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


Breathing Space

It was December, it was cold, no surprise.  I unlocked my office door, stepped in and there was Vinnie, standing at the window.  He turned to me, shrugged a little and said, “Morning, Sy.”  That’s Vinnie for you.

“Morning, Vinnie.  What got you onto the streets this early?”

“I ain’t on the streets, I’m up here where it’s warm and you can answer my LIGO question.”

“And what’s that?”

“I read your post about gravitational waves, how they stretch and compress space.  What the heck does that even mean?”


An array of coordinate systems
floating in a zero-gravity environment,
each depicting a local x, y, and z axis

“Funny thing, I just saw a paper by Professor Saulson at Syracuse that does a nice job on that.  Imagine a boxful of something real light but sparkly, like shiny dust grains.  If there’s no gravitational field nearby you can arrange rows of those grains in a nice, neat cubical array out there in empty space.  Put ’em, oh, exactly a mile apart in the x, y, and z directions.  They’re going to serve as markers for the coordinate system, OK?”

“I suppose.”

“Now it’s important that these grains are in free-fall, not connected to each other and too light to attract each other but all in the same inertial frame.  The whole array may be standing still in the Universe, whatever that means, or it could be heading somewhere at a steady speed, but it’s not accelerating in whole or in part.  If you shine a ray of light along any row, you’ll see every grain in that row and they’ll all look like they’re standing still, right?”

“I suppose.”

“OK, now a gravitational wave passes by.  You remember how they operate?”

“Yeah, but remind me.”

(sigh)  “Gravity can act in two ways.  The gravitational attraction that Newton identified acts along the line connecting the two objects acting on each other.  That longitudinal force doesn’t vary with time unless the object masses change or their distance changes.  We good so far?”

“Gravity can also act transverse to that line under certain circumstances.  Suppose we here on Earth observe two black holes orbiting each other.  The line I’m talking about is the one that runs from us to the center of their orbit.  As each black hole circles that center, its gravitational field moves along with it.  The net effect is that the combined gravitational field varies perpendicular to our line of sight.  Make sense?”

“Gimme a sec…  OK, I can see that.  So now what?”

“So now that variation also gets transmitted to us in the gravitational wave.  We can ignore longitudinal compression and stretching along our sight line.  The black holes are so far away from us that if we plug the distance variation into Newton’s F=m1m2/r² equation the force variation is way too small to measure with current technology.

“The good news is that we can measure the off-axis variation because of the shape of the wave’s off-axis component.  It doesn’t move space up-and-down.  Instead, it compresses in one direction while it stretches perpendicular to that, and then the actions reverse.  For instance, if the wave is traveling along the z-axis, we’d see stretching follow compression along the x-axis at the same time as we’d see compression following stretching along the y-axis.”

gravwave-2“Squeeze in two sides, pop out the other two, eh?”

“Exactly.  You can see how that affects our grain array in this video I just happen to have cued up.  See how the up-down and left-right coordinates close in and spread out separately as the wave passes by?”

“Does this have anything to do with that ‘expansion of the Universe’ thing?”

“Well, the gravitational waves don’t, so far as we know, but the notion of expanding the distance between coordinate markers is exactly what we think is going on with that phenomenon.  It’s not like putting more frosting on the outside of a cake, it’s squirting more filling between the layers.  That cosmological pressure we discussed puts more distance between the markers we call galaxies.”

“Um-hmm.  Stay warm.”

(sound of departing footsteps and door closing)

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Gentle pressure in the dark

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

Vinnie clomps in and he opens the conversation with, “I don’t believe that stuff you wrote about LIGO.  It can’t possibly work the way they say.”

“Well, sir, would you mind telling me why you have a problem with those posts?”  I’m being real polite, because Vinnie’s a smart guy and reads books.  Besides, he’s Vinnie.

“I’m good with your story about how Michelson’s interferometer worked and why there’s no æther.  Makes sense, how the waves mess up when they’re outta step.  Like my platoon had to walk funny when we crossed a bridge.  But the gravity wave thing makes no sense.  When a wave goes by maybe it fiddles space but it can’t change where the LIGO mirrors are.”

“Gravitational wave,” I murmur, but speak up with, “What makes you think that space can move but not the mirrors?”

“I seen how dark energy spreads galaxies apart but they don’t get any bigger.  Same thing must happen in the LIGO machine.”

“Not the same, Vinnie.  I’ll show you the numbers.”

“Ah, geez, don’t do calculus at me.”de-vs-gravity

“No, just arithmetic we can do on a spreadsheet.” I fire up the laptop and start poking in  astronomical (both senses) numbers.  “Suppose we compare what happens when two galaxies face each other in intergalactic space, with what happens when two stars face each other inside a galaxy.  The Milky Way’s my favorite galaxy and the Sun’s my favorite star.  Can we work with those?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“OK, we’ll need a couple of mass numbers.  The Sun’s mass is… (sound of keys clicking as I query Wikipedia) … 2×1030 kilograms, and the Milky Way has (more key clicks) about 1012 stars.  Let’s pretend they’re all the Sun’s size so the galaxy’s mass is (2×1030)×1012 = 2×1042 kg. Cute how that works, multiplying numbers by adding exponents, eh?”

“Cute, yeah, cute.”  He’s getting a little impatient.

“Next step is the sizes.  The Milky Way’s radius is 10×104 lightyears, give or take..  At 1016 meters per lightyear, we can say it’s got a radius of 5×1020 meters.  You remember the formula for the area of a circle?”

“Sure, it’s πr2.” I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“Right, so the Milky Way’s area is 25π×1040 m2.  Meanwhile, the Sun’s radius is 1.4×109 m and its cross-sectional area must be 2π×1018 m2.  Are you with me?”

“Yeah, but what’re we doing playing with areas?  Newton’s gravity equations just talk about distances between centers.”  I told you Vinnie’s smart.

“OK, we’ll do gravity first.  Suppose we’ve got our Milky Way facing another Milky Way an average inter-galactic distance away.  That’s about 60 galaxy radii,  about 300×1020 meters.  The average distance between stars in the Milky Way is about 4 lightyears or 4×1016 meters.  (I can see he’s hooked so I take a risk)  You’re so smart, what’s that Newton equation?”

Force or potential energy?”

“Alright, I’m impressed.  Let’s go for force.”

“Force equals Newton’s G times the product of the masses divided by the square of the distance.”

“Full credit, Vinnie.  G is about 7×10-11 newton-meter²/kilogram², so we’ve got a gravity force of (typing rapidly) (7×10-11)×(2×1042)×(2×1042)/(300×1020)² = 3.1×1029 N for the galaxies, and (7×10-11)×(2×1030)×(2×1030)/(4×1016)² = 1.75×1017 N for the stars.  Capeesh?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Get on with it.”

“Now for dark energy.  We don’t know what it is, but theory says it somehow exerts a steady pressure that pushes everything away from everything.  That outward pressure’s exerted here in the office, out in space, everywhere.  Pressure is force per unit area, which is why we calculated areas.

“But the pressure’s really, really weak.  Last I saw, the estimate’s on the order of 10-9 N/m².  So our Milky Way is pushed away from that other one by a force of (10-9)×(25π×1040) ≈ 1031 N, and our Sun is pushed away from that other star by a force of (10-9)×(2π×1018) ≈ 1010 N with rounding.  Here, look at the spreadsheet summary…”

 Force, newtons Between Galaxies Between stars
Gravity 3.1×1029 1.75×1017
Dark energy 1031 1010
Ratio 3.1×10-2 17.5×106

“So gravity’s force pulling stars together is 18 million times stronger than dark energy’s pressure pushing them apart.  That’s why the galaxies aren’t expanding.”

“Gotta go.”

(sound of door-slam )

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Gravitational Waves Are Something Else


If you’re reading this post, you’ve undoubtedly seen at least one diagram like the above — a black hole or a planet or a bowling ball makes a dent in a rubber sheet and that’s supposed to explain Gravity.  But it doesn’t, and neither does this spirally screen-grab from Brian Greene’s presentation on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show:rubber-sheet waves_post

<Blush> I have to admit that the graphic I used a couple of weeks ago is just as bad.

Gravitational waves don’t make things go up and down like ocean waves, and they’re definitely not like that planet on a trampoline — after all, there’s nothing “below” to pull things downward so there can’t be a dent.  And gravitational waves don’t do spirals, much.

soundwaveOf all the wave varieties we’re familiar with, gravitational waves are most similar to (NOT identical with!!) sound waves.  A sound wave consists of cycles of compression and expansion like you see in this graphic.  Those dots could be particles in a gas (classic “sound waves”) or in a liquid (sonar) or neighboring atoms in a solid (a xylophone or marimba).

Contrary to rumor, there can be sound in space, sort of.  Any sizable volume of “empty” space contains at least a few atoms and dust particles.  A nova or similar sudden event can sweep particles together and give rise to successive waves that spread as those local collections bang into particles further away.  That kind of activity is invoked in some theories of spiral galaxy structure and the fine details of Saturn’s rings.

In a gravitational wave, space itself is compressed and stretched.  A particle caught in a gravitational wave doesn’t get pushed back and forth.  Instead, it shrinks and expands in place.  If you encounter a gravitational wave, you and all your calibrated measurement gear (yardsticks, digital rangers, that slide rule you’re so proud of) shrink and expand together.  You’d only notice the experience if you happened to be comparing two extremely precise laser rangers set perpendicular to each other (LIGO!).  One would briefly register a slight change compared to the other one.

Light always travels at 186,000 miles per second but in a compressed region of space those miles are shorter.  bent lightEinstein noticed that implication of his Theory of General Relativity and in 1916 predicted that the path of starlight would be bent when it passed close to a heavy object like the Sun.  The graphic shows a wave front passing through a static gravitational structure.  Two points on the front each progress at one graph-paper increment per step.  But the increments don’t match so the front as a whole changes direction.  Sure enough, three years after Einstein’s prediction, Eddington observed just that effect while watching a total solar eclipse in the South Atlantic.

Unlike the Sun’s steady field, a gravitational wave is dynamic. Gravitational waves are generated by changes in a mass configuration.  The wave’s compression and stretching forces spread out through space.

Here’s a simulation of the gravitational forces generated by two black holes orbiting into a collision.  The contours show the net force felt at each point in the region around the pair.
2 black holesWe’re being dynamic here, so the simulation has to include the fact that changes in the mass configuration aren’t felt everywhere instantaneously.  Einstein showed that space transmits gravitational waves at the speed of light, so I used a scaled “speed of light” in the calculation.  You can see how each of the new features expands outward at a steady rate.

Even near the violent end, the massive objects move much more slowly than light speed.  The variation in their nearby field quickly smooths out to an oval and then a circle about the central point, which is why the calculated gravity field generates no spiral like the ones in the pretty pictures.

Oh, and those “gravity well” pictures?  They’re not showing gravitational fields, they’re really gravitational potential energy diagrams, showing how hard it’d be to get away from somewhere.  In the top video, for example, the satellite orbits the planet because it doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to get out of the well.  The more massive the attractor, the tighter it curves space around itself and the deeper the well.

~~ 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

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