Gravity is a familiar force and is central to astrophysics. Our best theory of gravitation is Einstein’s general relativity (GR). This tells us that gravity is the bending of spacetime by matter. I am working on finding out what we could learn from observations of strong gravitational fields, where the curvature of spacetime is greatest. Of particular interest to me is what we may be able to learn by measuring gravitational waves (ripples in spacetime).
Detecting gravitational waves is extremely challenging. I am currently working as a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration. Advanced LIGO started observations in 2015 and made the first observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger. During my PhD, I was interested in what we could measure with the proposed evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), a space-based detector. In a few years, we may be able to do multi-band gravitational-wave astronomy!
I want to know both what we could learn about astrophysical objects, such as black holes or neutron stars, from gravitational tests, and what we may be able to learn about the nature of gravity itself. More detailed information can be found in my publications or from my group’s webpage.
Data analysis and parameter estimation
Having measured a gravitational wave, it is a difficult task to work out the properties of its source system. There are a number of techniques used for estimating the parameters of the gravitational waves, such as Markov-chain Monte Carlo. Most of my time is spent working as part of LIGO’s Parameter Estimation group on inferring the properties of compact binary coalescences. I have been involved in the analysis of all of the signals detected by LIGO so far, and led the analysis of GW170104.
Having detected a gravitational wave, it would be exciting to find an electromagnetic counterpart. Working out where to point telescopes in time for there still to be something to see is difficult. I have studied how well we can locate gravitational-wave sources on the sky.
We need models for the waveforms, but we are not certain of their exact form. I have investigated how to include our uncertainty in the waveforms into our parameter-estimation codes.
The information we obtain from gravitational waves can potentially teach us about how their sources formed. Ilya Mandel likes to say that with observations of black hole and neutron star binaries we are doing stellar paleontology—we are inferring how stars live and die from the remains they leave behind. The COMPAS team at the the University of Birmingham are particularly interesting in this area. I am excited about figuring out what we can learn from our gravitational wave observations, and how we can combine these with other astronomical data.
One of the main sources of gravitational waves for eLISA will be extreme-mass-ratio (EMR) events. These form when a compact object, such as a neutron star or stellar mass black hole, orbits close to the massive black hole found in the centre of a galaxy. As the compact object orbits, it generates gravitational waves. These carry away energy and momentum, making the orbit shrink, as well as encoding information about the shape of the spacetime background.
I have studied EMR bursts, short gravitational waves emitted when the orbit is still highly eccentric. These could be a useful way of learning about the massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, I calculated that the event rate is low, so we would have to be lucky to observe one.
As the orbit evolves its frequencies change. When the frequencies of the radial and polewards motion become multiples of each other, the system undergoes a transient resonance. There is a small glitch in the inspiral. I have been working on calculating the impact of this glitch.
Alternative theories of gravity
General relativity has passed every observational test so far. However, so far these tests have been confined to weak fields; the most exciting tests are the ones that probe strong fields, where spacetime is highly dynamic and the objects are extremely relativistic. These are the regions where GR is most likely to break down, and are exactly the region that gravitational waves probe
I have therefore investigated what differences might be observed in an alternate theory of gravity: -gravity. This is one of the simplest extensions to GR. For the class of theories I studied, I concluded that laboratory tests are more sensitive than astrophysical ones, although both are useful as they probe different regions.