Hierarchical analysis of gravitational-wave measurements of binary black hole spin–orbit misalignments

Gravitational waves allow us to infer the properties of binary black holes (two black holes in orbit about each other), but can we use this information to figure out how the black holes and the binary form? In this paper, we show that measurements of the black holes’ spins can help us this out, but probably not until we have at least 100 detections.

Black hole spins

Black holes are described by their masses (how much they bend spacetime) and their spins (how much they drag spacetime to rotate about them). The orientation of the spins relative to the orbit of the binary could tell us something about the history of the binary [bonus note].

We considered four different populations of spin–orbit alignments to see if we could tell them apart with gravitational-wave observations:

  1. Aligned—matching the idealised example of isolated binary evolution. This stands in for the case where misalignments are small, which might be the case if material blown off during a supernova ends up falling back and being swallowed by the black hole.
  2. Isotropic—matching the expectations for dynamically formed binaries.
  3. Equal misalignments at birth—this would be the case if the spins and orbit were aligned before the second supernova, which then tilted the plane of the orbit. (As the binary inspirals, the spins wobble around, so the two misalignment angles won’t always be the same).
  4. Both spins misaligned by supernova kicks, assuming that the stars were aligned with the orbit before exploding. This gives a more general scatter of unequal misalignments, but typically the primary (bigger and first forming) black hole is more misaligned.

These give a selection of possible spin alignments. For each, we assumed that the spin magnitude was the same and had a value of 0.7. This seemed like a sensible idea when we started this study [bonus note], but is now towards the upper end of what we expect for binary black holes.

Hierarchical analysis

To measurement the properties of the population we need to perform a hierarchical analysis: there are two layers of inference, one for the individual binaries, and one of the population.

From a gravitational wave signal, we infer the properties of the source using Bayes’ theorem. Given the data d_\alpha, we want to know the probability that the parameters \mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha have different values, which is written as p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha|d_\alpha). This is calculated using

\displaystyle p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha|d_\alpha) = \frac{p(d_\alpha | \mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha) p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha)}{p(d_\alpha)},

where p(d_\alpha | \mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha) is the likelihood, which we can calculate from our knowledge of the noise in our gravitational wave detectors, p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha) is the prior on the parameters (what we would have guessed before we had the data), and the normalisation constant p(d_\alpha) is called the evidence. We’ll use the evidence again in the next layer of inference.

Our prior on the parameters should actually depend upon what we believe about the astrophysical population. It is different if we believed that Model 1 were true (when we’d only consider aligned spins) than for Model 2. Therefore, we should really write

\displaystyle p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha|d_\alpha, \lambda) = \frac{p(d_\alpha | \mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha,\lambda) p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha,\lambda)}{p(d_\alpha|\lambda)},

where  \lambda denotes which model we are considering.

This is an important point to remember: if you our using our LIGO results to test your theory of binary formation, you need to remember to correct for our choice of prior. We try to pick non-informative priors—priors that don’t make strong assumptions about the physics of the source—but this doesn’t mean that they match what would be expected from your model.

We are interested in the probability distribution for the different models: how many binaries come from each. Given a set of different observations \{d_\alpha\}, we can work this out using another application of Bayes’ theorem (yay)

\displaystyle p(\mathbf{\lambda}|\{d_\alpha\}) = \frac{p(\{d_\alpha\} | \mathbf{\lambda}) p(\mathbf{\lambda})}{p(\{d_\alpha\})},

where p(\{d_\alpha\} | \mathbf{\lambda}) is just all the evidences for the individual events (given that model) multiplied together, p(\mathbf{\lambda}) is our prior for the different models, and p(\{d_\alpha\}) is another normalisation constant.

Now knowing how to go from a set of observations to the probability distribution on the different channels, let’s give it a go!


To test our approach made a set of mock gravitational wave measurements. We generated signals from binaries for each of our four models, and analysed these as we would for real signals (using LALInference). This is rather computationally expensive, and we wanted a large set of events to analyse, so using these results as a guide, we created a larger catalogue of approximate distributions for the inferred source parameters p(\mathbf{\Theta}_\alpha|d_\alpha). We then fed these through our hierarchical analysis. The GIF below shows how measurements of the fraction of binaries from each population tightens up as we get more detections: the true fraction is marked in blue.

Fraction of binaries from each of the four models

Probability distribution for the fraction of binaries from each of our four spin misalignment populations for different numbers of observations. The blue dot marks the true fraction: and equal fraction from all four channels.

The plot shows that we do zoom in towards the true fraction of events from each model as the number of events increases, but there are significant degeneracies between the different models. Notably, it is difficult to tell apart Models 1 and 3, as both have strong support for both spins being nearly aligned. Similarly, there is a degeneracy between Models 2 and 4 as both allow for the two spins to have very different misalignments (and for the primary spin, which is the better measured one, to be quite significantly misaligned).

This means that we should be able to distinguish aligned from misaligned populations (we estimated that as few as 5 events would be needed to distinguish the case that all events came from either Model 1  or Model 2 if those were the only two allowed possibilities). However, it will be more difficult to distinguish different scenarios which only lead to small misalignments from each other, or disentangle whether there is significant misalignment due to big supernova kicks or because binaries are formed dynamically.

The uncertainty of the fraction of events from each model scales roughly with the square root of the number of observations, so it may be slow progress making these measurements. I’m not sure whether we’ll know the answer to how binary black hole form, or who will sit on the Iron Throne first.

arXiv: 1703.06873 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society471(3):2801–2811; 2017
Birmingham science summary: Hierarchical analysis of gravitational-wave measurements of binary black hole spin–orbit misalignment (by Simon)
If you like this you might like: Farr et al. (2017)Talbot & Thrane (2017), Vitale et al. (2017), Trifirò et al. (2016), Minogue (2000)

Bonus notes

Spin misalignments and formation histories

If you have two stars forming in a binary together, you’d expect them to be spinning in roughly the same direction, rotating the same way as they go round in their orbit (like our Solar System). This is because they all formed from the same cloud of swirling gas and dust. Furthermore, if two stars are to form a black hole binary that we can detect gravitational waves from, they need to be close together. This means that there can be tidal forces which gently tug the stars to align their rotation with the orbit. As they get older, stars puff up, meaning that if you have a close-by neighbour, you can share outer layers. This transfer of material will tend to align rotate too. Adding this all together, if you have an isolated binary of stars, you might expect that when they collapse down to become black holes, their spins are aligned with each other and the orbit.

Unfortunately, real astrophysics is rarely so clean. Even if the stars were initially rotating the same way as each other, they doesn’t mean that their black hole remnants will do the same. This depends upon how the star collapses. Massive stars explode as supernova, blasting off their outer layers while their cores collapse down to form black holes. Escaping material could carry away angular momentum, meaning that the black hole is spinning in a different direction to its parent star, or material could be blasted off asymmetrically, giving the new black hole a kick. This would change the plane of the binary’s orbit, misaligning the spins.

Alternatively, the binary could be formed dynamically. Instead of two stars living their lives together, we could have two stars (or black holes) come close enough together to form a binary. This is likely to happen in regions where there’s a high density of stars, such as a globular cluster. In this case, since the binary has been randomly assembled, there’s no reason for the spins to be aligned with each other or the orbit. For dynamically assembled binaries, all spin–orbit misalignments are equally probable.

Slow and steady

This project was led by Simon Stevenson. It was one of the first things we started working on at the beginning of his PhD. He has now graduated, and is off to start a new exciting life as a postdoc in Australia. We got a little distracted by other projects, most notably analysing the first detections of gravitational waves. Simon spent a lot of time developing the COMPAS population code, a code to simulate the evolution of binaries. Looking back, it’s impressive how far he’s come. This paper used a simple approximation to to estimate the masses of our black holes: we called it the Post-it note model, as we wrote it down on a single Post-it. Now Simon’s writing papers including the complexities of common-envelope evolution in order to explain LIGO’s actual observations.


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