Comprehensive all-sky search for periodic gravitational waves in the sixth science run LIGO data

The most recent, and most sensitive, all-sky search for continuous gravitational waves shows no signs of a detection. These signals from rotating neutron stars remain elusive. New data from the advanced detectors may change this, but we will have to wait a while to find out. This at least gives us time to try to figure out what to do with a detection, should one be made.

New years and new limits

The start of the new academic year is a good time to make resolutions—much better than wet and windy January. I’m trying to be tidier and neater in my organisation. Amid cleaning up my desk, which is covered in about an inch of papers, I uncovered this recent Collaboration paper, which I had lost track of.

The paper is the latest in the continuous stream of non-detections of continuous gravitational waves. These signals could come from rotating neutron stars which are deformed or excited in some way, and the hope that from such an observation we could learn something about the structure of neutron stars.

The search uses old data from initial LIGO’s sixth science run. Searches for continuous waves require lots of computational power, so they can take longer than even our analyses of binary neutron star coalescences. This is a semi-coherent search, like the recent search of the Orion spur—somewhere between an incoherent search, which looks for signal power of any form in the detectors, and a fully coherent search, which looks for signals which exactly match the way a template wave evolves [bonus note]. The big difference compared to the Orion spur search, is that this one looks at the entire sky. This makes it less sensitive in those narrow directions, but means we are not excluding the possibility of sources from other locations.

Part of the Galaxy searched

Artist’s impression of the local part of the Milky Way. The yellow cones mark the extent of the Orion Spur spotlight search, and the pink circle shows the equivalent sensitivity of this all-sky search. Green stars indicate known pulsars. Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt.

The search identified 16 outliers, but an examination of all of these showed they could be explained either as an injected signal or as detector noise. Since no signals were found, we can instead place some upper limits on the strength of signals.

The plot below translates the calculated upper limits (above which there would have been a ~75%–95% chance of us detected the signal) into the size of neutron star deformations. Each curve shows the limits on detectable signals at different distance, depending upon their frequency and the rate of change of their frequency. The dotted lines show limits on ellipticity \varepsilon, a measure of how bumpy the neutron star is. Larger deformations mean quicker changes of frequency and produce louder signals, therefore they can can be detected further away.

Limits on detectable signals and ellipticities

Range of the PowerFlux search for rotating neutron stars assuming that spin-down is entirely due to gravitational waves. The solid lines show the upper limits as a function of the gravitational-wave frequency and its rate of change; the dashed lines are the corresponding limits on ellipticity, and the dotted line marks the maximum searched spin-down. Figure 6 of Abbott et al. (2016).

Neutron stars are something like giant atomic nuclei. Figuring the properties of the strange matter that makes up neutron stars is an extremely difficult problem. We’ll never be able to recreate such exotic matter in the laboratory. Gravitational waves give us a rare means of gathering experimental data on how this matter behaves. However, exactly how we convert a measurement of a signal into constraints on the behaviour of the matter is still uncertain. I think that making a detection might only be the first step in understanding the sources of continuous gravitational waves.

arXiv: 1605.03233 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 94(4):042002(14); 2016
Other new academic year resolution:
 To attempt to grow a beard. Beard stroking helps you think, right?

Bonus note

The semi-coherent search

As the first step of this search, the PowerFlux algorithm looks for power that changes in frequency as expected for a rotating neutron star: it factors in Doppler shifting due to the motion of the Earth and a plausible spin down (slowing of the rotation) of the neutron star. As a follow up, the Loosely Coherent algorithm is used, which checks for signals which match short stretches of similar templates. Any candidates to make it through all stages of refinement are then examined in more detail. This search strategy is described in detail for the S5 all-sky search.


Parameter estimation on gravitational waves from neutron-star binaries with spinning components

blIn gravitation-wave astronomy, some parameters are easier to measure than others. We are sensitive to properties which change the form of the wave, but sometimes the effect of changing one parameter can be compensated by changing another. We call this a degeneracy. In signals for coalescing binaries (two black holes or neutron stars inspiralling together), there is a degeneracy between between the masses and spins. In this recently published paper, we look at what this means for observing binary neutron star systems.


This paper has been something of an albatross, and I’m extremely pleased that we finally got it published. I started working on it when I began my post-doc at Birmingham in 2013. Back then I was sharing an office with Ben Farr, and together with others in the Parameter Estimation Group, we were thinking about the prospect of observing binary neutron star signals (which we naively thought were the most likely) in LIGO’s first observing run.

One reason that this work took so long is that binary neutron star signals can be computationally expensive to analyse [bonus note]. The signal slowly chirps up in frequency, and can take up to a minute to sweep through the range of frequencies LIGO is sensitive to. That gives us a lot of gravitational wave to analyse. (For comparison, GW150914 lasted 0.2 seconds). We need to calculate waveforms to match to the observed signals, and these can be especially complicated when accounting for the effects of spin.

A second reason is shortly after submitting the paper in August 2015, we got a little distracted

This paper was the third of a trilogy look at measuring the properties of binary neutron stars. I’ve written about the previous instalment before. We knew that getting the final results for binary neutron stars, including all the important effects like spin, would take a long time, so we planned to follow up any detections in stages. A probable sky location can be computed quickly, then we can have a first try at estimating other parameters like masses using waveforms that don’t include spin, then we go for the full results with spin. The quicker results would be useful for astronomers trying to find any explosions that coincided with the merger of the two neutron stars. The first two papers looked at results from the quicker analyses (especially at sky localization); in this one we check what effect neglecting spin has on measurements.

What we did

We analysed a population of 250 binary neutron star signals (these are the same as the ones used in the first paper of the trilogy). We used what was our best guess for the sensitivity of the two LIGO detectors in the first observing run (which was about right).

The simulated neutron stars all have small spins of less than 0.05 (where 0 is no spin, and 1 would be the maximum spin of a black hole). We expect neutron stars in these binaries to have spins of about this range. The maximum observed spin (for a neutron star not in a binary neutron star system) is around 0.4, and we think neutron stars should break apart for spins of 0.7. However, since we want to keep an open mind regarding neutron stars, when measuring spins we considered spins all the way up to 1.

What we found

Our results clearly showed the effect of the mass–spin degeneracy. The degeneracy increases the uncertainty for both the spins and the masses.

Even though the true spins are low, we find that across the 250 events, the median 90% upper limit on the spin of the more massive (primary) neutron star is 0.70, and the 90% limit on the less massive (secondary) neutron star is 0.86. We learn practically nothing about the spin of the secondary, but a little more about the spin of the primary, which is more important for the inspiral. Measuring spins is hard.

The effect of the mass–spin degeneracy for mass measurements is shown in the plot below. Here we show a random selection of events. The banana-shaped curves are the 90% probability intervals. They are narrow because we can measure a particular combination of masses, the chirp mass, really well. The mass–spin degeneracy determines how long the banana is. If we restrict the range of spins, we explore less of the banana (and potentially introduce an offset in our results).

Neutron star mass distributions

Rough outlines for 90% credible regions for component masses for a random assortments of signals. The circles show the true values. The coloured lines indicate the extent of the distribution with different limits on the spins. The grey area is excluded from our convention on masses m_1 \geq m_2. Figure 5 from Farr et al. (2016).

Although you can’t see it in the plot above, including spin does also increase the uncertainty in the chirp mass too. The plots below show the standard deviation (a measure width of the posterior probability distribution), divided by the mean for several mass parameters. This gives a measure of the fractional uncertainty in our measurements. We show the chirp mass \mathcal{M}_\mathrm{c}, the mass ratio q = m_2/m_1 and the total mass M = m_1 + m_2, where m_1 and m_2 are the masses of the primary and secondary neutron stars respectively. The uncertainties are small for louder signals (higher signal-to-noise ratio). If we neglect the spin, the true chirp mass can lie outside the posterior distribution, the average is about 5 standard deviations from the mean, but if we include spin, the offset is just 0.7 from the mean (there’s still some offset as we’re allowing for spins all the way up to 1).

Mass measurements for binary neutron stars with and without spin

Fractional statistical uncertainties in chirp mass (top), mass ratio (middle) and total mass (bottom) estimates as a function of network signal-to-noise ratio for both the fully spinning analysis and the quicker non-spinning analysis. The lines indicate approximate power-law trends to guide the eye. Figure 2 of Farr et al. (2016).

We need to allow for spins when measuring binary neutron star masses in order to explore for the possible range of masses.

Sky localization and distance, however, are not affected by the spins here. This might not be the case for sources which are more rapidly spinning, but assuming that binary neutron stars do have low spin, we are safe using the easier-to-calculate results. This is good news for astronomers who need to know promptly where to look for explosions.

arXiv: 1508.05336 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal825(2):116(10); 2016
Authorea [bonus note]: Parameter estimation on gravitational waves from neutron-star binaries with spinning components
Conference proceedings:
 Early Advanced LIGO binary neutron-star sky localization and parameter estimation
Favourite albatross:

Bonus notes

How long?

The plot below shows how long it took to analyse each of the binary neutron star signals.

Run time for different analyses of binary neutron stars

Distribution of run times for binary neutron star signals. Low-latency sky localization is done with BAYESTAR; medium-latency non-spinning parameter estimation is done with LALInference and TaylorF2 waveforms, and high-latency fully spinning parameter estimation is done with LALInference and SpinTaylorT4 waveforms. The LALInference results are for 2000 posterior samples. Figure 9 from Farr et al. (2016).

BAYESTAR provides a rapid sky localization, taking less than ten seconds. This is handy for astronomers who want to catch a flash caused by the merger before it fades.

Estimates for the other parameters are computed with LALInference. How long this takes to run depends on which waveform you are using and how many samples from the posterior probability distribution you want (the more you have, the better you can map out the shape of the distribution). Here we show times for 2000 samples, which is enough to get a rough idea (we collected ten times more for GW150914 and friends). Collecting twice as many samples takes (roughly) twice as long. Prompt results can be obtained with a waveform that doesn’t include spin (TaylorF2), these take about a day at most.

For this work, we considered results using a waveform which included the full effects of spin (SpinTaylorT4). These take about twenty times longer than the non-spinning analyses. The maximum time was 172 days. I have a strong suspicion that the computing time cost more than my salary.

Gravitational-wave arts and crafts

Waiting for LALInference runs to finish gives you some time to practise hobbies. This is a globe knitted by Hannah. The two LIGO sites marked in red, and a typical gravitational-wave sky localization stitched on.

In order to get these results, we had to add check-pointing to our code, so we could stop it and restart it; we encountered a new type of error in the software which manages jobs running on our clusters, and Hannah Middleton and I got several angry emails from cluster admins (who are wonderful people) for having too many jobs running.

In comparison, analysing GW150914, LVT151012 and GW151226 was a breeze. Grudgingly, I have to admit that getting everything sorted out for this study made us reasonably well prepared for the real thing. Although, I’m not looking forward to that first binary neutron star signal…


Authorea is an online collaborative writing service. It allows people to work together on documents, editing text, adding comments, and chatting with each other. By the time we came to write up the paper, Ben was no longer in Birmingham, and many of our coauthors are scattered across the globe. Ben thought Authorea might be useful for putting together the paper.

Writing was easy, and the ability to add comments on the text was handy for getting feedback from coauthors. The chat was going for quickly sorting out issues like plots. Overall, I was quite pleased, up to the point we wanted to get the final document. Extracted a nicely formatted PDF was awkward. For this I switched to using the Github back-end. On reflection, a simple git repo, plus a couple of Skype calls might have been a smoother way of writing, at least for a standard journal article.

Authorea promises to be an open way of producing documents, and allows for others to comment on papers. I don’t know if anyone’s looked at our Authorea article. For astrophysics, most people use the arXiv, which is free to everyone, and I’m not sure if there’s enough appetite for interaction (beyond the occasional email to authors) to motivate people to look elsewhere. At least, not yet.

In conclusion, I think Authorea is a nice idea, and I would try out similar collaborative online writing tools again, but I don’t think I can give it a strong recommendation for your next paper unless you have a particular idea in mind of how to make the most of it.

Testing general relativity using golden black-hole binaries

Binary black hole mergers are the ultimate laboratory for testing gravity. The gravitational fields are strong, and things are moving at close to the speed of light. these extreme conditions are exactly where we expect our theories could breakdown, which is why we were so exciting by detecting gravitational waves from black hole coalescences. To accompany the first detection of gravitational waves, we performed several tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity (it passed). This paper outlines the details of one of the tests, one that can be extended to include future detections to put Einstein’s theory to the toughest scrutiny.

One of the difficulties of testing general relativity is what do you compare it to? There are many alternative theories of gravity, but only a few of these have been studied thoroughly enough to give an concrete idea of what a binary black hole merger should look like. Even if general relativity comes out on top when compared to one alternative model, it doesn’t mean that another (perhaps one we’ve not thought of yet) can be ruled out. We need ways of looking for something odd, something which hints that general relativity is wrong, but doesn’t rely on any particular alternative theory of gravity.

The test suggested here is a consistency test. We split the gravitational-wave signal into two pieces, a low frequency part and a high frequency part, and then try to measure the properties of the source from the two parts. If general relativity is correct, we should get answers that agree; if it’s not, and there’s some deviation in the exact shape of the signal at different frequencies, we can get different answers. One way of thinking about this test is imagining that we have two experiments, one where we measure lower frequency gravitational waves and one where we measure higher frequencies, and we are checking to see if their results agree.

To split the waveform, we use a frequency around that of the last stable circular orbit: about the point that the black holes stop orbiting about each other and plunge together and merge [bonus note]. For GW150914, we used 132 Hz, which is about the same as the C an octave below middle C (a little before time zero in the simulation below). This cut roughly splits the waveform into the low frequency inspiral (where the two black hole are orbiting each other), and the higher frequency merger (where the two black holes become one) and ringdown (where the final black hole settles down).

We are fairly confident that we understand what goes on during the inspiral. This is similar physics to where we’ve been testing gravity before, for example by studying the orbits of the planets in the Solar System. The merger and ringdown are more uncertain, as we’ve never before probed these strong and rapidly changing gravitational fields. It therefore seems like a good idea to check the two independently [bonus note].

We use our parameter estimation codes on the two pieces to infer the properties of the source, and we compare the values for the mass M_f and spin \chi_f of the final black hole. We could use other sets of parameters, but this pair compactly sum up the properties of the final black hole and are easy to explain. We look at the difference between the estimated values for the mass and spin, \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f, if general relativity is a good match to the observations, then we expect everything to match up, and \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f to be consistent with zero. They won’t be exactly zero because we have noise in the detector, but hopefully zero will be within the uncertainty region [bonus note]. An illustration of the test is shown below, including one of the tests we did to show that it does spot when general relativity is not correct.

Consistency test resuls

Results from the consistency test. The top panels show the outlines of the 50% and 90% credible levels for the low frequency (inspiral) part of the waveform, the high frequency (merger–ringdown) part, and the entire (inspiral–merger–ringdown, IMR) waveform. The bottom panel shows the fractional difference between the high and low frequency results. If general relativity is correct, we expect the distribution to be consistent with (0,0), indicated by the cross (+). The left panels show a general relativity simulation, and the right panel shows a waveform from a modified theory of gravity. Figure 1 of Ghosh et al. (2016).

A convenient feature of using \Delta M_f and \Delta \chi_f to test agreement with relativity, is that you can combine results from multiple observations. By averaging over lots of signals, you can reduce the uncertainty from noise. This allows you to pin down whether or not things really are consistent, and spot smaller deviations (we could get precision of a few percent after about 100 suitable detections). I look forward to seeing how this test performs in the future!

arXiv: 1602.02453 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 94(2):021101(6); 2016
Favourite golden thing: Golden syrup sponge pudding

Bonus notes


I became involved in this work as a reviewer. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is a bit of a stickler when it comes to checking its science. We had to check that the test was coded up correctly, that the results made sense, and that calculations done and written up for GW150914 were all correct. Since most of the team are based in India [bonus note], this involved some early morning telecons, but it all went smoothly.

One of our checks was that the test wasn’t sensitive to exact frequency used to split the signal. If you change the frequency cut, the results from the two sections do change. If you lower the frequency, then there’s less of the low frequency signal and the measurement uncertainties from this piece get bigger. Conversely, there’ll be more signal in the high frequency part and so we’ll make a more precise measurement of the parameters from this piece. However, the overall results where you combine the two pieces stay about the same. You get best results when there’s a roughly equal balance between the two pieces, but you don’t have to worry about getting the cut exactly on the innermost stable orbit.

Golden binaries

In order for the test to work, we need the two pieces of the waveform to both be loud enough to allow us to measure parameters using them. This type of signals are referred to as golden. Earlier work on tests of general relativity using golden binaries has been done by Hughes & Menou (2015), and Nakano, Tanaka & Nakamura (2015). GW150914 was a golden binary, but GW151226 and LVT151012 were not, which is why we didn’t repeat this test for them.

GW150914 results

For The Event, we ran this test, and the results are consistent with general relativity being correct. The plots below show the estimates for the final mass and spin (here denoted a_f rather than \chi_f), and the fractional difference between the two measurements. The points (0,0) is at the 28% credible level. This means that if general relativity is correct, we’d expect a deviation at this level to occur around-about 72% of the time due to noise fluctuations. It wouldn’t take a particular rare realisation of noise to cause the assume true value of (0,0) to be found at this probability level, so we’re not too suspicious that something is amiss with general relativity.

GW150914 consistency test results

Results from the consistency test for The Event. The top panels final mass and spin measurements from the low frequency (inspiral) part of the waveform, the high frequency (post-inspiral) part, and the entire (IMR) waveform. The bottom panel shows the fractional difference between the high and low frequency results. If general relativity is correct, we expect the distribution to be consistent with (0,0), indicated by the cross. Figure 3 of the Testing General Relativity Paper.

The authors

Abhirup Ghosh and Archisman Ghosh were two of the leads of this study. They are both A. Ghosh at the same institution, which caused some confusion when compiling the LIGO Scientific Collaboration author list. I think at one point one of them (they can argue which) was removed as someone thought there was a mistaken duplication. To avoid confusion, they now have their full names used. This is a rare distinction on the Discovery Paper (I’ve spotted just two others). The academic tradition of using first initials plus second name is poorly adapted to names which don’t fit the typical western template, so we should be more flexible.

Search for transient gravitational waves in coincidence with short-duration radio transients during 2007–2013

Gravitational waves give us a new way of observing the Universe. This raises the possibility of multimessenger astronomy, where we study the same system using different methods: gravitational waves, light or neutrinos. Each messenger carries different information, so by using them together we can build up a more complete picture of what’s going on. This paper looks for gravitational waves that coincide with radio bursts. None are found, but we now have a template for how to search in the future.

On a dark night, there are two things which almost everyone will have done: wondered at the beauty of the starry sky and wondered exactly what was it that just went bump… Astronomers do both. Transient astronomy is about figuring out what are the things which go bang in the night—not the things which make suspicious noises, but objects which appear (and usually disappear) suddenly in the sky.

Most processes in astrophysics take a looooong time (our Sun is four-and-a-half billion years old and is just approaching middle age). Therefore, when something happens suddenly, flaring perhaps over just a few seconds, you know that something drastic must be happening! We think that most transients must be tied up with a violent event such as an explosion. However, because transients are so short, it can difficult to figure out exactly where they come from (both because they might have faded by the time you look, and because there’s little information to learn from a blip in the first place).

Radio transients are bursts of radio emission of uncertain origin. We’ve managed to figure out that some come from microwave ovens, but the rest do seem to come from space. This paper looks at two types: rotating radio transients (RRATs) and fast radio bursts (FRBs). RRATs look like the signals from pulsars, except that they don’t have the characteristic period pattern of pulsars. It may be that RRATs come from dying pulsars, flickering before they finally switch off, or it may be that they come from neutron stars which are not normally pulsars, but have been excited by a fracturing of their crust (a starquake). FRBs last a few milliseconds, they could be generated when two neutron stars merge and collapse to form a black hole, or perhaps from a highly-magnetised neutron star. Normally, when astronomers start talking about magnetic fields, it means that we really don’t know what’s going on [bonus note]. That is the case here. We don’t know what causes radio transients, but we are excited to try figuring it out.

This paper searches old LIGO, Virgo and GEO data for any gravitational-wave signals that coincide with observed radio transients. We use a catalogue of RRATs and FRBs from the Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Observatory, and search around these times. We use a burst search, which doesn’t restrict itself to any particular form of gravitational-wave; however, the search was tuned for damped sinusoids and sine–Gaussians (generic wibbles), cosmic strings (which may give an indication of how uncertain we are of where radio transients could come from), and coalescences of binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries. Hopefully the search covers all plausible options. Discovering a gravitational wave coincident with a radio transient would give us much welcomed information about the source, and perhaps pin down their origin.

Results from search for gravitational waves conicident with radio transients

Search results for gravitational waves coincident with radio transients. The probabilities for each time containing just noise (blue) match the expected background distribution (dashed). This is consistent with a non-detection.

The search discovered nothing. Results match what we would expect from just noise in the detectors. This is not too surprising since we are using data from the first-generation detectors. We’ll be repeating the analysis with the upgraded detectors, which can find signals from larger distances. If we are lucky, multimessenger astronomy will allow us to figure out exactly what needs to go bump to create a radio transient.

arXiv: 1605.01707 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122008(14); 2016
Science summary: Searching for gravitational wave bursts in coincidence with short duration radio bursts
Favourite thing that goes bump in the night: Heffalumps and Woozles [probably not the cause of radio transients]

Bonus note

Magnetism and astrophysics

Magnetic fields complicate calculations. They make things more difficult to model and are therefore often left out. However, we know that magnetic fields are everywhere and that they do play important roles in many situations. Therefore, they are often invoked as an explanation of why models can’t explain what’s going on. I learnt early in my PhD that you could ask “What about magnetic fields?” at the end of almost any astrophysics seminar (it might not work for some observational talks, but then you could usually ask “What about dust?” instead). Handy if ever you fall asleep…

A black hole Pokémon

The world is currently going mad for Pokémon Go, so it seems like the perfect time to answer the most burning of scientific questions: what would a black hole Pokémon be like?

Black hole Pokémon

Type: Dark/Ghost

Black holes are, well, black. Their gravity is so strong that if you get close enough, nothing, not even light, can escape. I think that’s about as dark as you can get!

After picking Dark as a primary type, I thought Ghost was a good secondary type, since black holes could be thought of as the remains of dead stars. This also fit well with black holes not really being made of anything—they are just warped spacetime—and so are ethereal in nature. Of course, black holes’ properties are grounded in general relativity and not the supernatural.

In the games, having a secondary type has another advantage: Dark types are weak against Fighting types. In reality, punching or kicking a black hole is a Bad Idea™: it will not damage the black hole, but will certainly cause you some difficulties. However, Ghost types are unaffected by Fighting-type moves, so our black hole Pokémon doesn’t have to worry about them.

Height: 0’04″/0.1 m

Real astrophysical black holes are probably a bit too big for Pokémon games.  The smallest Pokémon are currently the electric bug Joltik and fairy Flabébé, so I’ve made our black hole Pokémon the same size as these. It should comfortably fit inside a Pokéball.

Measuring the size of a black hole is actually rather tricky, since they curve spacetime. When talking about the size of a black hole, we normally think in terms of the Schwarzschild radius. Named after Karl Schwarzschild, who first calculated the spacetime of a black hole (although he didn’t realise that at the time), the Schwarzschild radius correspond to the event horizon (the point of no return) of a non-spinning black hole. It’s rather tricky to measure the distance to the centre of a black hole, so really the Schwarzschild radius gives an idea of the circumference (the distance around the edge) of the event horizon: this is 2π times the Schwarschild radius. We’ll take the height to really mean twice the Schwarzschild radius (which would be the Schwarzschild diameter, if that were actually a thing).

Weight: 7.5 × 1025 lbs/3.4 × 1025 kg

Although we made our black hole pocket-sized, it is monstrously heavy. The mass is for a black hole of the size we picked, and it is about 6 times that of the Earth. That’s still quite small for a black hole (it’s 3.6 million times less massive than the black hole that formed from GW150914’s coalescence). With this mass, our Pokémon would have a significant effect on the tides as it would quickly suck in the Earth’s oceans. Still, Pokémon doesn’t need to be too realistic.

Our black hole Pokémon would be by far the heaviest Pokémon, despite being one of the smallest. The heaviest Pokémon currently is the continent Pokémon Primal Groudon. This is 2,204.4 lbs/999.7 kg, so about 34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times lighter.

Within the games, having such a large weight would make our black hole Pokémon vulnerable to Grass Knot, a move which trips a Pokémon. The heavier the Pokémon, the more it is hurt by the falling over, so the more damage Grass Knot does. In the case of our Pokémon, when it trips it’s not so much that it hits the ground, but that the Earth hits it, so I think it’s fair that this hurts.

Gender: Unknown

Black holes are beautifully simple, they are described just by their mass, spin and electric charge. There’s no other information you can learn about them, so I don’t think there’s any way to give them a gender. I think this is rather fitting as the sun-like Solrock is also genderless, and it seems right that stars and black holes share this.

Ability: Sticky Hold
Hidden ability:

Sticky Hold prevents a Pokémon’s item from being taken. (I’d expect wild black hole Pokémon to be sometimes found holding Stardust, from stars they have consumed). Due to their strong gravity, it is difficult to remove an object that is orbiting a black hole—a common misconception is that it is impossible to escape the pull of a black hole, this is only true if you cross the event horizon (if you replaced the Sun with a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would happily continue on its orbit as if nothing had happened).

Soundproof is an ability that protects Pokémon from sound-based moves. I picked it as a reference to sonic (or acoustic) black holes. These are black hole analogues—systems which mimic some of the properties of black holes. A sonic black hole can be made in a fluid which flows faster than its speed of sound. When this happens, sound can no longer escape this rapidly flowing region (it just gets swept away), just like light can’t escape from the event horizon or a regular black hole.

Sonic black holes are fun, because you can make them in the lab. You can them use them to study the properties of black holes—there is much excitement about possibly observing the equivalent of Hawking radiation. Predicted by Stephen Hawking (as you might guess), Hawking radiation is emitted by black holes, and could cause them to evaporate away (if they didn’t absorb more than they emit). Hawking radiation has never been observed from proper black holes, as it is very weak. However, finding the equivalent for sonic black holes might be enough to get Hawking his Nobel Prize…


Start — Gravity
Start — Crunch

The starting two moves are straightforward. Gravity is the force which governs black holes; it is gravity which pulls material in and causes the collapse  of stars. I think Crunch neatly captures the idea of material being squeezed down by intense gravity.

Level 16 — Vacuum Wave

Vacuum Wave sounds like a good description of a gravitational wave: it is a ripple in spacetime. Black holes (at least when in a binary) are great sources of gravitational waves (as GW150914 and GW151226 have shown), so this seems like a sensible move for our Pokémon to learn—although I may be biased. Why at level 16? Because Einstein first predicted gravitational waves from his theory of general relativity in 1916.

Level 18 — Discharge

Black holes can have an electric charge, so our Pokémon should learn an Electric-type move. Charged black holes can have some weird properties. We don’t normally worry about charged black holes for two reasons. First, charged black holes are difficult to make: stuff is usually neutral overall, you don’t get a lot of similarly charged material in one place that can collapse down, and even if you did, it would quickly attract the opposite charge to neutralise itself. Second, if you did manage to make a charged black hole, it would quickly lose its charge: the strong electric and magnetic fields about the black hole would lead to the creation of charged particles that would neutralise the black hole. Discharge seems like a good move to describe this process.

Why level 18? The mathematical description of charged black holes was worked out by Hans Reissner and Gunnar Nordström, the second paper was published in 1918.

Level 19 —Light Screen

In general relativity, gravity bends spacetime. It is this warping that causes objects to move along curved paths (like the Earth orbiting the Sun). Light is affected in the same way and gets deflected by gravity, which is called gravitational lensing. This was the first experimental test of general relativity. In 1919, Arthur Eddington led an expedition to measure the deflection of light around the Sun during a solar eclipse.

Black holes, having strong gravity, can strongly lens light. The graphics from the movie Interstellar illustrate this beautifully. Below you can see how the image of the disc orbiting the black hole is distorted. The back of the disc is visible above and below the black hole! If you look closely, you can also see a bright circle inside the disc, close to the black hole’s event horizon. This is known as the light ring. It is where the path of light gets so bent, that it can orbit around and around the black hole many times. This sounds like a Light Screen to me.

Black hole and light bending

Light-bending around the black hole Gargantua in Interstellar. The graphics use proper simulations of black holes, but they did fudge a couple of details to make it look extra pretty. Credit: Warner Bros./Double Negative.

Level 29 — Dark Void
Level 36 — Hyperspace Hole
Level 62 — Shadow Ball

These are three moves which with the most black hole-like names. Dark Void might be “black hole” after a couple of goes through Google Translate. Hyperspace Hole might be a good name for one of the higher dimensional black holes theoreticians like to play around with. (I mean, they like to play with the equations, not actually the black holes, as you’d need more than a pair of safety mittens for that). Shadow Ball captures the idea that a black hole is a three-dimensional volume of space, not just a plug-hole for the Universe. Non-rotating black holes are spherical (rotating ones bulge out at the middle, as I guess many of us do), so “ball” fits well, but they aren’t actually the shadow of anything, so it falls apart there.

I’ve picked the levels to be the masses of the two black holes which inspiralled together to produce GW150914, measured in units of the Sun’s mass, and the mass of the black hole that resulted from their merger. There’s some uncertainty on these measurements, so it would be OK if the moves were learnt a few levels either way.

Level 63 — Whirlpool
Level 63 — Rapid Spin

When gas falls into a black hole, it often spirals around and forms into an accretion disc. You can see an artistic representation of one in the image from Instellar above. The gas swirls around like water going down the drain, making Whirlpool and apt move. As it orbits, the gas closer to the black hole is moving quicker than that further away. Different layers rub against each other, and, just like when you rub your hands together on a cold morning, they heat up. One of the ways we look for black holes is by spotting the X-rays emitted by these hot discs.

As the material spirals into a black hole, it spins it up. If a black hole swallows enough things that were all orbiting the same way, it can end up rotating extremely quickly. Therefore, I thought our black hole Pokémon should learn Rapid Spin as the same time as Whirlpool.

I picked level 63, as the solution for a rotating black hole was worked out by Roy Kerr in 1963. While Schwarzschild found the solution for a non-spinning black hole soon after Einstein worked out the details of general relativity in 1915, and the solution for a charged black hole came just after these, there’s a long gap before Kerr’s breakthrough. It was some quite cunning maths! (The solution for a rotating charged black hole was quickly worked out after this, in 1965).

Level 77 — Hyper Beam

Another cool thing about discs is that they could power jets. As gas sloshes around towards a black hole, magnetic fields can get tangled up. This leads to some of the material to be blasted outwards along the axis of the field. We’ve some immensely powerful jets of material, like the one below, and it’s difficult to imagine anything other than a black hole that could create such high energies! Important work on this was done by Roger Blandford and Roman Znajek in 1977, which is why I picked the level. Hyper Beam is no exaggeration in describing these jets.

Galaxy-scale radio jets

Jets from Centaurus A are bigger than the galaxy itself! This image is a composite of X-ray (blue), microwave (orange) and visible light. You can see the jets pushing out huge bubbles above and below the galaxy. We think the jets are powered by the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/WFI/MPIfR/APEX/NASA/CXC/CfA/A.Weiss et al./R.Kraft et al.

After using Hyper Beam, a Pokémon must recharge for a turn. It’s an exhausting move. A similar thing may happen with black holes. If they accrete a lot of stuff, the radiation produced by the infalling material blasts away other gas and dust, cutting off the black hole’s supply of food. Black holes in the centres of galaxies may go through cycles of feeding, with discs forming, blowing away the surrounding material, and then a new disc forming once everything has settled down. This link between the black hole and its environment may explain why we see a trend between the size of supermassive black holes and the properties of their host galaxies.

Level 100 — Spacial Rend
Level 100 — Roar of Time

To finish off, since black holes are warped spacetime, a space move and a time move. Relativity say that space and time are two aspects of the same thing, so these need to be learnt together.

It’s rather tricky to imagine space and time being linked. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, spacey-wacey stuff gets quickly gets befuddling. If you imagine just two space dimension (forwards/backwards and left/right), then you can see how to change one to the other by just rotating. If you turn to face a different way, you can mix what was left to become forwards, or to become a bit of right and a bit of forwards. Black holes sort of do the same thing with space and time. Normally, we’re used to the fact that we a definitely travelling forwards in time, but if you stray beyond the event horizon of a black hole, you’re definitely travelling towards the centre of the black hole in the same inescapable way. Black holes are the masters when it comes to manipulating space and time.

There we have it, we can now sleep easy knowing what a black hole Pokémon would be like. Well almost, we still need to come up with a name. Something resembling a pun would be traditional. Suggestions are welcome. The next games in the series are Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. Perhaps with this space theme Nintendo might consider a black hole Pokémon too?

The Boxing Day Event

Advanced LIGO’s first observing run (O1) got off to an auspicious start with the detection of GW150914 (The Event to its friends). O1 was originally planned to be three months long (September to December), but after the first discovery, there were discussions about extending the run. No major upgrades to the detectors were going to be done over the holidays anyway, so it was decided that we might as well leave them running until January.

By the time the Christmas holidays came around, I was looking forward to some time off. And, of course, lots of good food and the Doctor Who Christmas Special. The work on the first detection had been exhausting, and the Collaboration reached the collective decision that we should all take some time off [bonus note]. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

On Boxing Day, there was a sudden flurry of emails. This could only mean one thing. We had another detection! Merry GW151226 [bonus note]!

A Christmas gift

I assume someone left out milk and cookies at the observatories. A not too subtle hint from Nutsinee Kijbunchoo’s comic in the LIGO Magazine.

I will always be amazed how lucky we were detecting GW150914. This could have been easily missed if we were just a little later starting observing. If that had happened, we might not have considered extended O1, and would have missed GW151226 too!

GW151226 is another signal from a binary black hole coalescence. This wasn’t too surprising at the time, as we had estimated such signals should be pretty common. It did, however, cause a slight wrinkle in discussions of what to do in the papers about the discovery of GW150914. Should we mention that we had another potential candidate? Should we wait until we had analysed the whole of O1 fully? Should we pack it all in and have another slice of cake? In the end we decided that we shouldn’t delay the first announcement, and we definitely shouldn’t rush the analysis of the full data set. Therefore, we went ahead with the original plan of just writing about the first month of observations and giving slightly awkward answers, mumbling about still having data to analyse, when asked if we had seen anything else [bonus note]. I’m not sure how many people outside the Collaboration suspected.

The science

What have we learnt from analysing GW151226, and what have we learnt from the whole of O1? We’ve split our results into two papers.

0. The Boxing Day Discovery Paper

Title: GW151226: Observation of gravitational waves from a 22-solar-mass binary black hole
arXiv: 1606.04855 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters116(24):241103(14)
LIGO science summary: GW151226: Observation of gravitational waves from a 22 solar-mass binary black hole (by Hannah Middleton and Carl-Johan Haster)

This paper presents the discovery of GW151226 and some of the key information about it. GW151226 is not as loud as GW150914, you can’t spot it by eye in the data, but it still stands out in our search. This is a clear detection! It is another binary black hole system, but it is a lower mass system than GW150914 (hence the paper’s title—it’s a shame they couldn’t put in the error bars though).

This paper summarises the highlights of the discovery, so below, I’ll explain these without going into too much technical detail.

More details: The Boxing Day Discovery Paper summary

1. The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper

Title: Binary black hole mergers in the first Advanced LIGO observing run
arXiv: 1606.04856 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review X6(4):041015(36)
Posterior samples: Release v1.0

This paper brings together (almost) everything we’ve learnt about binary black holes from O1. It discusses GW150915, LVT151012 and GW151226, and what we are starting to piece together about stellar-mass binary black holes from this small family of gravitational-wave events.

For the announcement of GW150914, we put together 12 companion papers to go out with the detection announcement. This paper takes on that role. It is Robin, Dr Watson, Hermione and Samwise Gamgee combined. There’s a lot of delicious science packed into this paper (searches, parameter estimation, tests of general relativity, merger rate estimation, and astrophysical implications). In my summary below, I’ll delve into what we have done and what our results mean.

The results of this paper have now largely been updated in the O2 Catalogue Paper.

More details: The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper summary

If you are interested in our science results, you can find data releases accompanying the events at the LIGO Open Science Center. These pages also include some wonderful tutorials to play with.

The Boxing Day Discovery Paper

Synopsis: Boxing Day Discovery Paper
Read this if: You are excited about the discovery of GW151226
Favourite part: We’ve done it again!

The signal

GW151226 is not as loud as GW150914, you can’t spot it by eye in the data. Therefore, this paper spends a little more time than GW150914’s Discovery Paper talking about the ingredients for our searches.

GW151226 was found by two pipelines which specifically look for compact binary coalescences: the inspiral and merger of neutron stars or black holes. We have templates for what we think these signals should look like, and we filter the data against a large bank of these to see what matches [bonus note].

For the search to work, we do need accurate templates. Figuring out what the waveforms for binary black coalescence should look like is a difficult job, and has taken almost as long as figuring out how to build the detectors!

The signal arrived at Earth 03:38:53 GMT on 26 December 2015 and was first identified by a search pipeline within 70 seconds. We didn’t have a rapid templated search online at the time of GW150914, but decided it would be a good idea afterwards. This allowed us to send out an alert to our astronomer partners so they could look for any counterparts (I don’t think any have been found [bonus note]).

The unmodelled searches (those which don’t use templates, but just coherent signals in both detectors) which first found GW150914 didn’t find GW151226. This isn’t too surprising, as they are less sensitive. You can think of the templated searches as looking for Wally (or Waldo if you’re North American), using the knowledge that he’s wearing glasses, and a red and white stripped bobble hat, but the unmodelled searches are looking for him just knowing that he’s the person that’s on on every page.

GW151226 is the second most significant event in the search for binary black holes after The Event. Its significance is not quite off the charts, but is great enough that we have a hard time calculating exactly how significant it is. Our two search pipelines give estimates of the p-value (the probability you’d see something at least this signal-like if you only had noise in your detectors) of < 10^{-7} and 3.5 \times 10^{-6}, which are pretty good!

The source

To figure out the properties of the source, we ran our parameter-estimation analysis.

GW151226 comes from a black hole binary with masses of 14.2^{+8.3}_{-3.7} M_\odot and 7.5^{+2.3}_{-2.3} M_\odot [bonus note], where M_\odot is the mass of our Sun (about 330,000 times the mass of the Earth). The error bars indicate our 90% probability ranges on the parameters. These black holes are less massive than the source of GW150914 (the more massive black hole is similar to the less massive black hole of LVT151012). However, the masses are still above what we believe is the maximum possible mass of a neutron star (around 3 M_\odot). The masses are similar to those observed for black holes in X-ray binaries, so perhaps these black holes are all part of the same extended family.

A plot showing the probability distributions for the masses is shown below. It makes me happy. Since GW151226 is lower mass than GW150914, we see more of the inspiral, the portion of the signal where the two black holes are spiralling towards each other. This means that we measure the chirp mass, a particular combination of the two masses really well. It is this which gives the lovely banana shape to the distribution. Even though I don’t really like bananas, it’s satisfying to see this behaviour as this is what we have been expecting too see!

Binary black hole masses

Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary of the Boxing Day Event. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The different coloured curves show different models: they agree which again made me happy! The two-dimensional distribution follows a curve of constant chirp mass. The sharp cut-off at the top-left is because m_1^\mathrm{source} is defined to be bigger than m_2^\mathrm{source}. Figure 3 of The Boxing Day Discovery Paper.

The two black holes merge to form a final black hole of 20.8^{+6.1}_{-1.7} M_\odot [bonus note].

If you add up the initial binary masses and compare this to the final mass, you’ll notice that something is missing. Across the entire coalescence, gravitational waves carry away 1.0^{+0.1}_{-0.2} M_\odot c^2 \simeq 1.8^{+0.2}_{-0.4} \times 10^{47}~\mathrm{J} of energy (where c is the speed of light, which is used to convert masses to energies). This isn’t quite as impressive as the energy of GW150914, but it would take the Sun 1000 times the age of the Universe to output that much energy.

The mass measurements from GW151226 are cool, but what’re really exciting are the spin measurements. Spin, as you might guess, is a measure of how much angular momentum a black hole has. We define it to go from zero (not spinning) to one (spinning as much as is possible). A black hole is fully described by its mass and spin. The black hole masses are most important in defining what a gravitational wave looks like, but the imprint of spin is more subtle. Therefore its more difficult to get a good measurement of the spins than the masses.

For GW150915 and LVT151012, we get a little bit of information on the spins. We can conclude that the spins are probably not large, or at least they are not large and aligned with the orbit of the binary. However, we can’t say for certain that we’ve seen any evidence that the black holes are spinning. For GW151226, al least one of the black holes (although we can’t say which) has to be spinning [bonus note].

The plot below shows the probability distribution for the two spins of the binary black holes. This shows the both the magnitude of the spin and the direction that of the spin (if the tilt is zero the black hole and the binary’s orbit both go around in the same way). You can see we can’t say much about the spin of the lower mass black hole, but we have a good idea about the spin of the more massive black hole (the more extreme the mass ratio, the less important the spin of lower mass black is, making it more difficult to measure). Hopefully we’ll learn more about spins in future detections as these could tell us something about how these black holes formed.

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins. Calculated with our precessing waveform model. The distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. Part of Figure 4 of The Boxing Day Discovery Paper.

There’s still a lot to learn about binary black holes, and future detections will help with this. More information about what we can squeeze out of our current results are given in the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper

Synopsis: O1 Binary Black Hole Paper
Read this if: You want to know everything we’ve learnt about binary black holes
Favourite part: The awesome table of parameters at the end

This paper contains too much science to tackle all at once, so I’ve split it up into more bite-sized pieces, roughly following the flow of the paper. First we discuss how we find signals. Then we discuss the parameters inferred from the signals. This is done assuming that general relativity is correct, so we check for any deviations from predictions in the next section. After that, we consider the rate of mergers and what we expect for the population of binary black holes from our detections. Finally, we discuss our results in the context of wider astrophysics.


Looking for signals hidden amongst the data is the first thing to do. This paper only talks about the template search for binary black holes: other search results (including the results for binaries including neutron stars) we will reported elsewhere.

The binary black hole search was previously described in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper. We have two pipelines which look for binary black holes using templates: PyCBC and GstLAL. These look for signals which are found in both detectors (within 15 ms of each other) which match waveforms in the template bank. A few specifics of these have been tweaked since the start of O1, but these don’t really change any of the results. An overview of the details for both pipelines are given in Appendix A of the paper.

The big difference from Compact Binary Coalescence Paper is the data. We are now analysing the whole of O1, and we are using an improved version of the calibration (although this really doesn’t affect the search). Search results are given in Section II. We have one new detection: GW151226.

Search results and GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012

Search results for PyCBC (left) and GstLAL (right). The histograms show the number of candidate events (orange squares) compare to the background. The further an orange square is to the right of the lines, the more significant it is. Different backgrounds are shown including and excluding GW150914 (top row) and GW151226 (bottom row). Figure 3 from the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

The plots above show the search results. Candidates are ranked by a detection statistic (a signal-to-noise ratio modified by a self-consistency check \hat{\rho}_c for PyCBC, and a ratio of likelihood for the signal and noise hypotheses \ln \mathcal{L} for GstLAL). A larger detection statistic means something is more signal-like and we assess the significance by comparing with the background of noise events. The further above the background curve an event is, the more significant it is. We have three events that stand out.

Number 1 is GW150914. Its significance has increased a little from the first analysis, as we can now compare it against more background data. If we accept that GW150914 is real, we should remove it from the estimation of the background: this gives us the purple background in the top row, and the black curve in the bottom row.

GW151226 is the second event. It clearly stands out when zooming in for the second row of plots. Identifying GW150914 as a signal greatly improves GW151226’s significance.

The final event is LVT151012. Its significance hasn’t changed much since the initial analysis, and is still below our threshold for detection. I’m rather fond of it, as I do love an underdog.

Parameter estimation

To figure out the properties of all three events, we do parameter estimation. This was previously described in the Parameter Estimation Paper. Our results for GW150914 and LVT151012 have been updated as we have reran with the newer calibration of the data. The new calibration has less uncertainty, which improves the precision of our results, although this is really only significant for the sky localization. Technical details of the analysis are given in Appendix B and results are discussed in Section IV. You may recognise the writing style of these sections.

The probability distributions for the masses are shown below. There is quite a spectrum, from the low mass GW151226, which is consistent with measurements of black holes in X-ray binaries, up to GW150914, which contains the biggest stellar-mass black holes ever observed.

All binary black hole masses

Estimated masses for the two binary black holes for each of the events in O1. The contours mark the 50% and 90% credible regions. The grey area is excluded from our convention that m_1^\mathrm{source} \geq m_2^\mathrm{source}. Part of Figure 4 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

The distributions for the lower mass GW151226 and LVT151012 follow the curves of constant chirp mass. The uncertainty is greater for LVT151012 as it is a quieter (lower SNR) signal. GW150914 looks a little different, as the merger and ringdown portions of the waveform are more important. These place tighter constraints on the total mass, explaining the shape of the distribution.

Another difference between the lower mass inspiral-dominated signals and the higher mass GW150915 can be seen in the plot below. The shows the probability distributions for the mass ratio q = m_2^\mathrm{source}/m_1^\mathrm{source} and the effective spin parameter \chi_\mathrm{eff}, which is a mass-weighted combination of the spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum. Both play similar parts in determining the evolution of the inspiral, so there are stretching degeneracies for GW151226 and LVT151012, but this isn’t the case for GW150914.

All mass ratios and effective spins

Estimated mass ratios q and effective spins \chi_\mathrm{eff} for each of the events in O1. The contours mark the 50% and 90% credible regions. Part of Figure 4 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

If you look carefully at the distribution of \chi_\mathrm{eff} for GW151226, you can see that it doesn’t extend down to zero. You cannot have a non-zero \chi_\mathrm{eff} unless at least one of the black holes is spinning, so this clearly shows the evidence for spin.

The final masses of the remnant black holes are shown below. Each is around 5% less than the total mass of the binary which merged to form it, with the rest radiated away as gravitational waves.

All final masses and spins

Estimated masses M_\mathrm{f}^\mathrm{source} and spins a_\mathrm{f} of the remnant black holes for each of the events in O1. The contours mark the 50% and 90% credible regions. Part of Figure 4 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

The plot also shows the final spins. These are much better constrained than the component spins as they are largely determined by the angular momentum of the binary as it merged. This is why the spins are all quite similar. To calculate the final spin, we use an updated formula compared to the one in the Parameter Estimation Paper. This now includes the effect of the components’ spin which isn’t aligned with the angular momentum. This doesn’t make much difference for GW150914 or LVT151012, but the change is slightly more for GW151226, as it seems to have more significant component spins.

The luminosity distance for the sources is shown below. We have large uncertainties because the luminosity distance is degenerate with the inclination. For GW151226 and LVT151012 this does result in some beautiful butterfly-like distance–inclination plots. For GW150914, the butterfly only has the face-off inclination wing (probably as consequence of the signal being louder and the location of the source on the sky). The luminosity distances for GW150914 and GW151226 are similar. This may seem odd, because GW151226 is a quieter signal, but that is because it is also lower mass (and so intrinsically quieter).

All luminosity distances

Probability distributions for the luminosity distance of the source of each of the three events in O1. Part of Figure 4 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

Sky localization is largely determined by the time delay between the two observatories. This is one of the reasons that having a third detector, like Virgo, is an awesome idea. The plot below shows the localization relative to the Earth. You can see that each event has a localization that is part of a ring which is set by the time delay. GW150914 and GW151226 were seen by Livingston first (apparently there is some gloating about this), and LVT151012 was seen by Hanford first.

Sky localization relative to Earth.

Estimated sky localization relative to the Earth for each of the events in O1. The contours mark the 50% and 90% credible regions. H+ and L+ mark the locations of the two observatories. Part of Figure 5 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

Both GW151226 and LVT151012 are nearly overhead. This isn’t too surprising, as this is where the detectors are most sensitive, and so where we expect to make the most detections.

The improvement in the calibration of the data is most evident in the sky localization. For GW150914, the reduction in calibration uncertainty improves the localization by a factor of ~2–3! For LVT151012 it doesn’t make much difference because of its location and because it is a much quieter signal.

The map below shows the localization on the sky (actually where in Universe the signal came from). The maps have rearranged themselves because of the Earth’s rotation (each event was observed at a different sidereal time).

Sky localization in equatorial coordinates

Estimated sky localization (in right ascension and declination) for each of the events in O1. The contours mark the 50% and 90% credible regions. Part of Figure 5 of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper.

We’re nowhere near localising sources to single galaxies, so we may never know exactly where these signals originated from.

Tests of general relativity

The Testing General Relativity Paper reported several results which compared GW150914 with the predictions of general relativity. Either happily or sadly, depending upon your point of view, it passed them all. In Section V of the paper, we now add GW151226 into the mix. (We don’t add LVT151012 as it’s too quiet to be much use).

A couple of the tests for GW150914 looked at the post-inspiral part of the waveform, looking at the consistency of mass and spin estimates, and trying to match the ringdown frequency. Since GW151226 is lower mass, we can’t extract any meaningful information from the post-inspiral portion of the waveform, and so it’s not worth repeating these tests.

However, the fact that GW151226 has such a lovely inspiral means that we can place some constraints on post-Newtonian parameters. We have lots and lots of cycles, so we are sensitive to any small deviations that arise during inspiral.

The plot below shows constraints on deviations for a set of different waveform parameters. A deviation of zero indicates the value in general relativity. The first four boxes (for parameters referred to as \varphi_i in the Testing General Relativity Paper) are parameters that affect the inspiral. The final box on the right is for parameters which impact the merger and ringdown. The top row shows results for GW150914, these are updated results using the improved calibrated data. The second row shows results for GW151226, and the bottom row shows what happens when you combine the two.

O1 testing general relativity bounds

Probability distributions for waveform parameters. The top row shows bounds from just GW150914, the second from just GW151226, and the third from combining the two. A deviation of zero is consistent with general relativity. Figure 6 from the O1 Binary Black hole Paper.

All the results are happily about zero. There were a few outliers for GW150914, but these are pulled back in by GW151226. We see that GW151226 dominates the constraints on the inspiral parameters, but GW150914 is more important for the merger–ringdown \alpha_i parameters.

Again, Einstein’s theory passes the test. There is no sign of inconsistency (yet). It’s clear that adding more results greatly improves our sensitivity to these parameters, so these tests will continue put general relativity through tougher and tougher tests.


We have a small number of events, around 2.9 in total, so any estimates of how often binary black holes merge will be uncertain. Of course, just because something is tricky, it doesn’t mean we won’t give it a go! The Rates Paper discussed estimates after the first 16 days of coincident data, when we had just 1.9 events. Appendix C gives technical details and Section VI discusses results.

The whole of O1 is about 52 days’ worth of coincident data. It’s therefore about 3 times as long as the initial stretch. in that time we’ve observed about 3/2 times as many events. Therefore, you might expect that the event rate is about 1/2 of our original estimates. If you did, get yourself a cookie, as you are indeed about right!

To calculate the rates we need to assume something about the population of binary black holes. We use three fiducial distributions:

  1. We assume that binary black holes are either like GW150914, LVT151012 or GW151226. This event-based rate is different from the previous one as it now includes an extra class for GW151226.
  2. A flat-in-the-logarithm-of-masses distribution, which we expect gives a sensible lower bound on the rate.
  3. A power law slope for the larger black hole of -2.35, which we expect gives a sensible upper bound on the rate.

We find that the rates are 1. 54^{+111}_{-40}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, 2. 30^{+46}_{-21}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}, and 3. 97^{+149}_{-68}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}. As expected, the first rate is nestled between the other two.

Despite the rates being lower, there’s still a good chance we could see 10 events by the end of O2 (although that will depend on the sensitivity of the detectors).

A new results that is included in with the rates, is a simple fit for the distribution of black hole masses [bonus note]. The method is described in Appendix D. It’s just a repeated application of Bayes’ theorem to go from the masses we measured from the detected sources, to the distribution of masses of the entire population.

We assume that the mass of the larger black hole is distributed according to a power law with index \alpha, and that the less massive black hole has a mass uniformly distributed in mass ratio, down to a minimum black hole mass of 5 M_\odot. The cut-off, is the edge of a speculated mass gap between neutron stars and black holes.

We find that \alpha = 2.5^{+1.5}_{-1.6}. This has significant uncertainty, so we can’t say too much yet. This is a slightly steeper slope than used for the power-law rate (although entirely consistent with it), which would nudge the rates a little lower. The slope does fit in with fits to the distribution of masses in X-ray binaries. I’m excited to see how O2 will change our understanding of the distribution.

Astrophysical implications

With the announcement of GW150914, the Astrophysics Paper reviewed predictions for binary black holes in light of the discovery. The high masses of GW150914 indicated a low metallicity environment, perhaps no more than half of solar metallicity. However, we couldn’t tell if GW150914 came from isolated binary evolution (two stars which have lived and died together) or a dynamical interaction (probably in a globular cluster).

Since then, various studies have been performed looking at both binary evolution (Eldridge & Stanway 2016; Belczynski et al. 2016de Mink & Mandel 2016Hartwig et al. 2016; Inayoshi et al. 2016; Lipunov et al. 2016) and dynamical interactions (O’Leary, Meiron & Kocsis 2016; Mapelli 2016; Rodriguez et al. 2016), even considering binaries around supermassive black holes (Bartos et al. 2016; Stone, Metzger & Haiman 2016). We don’t have enough information to tell the two pathways apart. GW151226 gives some new information. Everything is reviewed briefly in Section VII.

GW151226 and LVT151012 are lower mass systems, and so don’t need to come from as low a metallicity environment as GW150914 (although they still could). Both are also consistent with either binary evolution or dynamical interactions. However, the low masses of GW151226 mean that it probably does not come from one particular binary formation scenario, chemically homogeneous evolution, and it is less likely to come from dynamical interactions.

Building up a population of sources, and getting better measurements of spins and mass ratios will help tease formation mechanisms apart. That will take a while, but perhaps it will be helped if we can do multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy with eLISA.

This section also updates predictions from the Stochastic Paper for the gravitational-wave background from binary black holes. There’s a small change from an energy density of \Omega_\mathrm{GW} = 1.1^{+2.7}_{-0.9} \times 10^{-9} at a frequency of 25 Hz to \Omega_\mathrm{GW} = 1.2^{+1.9}_{-0.9} \times 10^{-9}. This might be measurable after a few years at design sensitivity.


We are living in the future. We may not have hoverboards, but the era of gravitational-wave astronomy is here. Not in 20 years, not in the next decade, not in five more years, now. LIGO has not just opened a new window, it’s smashed the window and jumped through it just before the explosion blasts the side off the building. It’s so exciting that I can’t even get my metaphors straight. The introductory paragraphs of papers on gravitational-wave astronomy will never be the same again.

Although we were lucky to discover GW150914, it wasn’t just a fluke. Binary black coalescences aren’t that rare and we should be detecting more. Lots more. You know that scene in a movie where the heroes have defeated a wave of enemies and then the camera pans back to show the approaching hoard that stretches to the horizon? That’s where we are now. O2 is coming. The second observing run, will start later this year, and we expect we’ll be adding many entries to our list of binary black holes.

We’re just getting started with LIGO and Virgo. There’ll be lots more science to come.

If you made it this far, you deserve a biscuit. A fancy one too, not just a digestive.

Or, if you’re hungry for more, here are some blogs from my LIGO colleagues

  • Daniel Williams (a PhD student at University of Glasgow)
  • Matt Pitkin (who is hunting for continuous gravitational waves)
  • Shane Larson (who is also investigating mutli-band gravitational-wave astronomy)
  • Amber Sturver (who works at the Livingston Observatory)

My group at Birmingham also made some short reaction videos (I’m too embarrassed to watch mine).

Bonus notes

Christmas cease-fire

In the run-up to the holidays, there were lots of emails that contained phrases like “will have to wait until people get back from holidays” or “can’t reply as the group are travelling and have family commitments”. No-one ever said that they were taking a holiday, but just that it was happening in general, so we’d all have to wait for a couple of weeks. No-one ever argued with this, because, of course, while you were waiting for other people to do things, there was nothing you could do, and so you might as well take some time off. And you had been working really hard, so perhaps an evening off and an extra slice of cake was deserved…

Rather guiltily, I must confess to ignoring the first few emails on Boxing Day. (Although I saw them, I didn’t read them for reasons of plausible deniability). I thought it was important that my laptop could have Boxing Day off. Thankfully, others in the Collaboration were more energetic and got things going straight-away.


Gravitational-wave candidates (or at least the short ones from merging binary black holes which we have detected so far), start off life named by a number in our database. This event started life out as G211117. After checks and further analysis, to make sure we can’t identify any environmental effects which could have caused the detector to misbehave, candidates are renamed. Those which are significant enough to be claimed as a detection get the Gravitational Wave (GW) prefix. Those we are less certain of get the LIGO–Virgo Trigger (LVT) prefix. The rest of the name is the date in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The new detection is GW151226.

Informally though, it is the Boxing Day Event. I’m rather impressed that this stuck as the Collaboration is largely US based: it was still Christmas Day in the US when the detection was made, and Americans don’t celebrate Boxing Day anyway.

Other searches

We are now publishing the results of the O1 search for binary black holes with a template bank which goes up to total observed binary masses of 100 M_\odot. Therefore we still have to do the same about searches for anything else. The results from searches for other compact binaries should appear soon (binary neutron star and neutron star–black hole upper limits; intermediate mass black hole binary upper limits). It may be a while before we have all the results looking for continuous waves.

Matched filtering

The compact binary coalescence search uses matched filtering to hunt for gravitational waves. This is a well established technique in signal processing. You have a template signal, and you see how this correlates with the data. We use the detectors’ sensitivity to filter the data, so that we give more weight to bits which match where we are sensitive, and little weight to matches where we have little sensitivity.

I imagine matched filtering as similar to how I identify a piece of music: I hear a pattern of notes and try to compare to things I know. Dum-dum-dum-daah? Beethoven’s Fifth.

Filtering against a large number of templates takes a lot of computational power, so we need to be cunning as to which templates we include. We don’t want to miss anything, so we need enough templates to cover all possibilities, but signals from similar systems can look almost identical, so we just need one representative template included in the bank. Think of trying to pick out Under Pressure, you could easily do this with a template for Ice Ice Baby, and you don’t need both Mr Brightside and Ode to Joy.

It doesn’t matter if the search doesn’t pick out a template that perfectly fits the properties of the source, as this is what parameter estimation is for.

The figure below shows how effective matched filtering can be.

  • The top row shows the data from the two interferometers. It’s been cleaned up a little bit for the plot (to keep the experimentalists happy), but you can see that the noise in the detectors is seemingly much bigger than the best match template (shown in black, the same for both detectors).
  • The second row shows the accumulation of signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). If you correlate the data with the template, you see that it matches the template, and keeps matching the template. This is the important part, although, at any moment it looks like there’s just random wibbles in the detector, when you compare with a template you find that there is actually a signal which evolves in a particular way. The SNR increases until the signal stops (because the black holes have merged). It is a little lower in the Livinston detector as this was slightly less sensitive around the time of the Boxing Day Event.
  • The third row shows how much total SNR you would get if you moved the best match template around in time. There’s a clear peak. This is trying to show that the way the signal changes is important, and you wouldn’t get a high SNR when the signal isn’t there (you would normally expect it to be about 1).
  • The final row shows the amount of energy at a particular frequency at a particular time. Compact binary coalescences have a characteristic chirp, so you would expect a sweep from lower frequencies up to higher frequencies. You can just about make it out in these plots, but it’s not obvious as for GW150914. This again shows the value of matched filtering, but it also shows that there’s no other weird glitchy stuff going on in the detectors at the time.
The effectiveness of matched filtering for GW151226

Observation of The Boxing Day Event in LIGO Hanford and LIGO Livingston. The top row shows filtered data and best match template. The second row shows how this template accumulates signal-to-noise ratio. The third row shows signal-to-noise ratio of this template at different end times. The fourth row shows a spectrogram of the data. Figure 1 of the Boxing Day Discovery Paper.

Electromagnetic and neutrino follow-up

Reports by electromagnetic astronomers on their searches for counterparts so far are:

Reports by neutrino astronomers are:

  • ANTARES and IceCube—a search for high-energy neutrinos (above 100 GeV) coincident with LVT151012 or GW151226.
  • KamLAND—a search for neutrinos (1.8 MeV to 111 MeV) coincident with GW150914, LVT151012 or GW151226.
  • Pierre Auger Observatory—a search for ultra high-energy (above 100 PeV) neutrinos coincident with GW150914, LVT151012 or GW151226.
  • Super-Kamiokande—a search for neutrinos (of a wide range of energies, from 3.5 MeV to 100 PeV) coincident with GW150914 or GW151226.
  • Borexino—a search for low-energy (250 keV to 15 MeV) neutrinos coincident with GW150914, GW151226 and GW170104.
  • NOvA—a search for neutrinos and cosmic rays (or a wide range of energies, from 10 MeV to over a GeV) coincident with all events from O1 and O2, plus triggers from O3.

No counterparts have been claimed, which isn’t surprising for a binary black hole coalescence.


In various places, the mass of the smaller black hole is given as 8 M_\odot. The median should really round to 7 M_\odot as to three significant figures it is 7.48 M_\odot. This really confused everyone though, as with rounding you’d have a binary with components of masses 14 M_\odot and 7 M_\odot and total mass 22 M_\odot. Rounding is a pain! Fortunately, 8 M_\odot lies well within the uncertainty: the 90% range is 5.2\text{--}9.8 M_\odot.

Black holes are massive

I tried to find a way to convert the mass of the final black hole into every day scales. Unfortunately, the thing is so unbelievably massive, it just doesn’t work: it’s no use relating it to elephants or bowling balls. However, I did have some fun looking up numbers. Currently, it costs about £2 to buy a 180 gram bar of Cadbury’s Bourneville. Therefore, to buy an equivalent amount of dark chocolate would require everyone on Earth to save up for about 600 millions times the age of the Universe (assuming GDP stays constant). By this point, I’m sure the chocolate will be past its best, so it’s almost certainly a big waste of time.

Maximum minimum spin

One of the statistics people really seemed to latch on to for the Boxing Day Event was that at least one of the binary black holes had to have a spin of greater than 0.2 with 99% probability. It’s a nice number for showing that we have a preference for some spin, but it can be a bit tricky to interpret. If we knew absolutely nothing about the spins, then we would have a uniform distribution on both spins. There’d be a 10% chance that the spin of the more massive black hole is less than 0.1, and a 10% chance that the spin of the other black hole is less than 0.1. Hence, there’s a 99% probability that there is at least one black hole with spin greater than 0.1, even though we have no evidence that the black holes are spinning (or not). Really, you need to look at the full probability distributions for the spins, and not just the summary statistics, to get an idea of what’s going on.

Just one more thing…

The fit for the black hole mass distribution was the last thing to go in the paper. It was a bit frantic to get everything reviewed in time. In the last week, there were a couple of loud exclamations from the office next to mine, occupied by John Veitch, who as one of the CBC chairs has to keep everything and everyone organised. (I’m not quite sure how John still has so much of his hair). It seems that we just can’t stop doing science. There is a more sophisticated calculation in the works, but the foot was put down that we’re not trying to cram any more into the current papers.

Inference on gravitational waves from coalescences of stellar-mass compact objects and intermediate-mass black holes

I love collecting things, there’s something extremely satisfying about completing a set. I suspect that this is one of the alluring features of Pokémon—you’ve gotta catch ’em all. The same is true of black hole hunting. Currently, we know of stellar-mass black holes which are a few times the mass of our Sun, up to a few tens of the mass of our Sun (the black holes of GW150914 are the biggest yet to be observed), and we know of supermassive black holes, which are ten thousand to ten billion times the mass our Sun. However, we are missing intermediate-mass black holes which lie in the middle. We have Charmander and Charizard, but where is Charmeleon? The elusive ones are always the most satisfying to capture.

Knitted black hole

Adorable black hole (available for adoption). I’m sure this could be a Pokémon. It would be a Dark type. Not that I’ve given it that much thought…

Intermediate-mass black holes have evaded us so far. We’re not even sure that they exist, although that would raise questions about how you end up with the supermassive ones (you can’t just feed the stellar-mass ones lots of rare candy). Astronomers have suggested that you could spot intermediate-mass black holes in globular clusters by the impact of their gravity on the motion of other stars. However, this effect would be small, and near impossible to conclusively spot. Another way (which I’ve discussed before), would to be to look at ultra luminous X-ray sources, which could be from a disc of material spiralling into the black hole.  However, it’s difficult to be certain that we understand the source properly and that we’re not misclassifying it. There could be one sure-fire way of identifying intermediate-mass black holes: gravitational waves.

The frequency of gravitational waves depend upon the mass of the binary. More massive systems produce lower frequencies. LIGO is sensitive to the right range of frequencies for stellar-mass black holes. GW150914 chirped up to the pitch of a guitar’s open B string (just below middle C). Supermassive black holes produce gravitational waves at too low frequency for LIGO (a space-based detector would be perfect for these). We might just be able to detect signals from intermediate-mass black holes with LIGO.

In a recent paper, a group of us from Birmingham looked at what we could learn from gravitational waves from the coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass black hole [bonus note].  We considered how well you would be able to measure the masses of the black holes. After all, to confirm that you’ve found an intermediate-mass black hole, you need to be sure of its mass.

The signals are extremely short: we only can detect the last bit of the two black holes merging together and settling down as a final black hole. Therefore, you might think there’s not much information in the signal, and we won’t be able to measure the properties of the source. We found that this isn’t the case!

We considered a set of simulated signals, and analysed these with our parameter-estimation code [bonus note]. Below are a couple of plots showing the accuracy to which we can infer a couple of different mass parameters for binaries of different masses. We show the accuracy of measuring the chirp mass \mathcal{M} (a much beloved combination of the two component masses which we are usually able to pin down precisely) and the total mass M_\mathrm{total}.

Measurement of chirp mass

Measured chirp mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. The mass ratio q is the mass of the stellar-mass black hole divided by the mass of the intermediate-mass black hole. Figure 1 of Haster et al. (2016).

Measurement of total mass

Measured total mass for systems of different total masses. The shaded regions show the 90% credible interval and the dashed lines show the true values. Figure 2 of Haster et al. (2016).

For the lower mass systems, we can measure the chirp mass quite well. This is because we get a little information from the part of the gravitational wave from when the two components are inspiralling together. However, we see less and less of this as the mass increases, and we become more and more uncertain of the chirp mass.

The total mass isn’t as accurately measured as the chirp mass at low masses, but we see that the accuracy doesn’t degrade at higher masses. This is because we get some constraints on its value from the post-inspiral part of the waveform.

We found that the transition from having better fractional accuracy on the chirp mass to having better fractional accuracy on the total mass happened when the total mass was around 200–250 solar masses. This was assuming final design sensitivity for Advanced LIGO. We currently don’t have as good sensitivity at low frequencies, so the transition will happen at lower masses: GW150914 is actually in this transition regime (the chirp mass is measured a little better).

Given our uncertainty on the masses, when can we conclude that there is an intermediate-mass black hole? If we classify black holes with masses more than 100 solar masses as intermediate mass, then we’ll be able to say to claim a discovery with 95% probability if the source has a black hole of at least 130 solar masses. The plot below shows our inferred probability of there being an intermediate-mass black hole as we increase the black hole’s mass (there’s little chance of falsely identifying a lower mass black hole).

Intermediate-mass black hole probability

Probability that the larger black hole is over 100 solar masses (our cut-off mass for intermediate-mass black holes M_\mathrm{IMBH}). Figure 7 of Haster et al. (2016).

Gravitational-wave observations could lead to a concrete detection of intermediate mass black holes if they exist and merge with another black hole. However, LIGO’s low frequency sensitivity is important for detecting these signals. If detector commissioning goes to plan and we are lucky enough to detect such a signal, we’ll finally be able to complete our set of black holes.

arXiv: 1511.01431 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society457(4):4499–4506; 2016
Birmingham science summary: Inference on gravitational waves from coalescences of stellar-mass compact objects and intermediate-mass black holes (by Carl)
Other collectables: Breakthrough, Gruber, Shaw, Kavli

Bonus notes


The coalescence of an intermediate-mass black hole and a stellar-mass object (black hole or neutron star) has typically been known as an intermediate mass-ratio inspiral (an IMRI). This is similar to the name for the coalescence of a a supermassive black hole and a stellar-mass object: an extreme mass-ratio inspiral (an EMRI). However, my colleague Ilya has pointed out that with LIGO we don’t really see much of the intermediate-mass black hole and the stellar-mass black hole inspiralling together, instead we see the merger and ringdown of the final black hole. Therefore, he prefers the name intermediate mass-ratio coalescence (or IMRAC). It’s a better description of the signal we measure, but the acronym isn’t as good.

Parameter-estimation runs

The main parameter-estimation analysis for this paper was done by Zhilu, a summer student. This is notable for two reasons. First, it shows that useful research can come out of a summer project. Second, our parameter-estimation code installed and ran so smoothly that even an undergrad with no previous experience could get some useful results. This made us optimistic that everything would work perfectly in the upcoming observing run (O1). Unfortunately, a few improvements were made to the code before then, and we were back to the usual level of fun in time for The Event.

Search of the Orion spur for continuous gravitational waves using a loosely coherent algorithm on data from LIGO interferometers

A cloudy bank holiday Monday is a good time to catch up on blogging. Following the splurge of GW150914 papers, I’ve rather fallen behind. Published back in February, this paper is a search for continuous-wave signals: the almost-constant hum produced by rapidly rotating neutron stars.

Continuous-wave searches are extremely computationally expensive. The searches take a while to do, which can lead to a delay before results are published [bonus note]. This is the result of a search using data from LIGO’s sixth science run (March–October 2010).

To detect a continuous wave, you need to sift the data to find a signal that present through all the data. Rotating neutron stars produce a gravitational-wave signal with a frequency twice their orbital frequency. This frequency is almost constant, but could change as the observation goes on because (i) the neutron star slows down as energy is lost (from gravitational waves, magnetic fields or some form of internal sloshing around); (ii) there is some Doppler shifting because of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and, possibly, (iii) the there could be some Doppler shifting because the neutron star is orbiting another object. How do you check for something that is always there?

There are two basic strategies for spotting continuous waves. First, we could look for excess power in a particular frequency bin. If we measure something in addition to what we expect from the detector noise, this could be a signal. Looking at the power is simple, and so not too expensive. However, we’re not using any information about what a real signal should look like, and so it must be really loud for us to be sure that it’s not just noise. Second, we could coherently search for signals using templates for the expected signals. This is much more work, but gives much better sensitivity. Is there a way to compromise between the two strategies to balance cost and sensitivity?

This paper reposts results of a loosely coherent search. Instead of checking how well the data match particular frequencies and frequency evolutions, we average over a family of similar signals. This is less sensitive, as we get a bit more wiggle room in what would be identified as a candidate, but it is also less expensive than checking against a huge number of templates.

We could only detect continuous waves from nearby sources: neutron stars in our own Galaxy. (Perhaps 0.01% of the distance of GW150914). It therefore makes sense to check nearby locations which could be home to neutron stars. This search narrows its range to two directions in the Orion spur, our local band with a high concentration of stars. By focussing in on these spotlight regions, we increase the sensitivity of the search for a given computational cost. This search could possibly dig out signals from twice as far away as if we were considering all possible directions.

Part of the Galaxy searched

Artist’s impression of the local part of the Milky Way. The Orion spur connects the Perseus and Sagittarius arms. The yellow cones mark the extent of the search (the pink circle shows the equivalent all-sky sensitivity). Green stars indicate known pulsars. Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt.

The search found 70 interesting candidates. Follow-up study showed that most were due to instrumental effects. There were three interesting candidates left after these checks, none significant enough to be a detection, but still worth looking at in detail. A full coherent analysis was done for these three candidates. This showed that they were probably caused by noise. We have no detections

arXiv: 1510.03474 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(4):042006(14); 2016
Science summary: Scouting our Galactic neighborhood
Other bank holiday activities:

Scrabble board

Bank holiday family Scrabble game. When thinking about your next turn, you could try seeing if your letters match a particular word (a coherent search which would get you the best score, but take ages), or just if your letters jumble together to make something word-like (an incoherent search, that is quick, but may result in lots of things that aren’t really words).

Bonus note


The Continuous Wave teams are polite enough to wait until we’re finished searching for transient gravitational-wave signals (which are more time sensitive) before taking up the LIGO computing clusters. They won’t have any proper results from O1 just yet.

All-sky search for long-duration gravitational wave transients with LIGO

It’s now about 7 weeks since the announcement, and the madness is starting to subside. Although, that doesn’t mean things aren’t busy—we’re now enjoying completely new forms of craziness. In mid March we had our LIGO–Virgo Collaboration Meeting. This was part celebration, part talking about finishing our O1 analysis and part thinking ahead to O2, which is shockingly close. It was fun, there was cake.

Gravitational wave detection cake

Celebratory cake from the March LIGO–Virgo Meeting. It was delicious and had a fruity (strawberry?) filling. The image is February 11th’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. There was a second cake without a picture, that was equally delicious, but the queue was shorter.

All the business means that I’ve fallen behind with my posts, and I’ve rather neglected the final paper published the week starting 8 February. This is perhaps rather apt as this paper has the misfortune to be the first non-detection published in the post-detection world. It is also about a neglected class of signals.

Long-duration transients

We look for several types of signals with LIGO (and hopefully soon Virgo and KAGRA):

  • Compact binary coalescences (like two merging black holes), for which we have templates for the signal. High mass systems might only last a fraction of a second within the detector’s frequency range, but low mass systems could last for a minute (which is a huge pain for us to analyse).
  • Continuous waves from rotating neutron stars which are almost constant throughout our observations.
  • Bursts, which are transient signals where we don’t have a good model. The classic burst source is from a supernova explosion.

We have some effective search pipelines for finding short bursts—signals of about a second or less. Coherent Waveburst, which was the first code to spot GW150914 is perhaps the best known example. This paper looks at finding longer burst signals, a few seconds to a few hundred seconds in length.

There aren’t too many well studied models for these long bursts. Most of the potential sources are related to the collapse of massive stars. There can be a large amount of matter moving around quickly in these situations, which is what you want for gravitational waves.

Massive stars may end their life in a core collapse supernova. Having used up its nuclear fuel, the star no longer has the energy to keep itself fluffy, and its core collapses under its own gravity. The collapse leads to an explosion as material condenses to form a neutron star, blasting off the outer layers of the star. Gravitational waves could be generated by the sloshing of the outer layers as some is shot outwards and some falls back, hitting the surface of the new neutron star. The new neutron star itself will start life puffed up and perhaps rapidly spinning, and can generate gravitational waves at it settles down to a stable state—a similar thing could happen if an older neutron star is disturbed by a glitch (where we think the crust readjusts itself in something like an earthquake, but more cataclysmic), or if a neutron star accretes a large blob of material.

For the most massive stars, the core continues to collapse through being a neutron star to become a black hole. The collapse would just produce a short burst, so it’s not what we’re looking for here. However, once we have a black hole, we might build a disc out of material swirling into the black hole (perhaps remnants of the outer parts of the star, or maybe from a companion star). The disc may be clumpy, perhaps because of eddies or magnetic fields (the usual suspects when astrophysicists don’t know exactly what’s going on), and they rapidly inspiralling blobs could emit a gravitational wave signal.

The potential sources don’t involve as much mass as a compact binary coalescence, so these signals wouldn’t be as loud. Therefore we couldn’t see them quite as far way, but they could give us some insight into these messy processes.

The search

The paper looks at results using old LIGO data from the fifth and sixth science runs (S5 and S6). Virgo was running at this time, but the data wasn’t included as it vastly increases the computational cost while only increasing the search sensitivity by a few percent (although it would have helped with locating a source if there were one). The data is analysed with the Stochastic Transient Analysis Multi-detector Pipeline (STAMP); we’ll be doing a similar thing with O1 data too.

STAMP searches for signals by building a spectrogram: a plot of how much power there is at a particular gravitational wave frequency at a particular time. If there is just noise, you wouldn’t expect the power at one frequency and time to be correlated with that at another frequency and time. Therefore, the search looks for clusters, grouping together times or frequencies closer to one another where there is more power then you might expect.

The analysis is cunning, as it coherently analysis data from both detectors together when constructing the spectrogram, folding in the extra distance a gravitational wave must travel between the detectors for a given sky position.

The significance of events is calculated is a similar way to how we search for binary black holes. The pipeline ranks candidates using a detection statistic, a signal-to-noise ratio for the cluster of interesting time–frequency pixels \mathrm{SNR}_\Gamma (something like the amount of power measured divided by the amount you’d expect randomly). We work out how frequently you’d expect a particular value of \mathrm{SNR}_\Gamma by analysing time-shifted data: where we’ve shifted the data from one of the detectors in time relative to data from the other so that we know there can’t be the same signal found in both.

The distribution of \mathrm{SNR}_\Gamma is shown below from the search (dots) and from the noise background (lines). You can see that things are entirely consistent with our expectations for just noise. The most significant event has a false alarm probability of 54%, so you’re better off betting it’s just noise. There are no detections here.

False alarm rate distribution

False alarm rate (FAR) distribution of triggers from S5 (black circles) and S6 (red triangles) as a function of the
signal-to-noise ratio. The background S5 and S6 noise distributions are shown by the solid black and dashed red lines respectively. An idealised Gaussian noise background is shown in cyan. There are no triggers significantly above the expected background level. Fig. 5 from Abbott et al. (2016).

Since the detectors are now much more sensitive, perhaps there’s something lurking in our new data. I still think this in unlikely since we can’t see sources from a significant distance, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the results of the analysis.

arXiv: 1511.04398 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(4):042005(19); 2016
Science summary: Stuck in the middle: an all-sky search for gravitational waves of intermediate duration
Favourite (neglected) middle child:
 Lisa Simpson

View from Guano Point

Sunset over the Grand Canyon. One of the perks of academia is the travel. A group of us from Birmingham went on a small adventure after the LIGO–Virgo Meeting. This is another reason why I’ve not been updating my blog.

Prospects for observing and localizing gravitational-wave transients with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo

The week beginning February 8th was a big one for the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. You might remember something about a few papers on the merger of a couple of black holes; however, those weren’t the only papers we published that week. In fact, they are not even (currently) the most cited

Prospects for Observing and Localizing Gravitational-Wave Transients with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo is known within the Collaboration as the Observing Scenarios Document. It has a couple of interesting aspects

  • Its content is a mix of a schedule for detector commissioning and an explanation of data analysis. It is a rare paper that spans both the instrumental and data-analysis sides of the Collaboration.
  • It is a living review: it is intended to be periodically updated as we get new information.

There is also one further point of interest for me: I was heavily involved in producing this latest version.

In this post I’m going to give an outline of the paper’s content, but delve a little deeper into the story of how this paper made it to print.

The Observing Scenarios

The paper is divided up into four sections.

  1. It opens, as is traditional, with the introduction. This has no mentions of windows, which is a good start.
  2. Section 2 is the instrumental bit. Here we give a possible timeline for the commissioning of the LIGO and Virgo detectors and a plausible schedule for our observing runs.
  3. Next we talk about data analysis for transient (short) gravitational waves. We discuss detection and then sky localization.
  4. Finally, we bring everything together to give an estimate of how well we expect to be able to locate the sources of gravitational-wave signals as time goes on.

Packaged up, the paper is useful if you want to know when LIGO and Virgo might be observing or if you want to know how we locate the source of a signal on the sky. The aim was to provide a guide for those interested in multimessenger astronomy—astronomy where you rely on multiple types of signals like electromagnetic radiation (light, radio, X-rays, etc.), gravitational waves, neutrinos or cosmic rays.

The development of the detectors’ sensitivity is shown below. It takes many years of tweaking and optimising to reach design sensitivity, but we don’t wait until then to do some science. It’s just as important to practise running the instruments and analysing the data as it is to improve the sensitivity. Therefore, we have a series of observing runs at progressively higher sensitivity. Our first observing run (O1), featured just the two LIGO detectors, which were towards the better end of the expected sensitivity.

Possible advanced detector sensitivity

Plausible evolution of the Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo detectors with time. The lower the sensitivity curve, the further away we can detect sources. The distances quoted are ranges we could observe binary neutrons stars (BNSs) to. The BNS-optimized curve is a proposal to tweak the detectors for finding BNSs. Fig. 1 of the Observing Scenarios Document.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how the detectors will progress (we’re doing many things for the first time ever), but the plot above shows our current best plan.

I’ll not go into any more details about the science in the paper as I’ve already used up my best ideas writing the LIGO science summary.

If you’re particularly interested in sky localization, you might like to check out the data releases for studies using (simulated) binary neutron star and burst signals. The binary neutron star analysis is similar to that we do for any compact binary coalescence (the merger of a binary containing neutron stars or black holes), and the burst analysis works more generally as it doesn’t require a template for the expected signal.

The path to publication

Now, this is the story of how a Collaboration paper got published. I’d like to take a minute to tell you how I became responsible for updating the Observing Scenarios…

In the beginning

The Observing Scenarios has its origins long before I joined the Collaboration. The first version of the document I can find is from July 2012. Amongst the labyrinth of internal wiki pages we have, the earliest reference I’ve uncovered was from August 2012 (the plan was to have a mature draft by September). The aim was to give a road map for the advanced-detector era, so the wider astronomical community would know what to expect.

I imagine it took a huge effort to bring together all the necessary experts from across the Collaboration to sit down and write the document.

Any document detailing our plans would need to be updated regularly as we get a better understanding of our progress on commissioning the detectors (and perhaps understanding what signals we will see). Fortunately, there is a journal that can cope with just that: Living Reviews in Relativity. Living Reviews is designed so that authors can update their articles so that they never become (too) out-of-date.

A version was submitted to Living Reviews early in 2013, around the same time as a version was posted to the arXiv. We had referee reports (from two referees), and were preparing to resubmit. Unfortunately, Living Reviews suspended operations before we could. However, work continued.

Updating sky localization

I joined the LIGO Scientific Collaboration when I started at the University of Birmingham in October 2013. I soon became involved in a variety of activities of the Parameter Estimation group (my boss, Alberto Vecchio, is the chair of the group).

Sky localization was a particularly active area as we prepared for the first runs of Advanced LIGO. The original version of the Observing Scenarios Document used a simple approximate means of estimating sky localization, using just timing triangulation (it didn’t even give numbers for when we only had two detectors running). We knew we could do better.

We had all the code developed, but we needed numbers for a realistic population of signals. I was one of the people who helped running the analyses to get these. We had the results by the summer of 2014; we now needed someone to write up the results. I have a distinct recollection of there being silence on our weekly teleconference. Then Alberto asked me if I would do it? I said yes: it would probably only take me a week or two to write a short technical note.

Saying yes is a slippery slope.

That note became Parameter estimation for binary neutron-star coalescences with realistic noise during the Advanced LIGO era, a 24-page paper (it considers more than just sky localization).

Numbers in hand, it was time to update the Observing Scenarios. Even if things were currently on hold with Living Reviews, we could still update the arXiv version. I thought it would be easiest if I put them in, with a little explanation, myself. I compiled a draft and circulated in the Parameter Estimation group. Then it was time to present to the Data Analysis Council.

The Data Analysis Council either sounds like a shadowy organisation orchestrating things from behind the scene, or a place where people bicker over trivial technical issues. In reality it is a little of both. This is the body that should coordinate all the various bits of analysis done by the Collaboration, and they have responsibility for the Observing Scenarios Document. I presented my update on the last call before Christmas 2014. They were generally happy, but said that the sky localization on the burst side needed updating too! There was once again a silence on the call when it came to the question of who would finish off the document. The Observing Scenarios became my responsibility.

(I had though that if I helped out with this Collaboration paper, I could take the next 900 off. This hasn’t worked out.)

The review

With some help from the Burst group (in particular Reed Essick, who had lead their sky localization study), I soon had a new version with fully up-to-date sky localization. This was ready for our March Collaboration meeting. I didn’t go (I was saving my travel budget for the summer), so Alberto presented on my behalf. It was now agreed that the document should go through internal review.

It’s this which I really want to write about. Peer review is central to modern science. New results are always discussed by experts in the community, to try to understand the value of the work; however, peer review is formalised in the refereeing of journal articles, when one or more (usually anonymous) experts examine work before it can be published. There are many ups and down with this… For Collaboration papers, we want to be sure that things are right before we share them publicly. We go through internal peer review. In my opinion this is much more thorough than journal review, and this shows how seriously the Collaboration take their science.

Unfortunately, setting up the review was also where we hit a hurdle—it took until July. I’m not entirely sure why there was a delay: I suspect it was partly because everyone was busy assembling things ahead of O1 and partly because there were various discussions amongst the high-level management about what exactly we should be aiming for. Working as part of a large collaboration can mean that you get to be involved in wonderful science, but it can means lots of bureaucracy and politics. However, in the intervening time, Living Reviews was back in operation.

The review team consisted of five senior people, each of whom had easily five times as much experience as I do, with expertise in each of the areas covered in the document. The chair of the review was Alan Weinstein, head of the Caltech LIGO Laboratory Astrophysics Group, who has an excellent eye for detail. Our aim was to produce the update for the start of O1 in September. (Spolier: We didn’t make it)

The review team discussed things amongst themselves and I got the first comments at the end of August. The consensus was that we should not just update the sky localization, but update everything too (including the structure of the document). This precipitated a flurry of conversations with the people who organise the schedules for the detectors, those who liaise with our partner astronomers on electromagnetic follow-up, and everyone who does sky localization. I was initially depressed that we wouldn’t make our start of O1 deadline; however, then something happened that altered my perspective.

On September 14, four days before the official start of O1, we made a detection. GW150914 would change everything.

First, we could no longer claim that binary neutron stars were expected to be our most common source—instead they became the source we expect would most commonly have an electromagnetic counterpart.

Second, we needed to be careful how we described engineering runs. GW150914 occurred in our final engineering run (ER8). Practically, there was difference between the state of the detector then and in O1. The point of the final engineering run was to get everything running smoothly so all we needed to do at the official start of O1 was open the champagne. However, we couldn’t make any claims about being able to make detections during engineering runs without being krass and letting the cat out of the bag. I’m rather pleased with the sentence

Engineering runs in the commissioning phase allow us to understand our detectors and analyses in an observational mode; these are not intended to produce astrophysical results, but that does not preclude the possibility of this happening.

I don’t know if anyone noticed the implication. (Checking my notes, this was in the September 18 draft, which shows how quickly we realised the possible significance of The Event).

Finally, since the start of observations proved to be interesting, and because the detectors were running so smoothly, it was decided to extend O1 from three months to four so that it would finish in January. No commissioning was going to be done over the holidays, so it wouldn’t affect the schedule. I’m not sure how happy the people who run the detectors were about working over this period, but they agreed to the plan. (No-one asked if we would be happy to run parameter estimation over the holidays).

After half-a-dozen drafts, the review team were finally happy with the document. It was now October 20, and time to proceed to the next step of review: circulation to the Collaboration.

Collaboration papers go through a sequence of stages. First they are circulated to the everyone for comments. This can be pointing out typos, suggesting references or asking questions about the analysis. This lasts two weeks. During this time, the results must also be presented on a Collaboration-wide teleconference. After comments are addressed, the paper is sent for examination Executive Committees of the LIGO and Virgo Collaborations. After approval from them (and the review team check any changes), the paper is circulated to the Collaboration again for any last comments and checking of the author list. At the same time it is sent to the Gravitational Wave International Committee, a group of all the collaborations interested in gravitational waves. This final stage is a week. Then you can you can submit the paper.

Peer review for the journal doesn’t seem to arduous in comparison does it?

Since things were rather busy with all the analysis of GW150914, the Observing Scenario took a little longer than usual to clear all these hoops. I presented to the Collaboration on Friday 13 November. (This was rather unlucky as I was at a workshop in Italy and I had to miss the tour of the underground Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso). After addressing comments from everyone (the Executive Committees do read things carefully), I got the final sign-off to submit December 21. At least we made it before the end of O1.

Good things come…

This may sound like a tale of frustration and delay. However, I hope that it is more than that, and it shows how careful the Collaboration is. The Observing Scenarios is really a review: it doesn’t contain new science. The updated sky localization results are from studies which have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and are based upon codes that have been separately reviewed. Despite this, every statement was examined and every number checked and rechecked, and every member of the Collaboration had opportunity to examine the results and comment on the document.

I guess this attention to detail isn’t surprising given that our work is based on measuring a change in length of one part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Since this is how we treat review articles, can you imagine how much scrutiny the Discovery Paper had? Everything had at least one extra layer of review, every number had to be signed-off individually by the appropriate review team, and there were so many comments on the paper that the editors had to switch to using a ticketing system we normally use for tracking bugs in our software. This level of oversight helped me to sleep a little more easily: there are six numbers in the abstract alone I could have potentially messed up.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes…

Looking forward

The Living Reviews version was accepted January 22, just after the end of O1. We made had to make a couple of tweaks to correct tenses. The final version appeared February 8, in time to be the last paper of the pre-discovery era.

It is now time to be thinking about the next update! There are certainly a few things on the to-do list (perhaps even some news on LIGO-India). We are having a Collaboration meeting in a couple of weeks’ time, so hopefully I can start talking to people about it then. Perhaps it’ll be done by the start of O2? [update]


arXiv: 1304.0670 [gr-qc]
Journal: Living Reviews In Relativity; 19:1(39); 2016
Science summary: Planning for a Bright Tomorrow: Prospects for Gravitational-wave Astronomy with Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo
Bonus fact:
 This is the only paper whose arXiv ID I know by heart [update].

arXiv IDs

Papers whose arXiv numbers I know by heart are: 1304.0670, 1602.03840 (I count to other GW150914 companion papers from here), 1606.04856 and 1706.01812. These might tell you something about my reading habits.

The next version

Despite aiming for the start of O2, the next version wasn’t ready for submission until just after the end of O2, in September 2017. It was finally published (after an excpetionally long time in type-setting) in April 2018.