Top 2016 gravitational wave papers

2016 was a busy year for gravitational-wave astronomy. I wrote many blog posts about the papers I have been involved with (I still have a back log). Therefore, as a change, I thought I’d start 2017 looking at my favourite papers written by other people published in 2016. Here are my top three.

Prospects for multiband gravitational-wave astronomy after GW150914

Author: Sesana, A.
 1602.06951 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review Letters; 116(23):231102(6); 2016

I wrote about this paper previously when discussing the papers released to coincide the the announcement of the observation of GW150914. It suggests that we will be able to observe binary black holes months to years before they’re detectable with ground-based detectors with a space-borne detector like LISA. With this multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy, we could be able to learn even more about black holes

The concept of multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy is not actually new. I believe it was first suggested for LIGO and LISA detecting intermediate-mass black hole binaries (binaries with black holes about 100 times the mass of our Sun); it has also been suggested for combining LISA and pulsar timing measurements to look at supermassive black hole binaries (tens of millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun). However, this paper was to first to look at what we could really learn from these observations. We should be able to get a good sky localization (less than a square degree) ahead of the merger, meaning we can point telescopes ahead of time to try to catch any flash that might accompany it; we’ll also know when the merger should happen, so that we don’t need to worry about misidentifying any explosions we might spot.  LISA would be able to provide good constraints of the black hole masses, measuring the chirp mass to an accuracy of less than 0.01%!

This paper created some real enthusiasm for multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy. Vitale (2016) considered how the combined measurements could help us test general relativity. Breivik et al. (2016) and Nishizawa et al. (2106) looked at how LISA could measure the eccentricity of these binaries (which is practically impossible by the time they are observable with ground-based detectors) to figure out how they form. I think these will be fruitful avenues of research in the future.

The excitement surrounding LISA is well timed. A mission proposal has just been submitted to ESA for their upcoming Gravitational Universe science theme. NASA has also stated interest in rejoining the mission.

Astrophysical constraints on massive black hole binary evolution from pulsar timing arrays

Authors: Middleton, H.; Del Pozzo, W.; Farr, W.M.; Sesana, A. & Vecchio, A.
 1507.00992 [astro-ph.CO]
 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters; 455(1):L72–L76; 2016

This is a really neat paper studying what we could learn form pulsar timing arrays. Pulsar timing arrays are sensitive to very low frequency gravitational waves, those from supermassive black hole binaries (millions to billions the times the mass of our Sun). Lots of work has been invested in trying to detect a signal. There are three consortia currently working towards this, collaborating together as part of the International Pulsar Timing Array , but I suspect secretly hoping that they can get there first. This papers looks at what we’ll actually be able to infer about the supermassive black holes when we do make a detection.

They find, unsurprisingly, that using our current upper limits on the background of gravitational waves, we can place some constraints on the number of mergers, but not say much else. If the upper limit was to improve by an order of magnitude, we’d start to learn something about the mass distribution but we wouldn’t learn much about the shape. When we do make a detection, we get more information, but still not a lot. We would know that some binaries are merging, but not which ones: there are degeneracies between the merger rate and the mass distribution. This means that even with a detection, pulsar timing will not be able to pin down the distribution of supermassive black holes, we’ll have to fold in other observations too!

Gravitational waves might be cool, but they can’t tell us everything.

Theoretical physics implications of the binary black-hole mergers GW150914 and GW151226

Authors: Yunes, N.; Yagi,  K. & Pretorius, F.
 1603.08955 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review D; 94(8):084002(42); 2016

After a LISA paper and a pulsar-timing array paper, we’ll round off the trio with a LIGO paper. This paper takes an exhaustive view of the all the ways that the observations of gravitational-wave events so far constrain theories of gravity. It’s an impressive work, made even more so considering that they revised the paper following the announcement of GW151226. I would have been tempted to write a second paper on that. At 42 pages, this is heavy ready (it’s the least fun of my top 3), so it is perhaps best just to dip in to find out about your favourite alternative theories of gravity.

This paper highlights how the first observations of gravitational waves change the game when it comes to testing gravity. We now have a wealth of information on gravitational-wave generation, gravitational-wave propagation and the structure of black holes. This is great for cutting down the range of possible theories. However, as the authors point out, to really test other theories of gravity, we need predictions for their behaviour in the extreme and dynamic conditions of a binary black hole coalescence. There is still a huge amount of work to do.

I especially like this paper as it is an example of how results from LIGO and Virgo can be taken forward and put to good use by those outside of the Collaboration. I hope there will be more of this in the future.