gravitational waves


How Richard Feynman Convinced The Naysayers 60 Years Ago That Gravitational Waves Are Real

“Just as a pulse of electromagnetic radiation would cause such charges to oscillate, the same would happen in the “gravitational antenna” if a gravitational wave passed through—with the maximum effect occurring if the wave were transverse: at right angles to the stick. Upon the impact of a gravitational wave, one of the masses would accelerate relative to the other, sliding back and forth along the stick. The rubbing movement would generate friction between the free mass and the stick, releasing heat in the process. Therefore the gravitational radiation must convey energy. Otherwise, how else did the energy arise?”

Today, we take the existence of gravitational waves for granted. They were predicted by Einstein almost immediately following the first publication of general relativity, they were indirectly detected decades ago and they’ve been directly detected multiple times by the different LIGO observatories. Yet Einstein and his former student argued, back from the 1930s through the 1950s, that the waves were mere mathematical artifacts, and didn’t physically exist. Oddly enough, it was the non-specialist in general relativity, Richard Feynman, who provided the key way of thinking which resolved the argument. Rather than arguing about the mathematical subtleties of relativity, he approached the problem from a physical perspective, reasoning about how gravitational waves would be able to accelerate “gravitational charges,” a.k.a. masses. The result not only demonstrated that gravitational waves must carry energy, but provided the prototype for the design of LIGO.

Thanks to physicist and historian Paul Halpern, the full story is now available for all to read of how Feynman demonstrated the reality of gravitational waves 60 years ago!


Scientists make progress on unravelling the puzzle of merging black holes

Astrophysicists at the University of Birmingham have made progress in understanding a key mystery of gravitational-wave astrophysics: how two black holes can come together and merge.

During its first four months of taking data, Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detected gravitational waves from two mergers of pairs of black holes, GW150914 and GW151226, along with the statistically less significant black hole merger candidate LVT151012.

The first confirmed detection of gravitational waves occurred on September 14 2015 at 5.51am Eastern Daylight Time by both of the twin LIGO detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA.

It confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opened an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

However, we still do not know how such pairs of merging black holes form.

A new paper, published in Nature Communications, describes the results of an investigation into the formation of gravitational-wave sources with a newly developed toolkit named COMPAS (Compact Object Mergers: Population Astrophysics and Statistics).

In order for the black holes to merge within the age of the Universe by emitting gravitational waves, they must start out very close together by astronomical standards, no more than about a fifth of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

However, massive stars, which are the progenitors of the black holes that LIGO has observed, expand to be much larger than this in the course of their evolution. The key challenge, then, is how to fit such large stars within a very small orbit. Several possible scenarios have been proposed to address this.

The Birmingham astrophysicists, joined by collaborator Professor Selma de Mink from the University of Amsterdam, have shown that all three observed events can be formed via the same formation channel: isolated binary evolution via a common-envelope phase.

In this channel, two massive progenitor stars start out at quite wide separations. The stars interact as they expand, engaging in several episodes of mass transfer.

The latest of these is typically a common envelope - a very rapid, dynamically unstable mass transfer that envelops both stellar cores in a dense cloud of hydrogen gas.

Ejecting this gas from the system takes energy away from the orbit. This brings the two stars sufficiently close together for gravitational-wave emission to be efficient, right at the time when they are small enough that such closeness will no longer put them into contact. The whole process takes a few million years to form two black holes, with a possible subsequent delay of billions of years before the black holes merge and form a single black hole.

The simulations have also helped the team to understand the typical properties of the stars that can go on to form such pairs of merging black holes and the environments where this can happen.

For example, the team concluded that a merger of two black holes with significantly unequal masses would be a strong indication that the stars formed almost entirely from hydrogen and helium, with other elements contributing fewer than 0.1% of stellar matter (for comparison, this fraction is about 2% in the Sun).

First author Simon Stevenson, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, explained: “The beauty of COMPAS is that it allows us to combine all of our observations and start piecing together the puzzle of how these black holes merge, sending these ripples in spacetime that we were able to observe at LIGO.”

Senior author Professor Ilya Mandel added: “This work makes it possible to pursue a kind of ‘palaeontology’ for gravitational waves. A palaeontologist, who has never seen a living dinosaur, can figure out how the dinosaur looked and lived from its skeletal remains. In a similar way, we can analyse the mergers of black holes, and use these observations to figure out how those stars interacted during their brief but intense lives.”


Ask Ethan: What Is Spacetime?

“Conceptually, the metric tensor defines how spacetime itself is curved. Its curvature is dependent on the matter, energy and stresses present within it; the contents of your Universe define its spacetime curvature. By the same token, how your Universe is curved tells you how the matter and energy is going to move through it. We like to think that an object in motion will continue in motion: Newton’s first law. We conceptualize that as a straight line, but what curved space tells us is that instead an object in motion continuing in motion follows a geodesic, which is a particularly-curved line that corresponds to unaccelerated motion. Ironically, it’s a geodesic, not necessarily a straight line, that is the shortest distance between two points. This shows up even on cosmic scales, where the curved spacetime due to the presence of extraordinary masses can curve the background light from behind it, sometimes into multiple images.”

Sure, you know what space and time are. If you heard of Einstein and relativity, you might know that they’re not absolute quantities, but that how you experience distances and the ticking of clocks is dependent on your motion through the Universe. But did you also know that the addition of masses and gravitation to the theory didn’t just result in general relativity, but changed the way we viewed the Universe completely? If you told me the positions, momenta and all the other properties of all the matter and energy in the Universe, I could tell you everything thanks to general relativity. I could tell you what the Universe would look like and what its behavior would be at any point in time: past, present or future. I could tell you the birth and fate of the Universe, and I could do it with no uncertainty at all. General relativity might be incredibly complex, but it’s the most powerful classical theory of all.

Come get the incredible answer, complete with a description of the spacetime metric, to the simple question of what is spacetime on this week’s Ask Ethan!

Celestial Wonders- Binary Stars (#1)

The twins of the stellar world are binary star systems.

A binary star is a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common center of mass.

When two stars appear close together in the sky as seen from the Earth when viewed through  an optical telescope, the situation is known as an “optical double”.

This means that although the stars are aligned along the same line of sight, they may be at completely different distances from us. This occurs in constellations; however, two stars in the same constellation can also be part of a binary system  

Why study Binary stars ?

Binary star systems are very important in astrophysics because calculations of their orbits allow the masses of their component stars to be directly determined, which in turn allows other stellar parameters, such as radius and density, to be indirectly estimated.

This also determines an empirical mass-luminosity relationship (MLR) from which the masses of single stars can be estimated.

Also,it is estimated that 75% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy are not single stars, like the Sun, but multiple star systems, binaries or triplets.

The Brightest star in the sky is a binary.

This is true. Sirius (aka the Dog star)  - the brightest star in the sky is actually a binary star system.

When it was discovered in 1844 by the German astronomer Bessel, the system was classed as an astro-metric binary, because the companion star, Sirius B, was too faint to be seen.

Bessel, who was also a mathematician, determined by calculations that Sirius B existed after observing that the proper of Sirius A (the main star) followed a wavy path in the sky, rather than a uniform path.

Sirius can now be studied as a visual binary because, with improving technology and therefore improved telescopes, Sirius B was able to be seen, although not for 20 years after Bessel had correctly predicted its existence.

Black Holes in a binary system ?

Hell Yeah! The term “binary system” is not used exclusively for star systems, but also for planets, asteroids, and galaxies which rotate around a common center of gravity.

However, this is not a trick question; even in star binaries, the companion can be a black hole.

An example of this is Cygnus X-1.

A binary Black Hole system ?

Definitely! A binary black hole (BBH) is a system consisting of two black holes in close orbit around each other.

In fact the LIGO experiment which confirmed the existence of Gravitational waves was able to acquire its data when two Binary Black Holes Collided and merged into one. This phenomenon sent ripples in the fabric of space-time which we call as a Gravitational Wave.

The Universe is amazing huh?

If you found this interesting, check out:

A Denied stardom status - Jupiter

Black Holes are not so Black (Part 3) - Gravitational Waves


When black holes collide, the energy of the event generates intense gravitational waves. These waves were predicted by Einstein in his theories, but scientists have only recently been able to detect them experimentally. In this SciCafe, Barnard College professor and astronomer Janna Levin shares her scientific research on the first recordings of a gravitational wave from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago.


Gravitational Waves…explained. 

ELI5: Why is today's announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves important, and what are the ramifications?

Since I actually tried to explain this to a pair of 5-year-olds today, I figure why not share :)

You know how when you throw a rock in a pool, there are ripples? And how if we throw bigger rocks in, they make bigger ripples?

Well, a long time ago, a really smart guy named Einstein said that stars and planets and stuff should make ripples in space, and he used some really cool math to explain why he thought that. Lots of people checked the math and agree that he was right.

But we’ve never been able to see those ripples before. Now some people built a really sensitive measuring thing that uses lasers to see them, and they just proved that their device works by seeing ripples from a really big splash. So now we know how to see them and we can get better at it, which will help us learn more about space. /cr

If Einstein is right (hint: HE IS), gravitational waves would travel outward from (for instance) two black holes circling each other just like the ripples in a pond. When they come to Earth and pass through the detectors, a signal can tell us not only that the gravitational wave has been found, but it can also tell us lots of information about the gravitational wave!

As you track what the gravitational waves look like over a (very) short amount of time, you can tell what kind of event caused them, like if it was two black holes colliding or a violent supernova… along with other details, like what the mass of these stars/black holes would have been!

This discovery has ushered in an awesome new era of astronomy. BEFORE we started detecting gravitational waves, looking out at the universe was like watching an orchestra without any sound! As our detectors start making regular observations of this stuff, it will be like turning on our ears to the symphony of the cosmos! /cr

Explain Like I`m Five: good questions, best answers.


The black-hole collision that reshaped physics

A momentous signal from space has confirmed decades of theorizing on black holes — and launched a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy.

The event was catastrophic on a cosmic scale — a merger of black holes that violently shook the surrounding fabric of space and time, and sent a blast of space-time vibrations known as gravitational waves rippling across the Universe at the speed of light.

But it was the kind of calamity that physicists on Earth had been waiting for. On 14 September, when those ripples swept across the freshly upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO), they showed up as spikes in the readings from its two L-shaped detectors in Louisiana and Washington state. For the first time ever, scientists had recorded a gravitational-wave signal.

“There it was!” says LIGO team member Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “And it was so strong, and so beautiful, in both detectors.” Although the shape of the signal looked familiar from the theory, Holz says, “it’s completely different when you see something in the data. It’s this transcendent moment”.

The signal, formally designated GW150914 after the date of its occurrence and informally known to its discoverers as ‘the Event’, has justly been hailed as a milestone in physics. It has provided a wealth of evidence for Albert Einstein’s century-old general theory of relativity, which holds that mass and energy can warp space-time, and that gravity is the result of such warping. Stuart Shapiro, a specialist in computer simulations of relativity at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, calls it “the most significant confirmation of the general theory of relativity since its inception”.

But the Event also marks the start of a long-promised era of gravitational-wave astronomy. Detailed analysis of the signal has already yielded insights into the nature of the black holes that merged, and how they formed. With more events such as these — the LIGO team is analysing several other candidate events captured during the detectors’ four-month run, which ended in January — researchers will be able to classify and understand the origins of black holes, just as they are doing with stars.

Still more events should appear starting in September, when Advanced LIGO is scheduled to begin joint observations with its European counterpart, the Franco–Italian-led Advanced Virgo facility near Pisa, Italy. (The two collaborations already pool data and publish papers together.) This detector will not only contribute crucial details to events, but could also help astronomers to make cosmological-distance measurements more accurately than before.

“It’s going to be a really good ride for the next few years,” says Bruce Allen, managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hanover, Germany.

“The more black holes they see whacking into each other, the more fun it will be,” says Roger Penrose, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the University of Oxford, UK, whose work in the 1960s helped to lay the foundation for the theory of the objects. “Suddenly, we have a new way of looking at the Universe.”

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