might give us what we need to solve the biggest problem in modern physics.”

“That’s a pretty deep statement, Moire.  Care to unpack it?  The geese here would love to hear about it.”

“Lakeside is a good place for thoughts like this.  The first messenger was photons.  We’ve been observing starlight photons for tens of thousand of years.  Tycho Brahe and Galileo took it to a new level a few centuries ago with their careful observation, precision measurements and Galileo’s telescope.”

“That’s done us pretty good, huh?”

“Oh sure, we’ve charted the heavens and how things move, what we can see of them.  But our charts imply there’s much we can’t see.  Photons only interact with electric charge.  Except for flat-out getting absorbed if the wavelength is right, photons don’t care about electrically neutral material and especially they don’t care about dark matter.”

“So that’s why we’re interested in the other messengers.”

“Exactly.  Even electrically neutral things have mass and interact with the gravitational field.  You remember the big news a few years ago, when our brand-new LIGO instruments caught a gravitational wave signal from a couple of black holes in collision.  Black holes don’t give off photons, so the gravitational wave messenger was our only way of learning about that event.”

“No lightwave signal at all?”

“Well, there was a report of a possible gamma-ray flare in that patch of sky, but it was borderline-detectable.  No observatory using lower-energy light saw anything there.  So, no.”

“You’re gonna tell me and the geese about some two-messenger event now, right?”

“That’s where I’m going, Mr Feder.  Photons first.  Astronomers have been wondering for decades about where short, high-energy gamma-ray bursts come from.  They seem to happen randomly in time and space.  About a year ago the Fermi satellite’s gamma-ray telescope detected one of those bursts and sent out an automated ‘Look HERE’ alert to other observatories.  Unfortunately, Fermi‘s resolution isn’t wonderful so its email pointed to a pretty large patch of sky.  Meanwhile back on Earth and within a couple of seconds of Fermi‘s moment, the LIGO instruments caught an unusual gravitational wave signal that ran about a hundred times slower than the black-hole signals they’d seen.  Another automated ‘Look HERE’ alert went out.  This one pointed to a small portion of that same patch of sky.  Two messengers.”

“Did anyone find anything?”

“Seventy other observatories scrutinized the overlap region at every wavelength known to Man.  They found a kilonova, an explosion of light and matter a thousand times brighter than typical novae.  The gravitational wave evidence indicated a collision between two neutron stars, something that had never before been recorded.  Photon evidence from the spewed-out cloud identified a dozen heavy elements theoreticians hadn’t been able to track to an origin.  Timing details in the signals gave cosmologists an independent path to resolving a problem with the Hubble Constant.  And now we know where those short gamma-ray bursts come from.”

“Pretty good for a two-messenger event.  Got another story like that?”

“A good one.  This one’s neutrinos and photons, and the neutrinos came in first.  One neutrino.”

One neutrino?”

“Yup, but it was a special one, a super-high-powered neutrino whose incoming path our IceCube observatory could get a good fix on.  IceCube sent out its own automated ‘Look HERE’ alert.  The Fermi team picked up the alert and got real excited because the alert’s coordinates matched the location of a known and studied gamma-ray source.  Not a short-burster, but a flaring blazar.  That neutrino’s extreme energy is evidence for blazars being one of the long-sought sources of cosmic rays.”

“Puzzle solved, maybe.  Now what you said about a three-messenger signal?”grebe messenger pairs“Gravitational waves are relativity effects and neutrinos are quantum mechanical.  Physicists have been struggling for a century to bridge those two domains.  Evidence from a three-messenger event could provide the final clues.”

“I’ll bet the geese enjoyed hearing all that.”

“They’re grebes, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Heavenly Messengers

A gorgeous Fall day, a little bit cool-ish, perfect for a brisk walk in the park.  I’m striding along the lake-bound path when there’s a breathless shout behind me.  “Hey, Moire, wait up!  I got questions!”

“Hello, Mr Feder.  What’s the topic this time?  And keep up, please, I’ve got geese to watch.”

“I been reading in the business pages <puff, puff> about all the money different countries are putting into ‘multi-messenger astronomy.’  <puff>  What’s that about, anyway?  Who’s sending messages and ain’t the Internet good enough?”

“It’s not who, Mr Feder, it’s what — stars, galaxies, black holes, the Universe.  And the messages are generally either ‘Here I am‘ or ‘Something interesting just happened‘.  The Internet just doesn’t reach that far and besides, no kitten pictures.”

“Pretty simple-sounding messages, so why the big bucks for extra message-catchers?”

“Fair question.  It has to do with what kind of information each messenger carries.  Photons, for instance.”

“Yeah, light-waves, the rainbow.”

“Way more than the rainbow.  Equating light-waves to just the colors we see is like equating sound-waves to just the range from A4 through F4# on a piano.”

“Hey, that’s less than an octave.”

“Yup, and electromagnetism’s scale is hugely broader than that.  Most of the notes, or colors, are way out of our range.  A big tuba makes a deep, low-frequency note but a tiny piccolo makes a high note.  Photon characteristics also scale with the size of where they came from.  Roughly speaking, the shorter the light’s wave-length, the smaller the process it came out of and the smaller its target will be.  Visible light, for instance, is sent and received by loosely-held charge sloshing inside an atom or molecule.  Charge held tight to a nucleus gives rise to higher-energy photons, in the ultra-violet range or beyond.”

“Like how beyond?”

“X-rays can rip electrons right out of a molecule.  Gamma rays are even nastier and involve charge activity inside a nucleus, like during a nuclear reaction.”

“How about in the other direction?  Nothing?”

“Hardly.  Going that way is going to bigger scales.  Infra-red is about parts of molecules vibrating against each other, microwave is about whole molecules rotating.  When your size range gets out to feet-to-miles you’re looking at radio waves that probably originated from free electrons or ions slammed back and forth by electric or magnetic fields.”

“So these light ranges are like messengers that clue us in on what’s going on out there?  Different messengers, different kindsa clues?”

“You got the idea.  Add in that what happens to the light on the way here is also important.  Radio and microwave photons with their long wavelengths swerve around dust particles that block out shorter-wavelength ones.  Light that traversed Einstein-bent space lets us measure the masses of galaxies.  Absorption and polarization at specific wavelengths tell us what species are out there and what they’re doing.  Blue-shifts and red-shifts tell us how fast things are moving towards and away from us.  And of course, atmospheric distortions tell us we’ve got to put satellite observatories above the atmosphere to see better.”

“One messenger, lots of effects.”

“Indeed, but in the past few years we’ve added two more, really important messengers.  Photons are good, but they’re limited to just one of the four fundamental forces.”

“Hey, there’s gotta be more than that.  This is a complicated world.”

“True, but physicists can account for pretty much everything at the physical and chemical level with only four — electromagnetism, gravity, the strong force that holds nuclei together and the weak force that’s active in nuclear transformation processes.  Photons do electromagnetism and that’s all.”

“So you’re saying we’ve got a line on two of the others?”

“Exactly.  IceCube and its kin record the arrival of high-energy neutrinos.  In a sense they are to the weak force what photons are to electromagnetism.  We don’t know whether gravitation works through particles, but LIGO and company are sensitive to changes in the gravitational field that’s always with us.  Each gives us a new perspective on what’s happening out there.”

“So if you get a signal from one of the new messengers at the same time you get a photon signal…”

“Oh, look, the geese are coming in.”

Heavenly messengers

~~ Rich Olcott

Schrödinger’s Elephant

Al’s coffee shop sits right between the Astronomy and Physics buildings, which is good because he’s a big Science fan.  He and Jeremy are in an excited discussion when Anne and I walk in.  “Two croissants, Al, and two coffees, black.”

“Comin’ up, Sy.  Hey, you see the news?  Big days for gravitational astronomy.”

Jeremy breaks in.  “There’s a Nobel Prize been announced —”

“Kip Thorne the theorist and Barry Barish the management guy —”

“and Rainer Weiss the instrumentation wizard —”

“shared the Physics prize for getting LIGO to work —”

“and it saw the first signal of a black hole collision in 2015 —”

“and two more since —”

“and confirmed more predictions from relativity theory —”

“and Italy’s got their Virgo gravitational wave detector up and running —”

“And Virgo and our two LIGOs, —”

“Well, they’re both aLIGOs now, being upgraded and all —”

“all three saw the same new wave —”

“and it’s another collision between black holes with weird masses that we can’t account for.  Who’s the lady?”

“Al, this is Anne.  Jeremy, close your mouth, you’ll catch a fly.”  (Jeremy blushes, Anne twinkles.)  “Anne and I are chasing an elephant.”

“Pleased to meetcha, Anne.  But no livestock in here, Sy, the Health Department would throw a fit!”

I grin.  “That’s exactly what Eddie said.  It’s an abstract elephant, Al.  We’ve been discussing entropy. Which is an elephant because it’s got so many aspects no-one can agree on what it is.  It’s got something to do with heat capacity, something to do with possibilities you can’t rule out, something to do with signals and information.  And Hawking showed that entropy also has something to do with black holes.”

“Which I don’t know much about, fellows, so someone will have to explain.”

Jeremy leaps in.  “I can help with that, Miss Anne, I just wrote a paper on them.”

“Just give us the short version, son, she can ask questions if she wants a detail.”

“Yessir.  OK, suppose you took all the Sun’s mass and squeezed it into a ball just a few miles across.  Its density would be so high that escape velocity is faster than the speed of light so an outbound photon just falls back inward and that’s why it’s black.  Is that a good summary, Mr Moire?”

“Well, it might be good enough for an Internet blog but it wouldn’t pass inspection for a respectable science journal.  Photons don’t have mass so the whole notion of escape velocity doesn’t apply.  You do have some essential elements right, though.  Black holes are regions of extreme mass density, we think more dense than anywhere else in the Universe.  A black hole’s mass bends space so tightly around itself that nearby light waves are forced to orbit its region or even spiral inward.  The orbiting happens right at the black hole’s event horizon, its thin shell that encloses the space where things get really weird.  And Anne, the elephant stands on that shell.”white satin and black hole“Wait, Mr Moire, we said that the event horizon’s just a mathematical construct, not something I could stand on.”

“And that’s true, Jeremy.  But the elephant’s an abstract construct, too.  So abstract we’re still trying to figure out what’s under the abstraction.”

“I’m trying to figure out why you said the elephant’s standing there.”

“Anne, it goes back to the event horizon’s being a mathematical object, not a real one.  Its spherical surface marks the boundary of the ultimate terra incognita.  Lightwaves can’t pass outward from it, nor can anything material, not even any kind of a signal.  For at least some kinds of black hole, physicists have proven that the only things we can know about one are its mass, spin and charge.  From those we can calculate some other things like its temperature, but black holes are actually pretty simple.”


“So there’s a collision with Quantum Theory.  One of QT’s fundamental assumptions is that in principle we can use a particle’s current wave function to predict probabilities for its future.  But the wave function information disappears if the particle encounters an event horizon.  Things are even worse if the particle’s entangled with another one.”

“Information, entropy, elephant … it’s starting to come together.”

“That’s what he said.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Michelson, Morley and LIGO

Two teams of scientists, 128 years apart.  The first team, two men, got a negative result that shattered a long-standing theory.  The second team, a thousand strong, got a positive result that provided final confirmation of another long-standing theory.  Both teams used instruments based on the same physical phenomenon.  Each team’s innovations created whole new fields of science and technology.

Interferometer 1Their common experimental strategy sounds simple enough — compare two beams of light that had traveled along different paths

Light (preferably nice pure laser light, but Albert Michelson didn’t have a laser when he invented interferometry in 1887) comes in from the source at left and strikes the “beam splitter” — typically, a partially-silvered mirror that reflects half the light and lets the rest through.  One beam goes up the y-arm to a mirror that reflects it back down through the half-silvered mirror to the detector.  The other beam goes on its own round-trip journey in the x-direction.  The detector (Michelson’s eye or a photocell or a fancy-dancy research-quality CCD) registers activity if the waves in the two beams are in step when they hit it.  On the other hand, if the waves cancel then there’s only darkness.

Getting the two waves in step requires careful adjustment of the x- and y-mirrors, because the waves are small.  The yellow sodium light Michelson used has a peak-to-peak wavelength of 589 nanometers.  If he twitched one mirror 0.0003 millimeter away from optimal position the valleys of one wave would cancel the peaks of the other.

So much for principles.  The specifics of each team’s device relate to the theory being tested.  Michelson was confronting the æther theory, the proposition that if light is a wave then there must be some substance, the æther, that vibrates to carry the wave.  We see sunlight and starlight, so  the æther must pervade the transparent Universe.  The Earth must be plowing through the æther as it circles the Sun.  Furthermore, we must move either with or across or against the æther as we and the Earth rotate about its axis.  If we’re moving against the æther then lightwave peaks must appear closer together (shorter wavelengths) than if we’re moving with it.Michelson-Moreley device

Michelson designed his device to test that chain of logic. His optical apparatus was all firmly bolted to a 4′-square block of stone resting on a wooden ring floating on a pool of mercury.  The whole thing could be put into slow rotation to enable comparison of the x– and y-arms at each point of the compass.

Interferometer 3
Suppose the æther theory is correct. Michelson should see lightwaves cancel at some orientations.

According to the æther theory, Michelson and his co-worker Edward Morley should have seen alternating light and dark as he rotated his device.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, he saw no significant variation in the optical behavior around the full 360o rotation, whether at noon or at 6:00 PM.

Cross off the æther theory.

Michelson’s strategy depended on light waves getting out of step if something happened to the beams as they traveled through the apparatus.  Alternatively, the beams could charge along just fine but something could happen to the apparatus itself.  That’s how the LIGO team rolled.

Interferometer 2
Suppose Einstein’s GR theory is correct. Gravitational wave stretching and compression should change the relative lengths of the two arms.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicts that space itself is squeezed and stretched by mass.  Miles get shorter near a black hole.  Furthermore, if the mass configuration changes, waves of compressive and expansive forces will travel outward at the speed of light.  If such a wave were to encounter a suitable interferometer in the right orientation (near-parallel to one arm, near-perpendicular to the other), that would alter the phase relationship between the two beams.

The trick was in the word “suitable.”  The expected percentage-wise length change was so small that eLIGO needed 4-kilometer arms to see movement a tiny fraction of a proton’s width.  Furthermore, the LIGO designers flipped the classical detection logic.  Instead of looking for a darkened beam, they set the beams to cancel at the detector and looked for even a trace of light.

eLIGO saw the light, and confirmed Einstein’s theory.

~~ Rich Olcott

Three LIGOs make a Banana Slicer

Ponder for a moment what Space throws at you.  Photons of all sizes, of course —  infra-red ones that warm your skin, visible ones that show you the beach, ultra-violet ones that give you tan and sunburn.  Neutrinos and maybe dark matter particles that pass right through you without even pausing.  All of those act upon you in little bits at little places — gravity pervades you.  You can put up a parasol or step into a cave, but there’s no shielding yourself from gravity.

Gravity’s special character has implications for LIGOs.  A word first about words.  LIGO as a generic noun unwinds to Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, a class of astronomical instruments. LIGO as a proper noun denotes a project that culminated in the construction of a specific pair of devices that went live in 2002.

That hardware wasn’t sensitive enough to detect the gravitational waves it was created to seek.  To improve the initial LIGO’s power and sensitivity, the LIGO infrastructure and organization morphed into the Advanced LIGO (aLIGO) project.  Concurrently, the LIGO instrument was upgraded and renamed.  No surprise, the instrument’s new name is aLIGO.  An early phase of aLIGO bore uncannily fortunate fruit with the Sept 14 gravitational wave detection.

Four other LIGOs are proposed, under construction or in operation around the world — KARGA in Japan, INDIGO in India, GEO600 in Germany and VIRGO in Italy.  Why so many, and why even consider space-borne LIGOs like LISA Pathfinder and eLISA?

Astronomers ask a series of questions of the Universe:

  • What objects are out there?
  • Where are they?
  • What are they doing?
  • Why are they doing that?

September’s aLIGO incident gave us a gratifyingly unexpected answer to the first question.  To the surprise of theoreticians, the detected event was the collision of two black holes, each of which was in a size range that current theory says shouldn’t be populated.  Even more surprising, such objects are apparently common enough to meet up, form binary pairs and eventually merge.

1 LIGO localizationThe second question is harder.  The best the aLIGO team could do was point to a “banana-shaped region” (their words, not mine) that covers about 1% of the sky.  The team marshaled a world-wide collaboration of observatories to scan that area (a huge search field by astronomical standards), looking for electromagnetic activities concurrent with  the event they’d seen.  Nobody saw any.  That was part of the evidence that this collision involved two black holes.  (If one or both of the objects had been something other than a black hole, the collision would have given off all kinds of photons.)

Why such poor localization?  Blame gravity’s pervasive character and Geometry.  With a telescope, any kind of telescope, you know which direction you’re looking.  Telescopes work only with photons that enter through the front; photons aimed at the back of the instrument stop there.

2 LIGO localizationIn contrast, a LIGO facility is (roughly speaking) omni-directional.  When a LIGO installation senses a gravitational pulse, it could be coming down from the visible sky or up through the Earth from the other hemisphere — one signal doesn’t carry the “which way?” information.  The diagram above shows that situation.  (The “chevron” is an image of the LIGO in Hanford WA.)  Models based on the signal from that pair of 4-km arms can narrow the source field to a “banana-shaped region,” but there’s still that 180o ambiguity.

The good news is that the LIGO project built not one but two installations, 2500 miles apart.  With two LIGOs (the second diagram) there’s enough information to resolve the ambiguity.  The two also serve as checks on each other — if one sees a signal that doesn’t show up at the other that’s probably a red herring that can be discarded.

3 LIGO localizationThe great “if only” is that the VIRGO installation in Italy was not recording data when the Hanford WA and Livingston LA saw that September signal.  With three recordings to reconcile, the aLIGO+VIRGO combination would have had enough information to slice that banana and localize the event precisely.

When the European Space Agency puts Evolved LISA (eLISA) in orbit (watch the animation, it’s cool) in 2034, there’ll be a million-kilometer triangle of spacecraft up there, slicing bananas all over the sky.

~~ Rich Olcott

aLIGO and eLISA: Tuning The Instrument

Oh, it’s good to see Big News in hard science get big attention in Big Media.  The LIGO story and Columbia’s Dr Brian Greene even made it to the Stephen Colbert Late Show.  Everyone chuckled at the final “boowee-POP” audio recording (simulation at 7:30 into this clip; get for-real traces and audio from this one).

There’s some serious science in those chirps, not to mention serious trouble for any alien civilization that happened to be too close to the astronomical event giving rise to them.

LIGO trace 3
Adapted from the announcement paper by Abbot et al

The peaks and valleys in the top LIGO traces represent successive spatial compression cycles generated by two massive bodies orbiting each other.  There’s one trace for each of the two LIGO installations.  The spectrograms beneath show relative intensity at each frequency.  Peaks arrived more rapidly in the last 100 milliseconds and the simulated sound rose in pitch because the orbits grew smaller and faster.  The audio’s final POP is what you get from a brief but big disturbance, like the one you hear when you plug a speaker into a live sound system.  This POP announced two black holes merging into one, converting the mass-energy of three suns into a gravitational jolt to the Universe.

Scientists have mentioned in interviews that LIGO has given us “an ear to the Universe.”  That’s true in several different <ahem> senses.  First, we’ve seen in earlier posts that gravitational physics is completely different from the electromagnetism that illuminates every kind of telescope that astronomers have ever used.  Second, black hole collisions generate signals in frequencies that are within our auditory range.  Finally, LIGO was purposely constructed to have peak sensitivity in just that frequency range.

Virtually every kind of phenomenon that physicists study has a characteristic size range and a characteristic frequency/duration range.  Sound waves, for instance, are in the audiophile’s beloved “20 to 20,000” cycles per second (Hz).  Put another way, one cycle of a sound wave will last something between 1/20 and 1/20,000 second (0.05-0.000 05 second).  The speed of sound is roughly 340 meters per second which puts sound’s characteristic wavelength range between 17 meters and 17 millimeters.

No physicist would be surprised to learn that humans evolved to be sensitive to sound-making things in that size range.  We can locate an oncoming predator by its roar or by the snapping twig it stepped on but we have to look around to spot a pesky but tiny mosquito.

So the greenish box in the chart below is all about sound waves.  The yellowish box gathers together the classes of phenomena scientists study using the electromagnetic spectrum.  For instance, we use infra-red light (characteristic time range 10-15-10-12 second) to look at (or cause) molecular vibrations.

RegimesWe can investigate things that take longer than an instrument’s characteristic time by making repeated measurements, but we can’t use the instrument to resolve successive events that happen more quickly than that.  We also can’t resolve events that take place much closer together than the instrument’s characteristic length.

The electromagnetic spectrum serves us well, but it has its limitations.  The most important is that there are classes of objects out there that neither emit nor absorb light in any of its forms.  Black holes, for one.  They’re potentially crucial to the birth and development of galaxies.  However, we have little hard data on them against which to test the plethora of ideas the theoreticians have come up with.

Dark matter is another.  We know it’s subject to gravity, but to our knowledge the only way it interacts with light is by gravitational lensing.  Most scientists working on dark matter wield Occam’s Razor to conclude it’s pretty simple stuff.  Harvard cosmologist Dr Lisa Randall has suggested that there may be two kinds, one of which collects in disks that clothe themselves in galaxies.

That’s where LIGO and its successors in the gray box will help.  Their sensitivity to gravitational effects will be crucial to our understanding of dark objects.  Characteristic times in tens and thousands of seconds are no problem nor are event sizes measured in kilometers, because astronomical bodies are big.

GrWave Detectors
Gravitational instrumentation, from Christopher Berry’s blog and Web page

This is only the beginning, folks, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

~~ Rich Olcott

Would the CIA want a LIGO?

So I was telling a friend about the LIGO announcement, going on about how this new “device” will lead to a whole new kind of astronomy.  He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and said, “I wonder how many of these the CIA has.”

The CIA has a forest of antennas, but none of them can do what LIGO does.  That’s because of the physics of how it works, and what it can and cannot detect.  (If you’re new to this topic, please read last week’s post so you’ll be up to speed on what follows.  Oh, and then come back here.)

There are remarkable parallels between electromagnetism and gravity.  The ancients knew about electrostatics — amber rubbed by a piece of cat fur will attract shreds of dry grass.  They certainly knew about gravity, too.  But it wasn’t until 100 years after Newton wrote his Principia that Priestly and then Coulomb found that the electrostatic force law, F = ke·q1·q2 / r2, has the same form as Newton’s Law of Gravity, F = G·m1·m2 / r2. (F is the force between two bodies whose centers are distance r apart, the q‘s are their charges and the m‘s are their masses.)

Jim and AlAlmost a century later, James Clerk Maxwell (the bearded fellow at left) wrote down his electromagnetism equations that explain how light works.  Half a century later, Einstein did the same for gravity.

But interesting as the parallels may be, there are some fundamental differences between the two forces — fundamental enough that not even Einstein was able to tie the two together.

One difference is in their magnitudes.  Consider, for instance, two protons.  Running the numbers, I found that the gravitational force pulling them together is a factor of 1036 smaller than the electrostatic force pushing them apart.  If a physicist wanted to add up all the forces affecting a particular proton, he’d have to get everything else (nuclear strong force, nuclear weak force, electromagnetic, etc.) nailed down to better than one part in 1036 before he could even detect gravity.

But it’s worse — electromagnetism and gravity don’t even have the same shape.

Electric (red) and magnetic (blue) fields in a linearly polarized light wave
(graphic from WikiMedia Commons, posted by Lookang and Fu-Kwun Hwang)

A word first about words.  Electrostatics is about pure straight-line-between-centers (longitudinal) attraction and repulsion — that’s Coulomb’s Law.  Electrodynamics is about the cross-wise (transverse) forces exerted by one moving charged particle on the motion of another one.  Those forces are summarized by combining Maxwell’s Equations with the Lorenz Force Law.  A moving charge gives rise to two distinct forces, electric and magnetic, that operate at right angles to each other.  The combined effect is called electromagnetism.

The effect of the electric force is to vibrate a charge along one direction transverse to the wave.  The magnetic force only affects moving charges; it acts to twist their transverse motion to be perpendicular to the wave.  An EM antenna system works by sensing charge flow as electrons move back and forth under the influence of the electric field.

Gravitostatics uses Newton’s Law to calculate longitudinal gravitational interaction between masses.  That works despite gravity’s relative weakness because all the astronomical bodies we know of appear to be electrically neutral — no electrostatic forces get in the way.  A gravimeter senses the strength of the local gravitostatic field.

Maxwell and EinsteinGravitodynamics is completely unlike electrodynamics.  Gravity’s transverse “force” doesn’t act to move a whole mass up and down like Maxwell’s picture at left.  Instead, as shown by Einstein’s picture, gravitational waves stretch and compress while leaving the center of mass in place. I put “force” in quotes because what’s being stretched and compressed is space itself.  See this video for a helpful visualization of a gravitational wave.

LIGO is neither a telescope nor an electromagnetic antenna.  It operates by detecting sudden drastic changes in the disposition of matter within a “small” region.  In LIGO’s Sept 14 observation, 1031 kilograms of black hole suddenly ceased to exist, converted to gravitational waves that spread throughout the Universe.  By comparison, the Hiroshima explosion released the energy of 10-6 kilograms.

Seismometers do a fine job of detecting nuclear explosions.  Hey, CIA, they’re a lot cheaper than LIGO.

~~ Rich Olcott

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