Searches for continuous gravitational waves from nine young supernova remnants

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is busy analysing the data we’re currently taking with Advanced LIGO at the moment. However, the Collaboration is still publishing results from initial LIGO too. The most recent paper is a search for continuous waves—signals that are an almost constant hum throughout the observations. (I expect they’d be quite annoying for the detectors). Searching for continuous waves takes a lot of computing power (you can help by signing up for Einstein@Home), and is not particularly urgent since the sources don’t do much, hence it can take a while for results to appear.

Supernova remnants

Massive stars end their lives with an explosion, a supernova. Their core collapses down and their outer layers are blasted off. The aftermath of the explosion can be beautiful, with the thrown-off debris forming a bubble expanding out into the interstellar medium (the diffuse gas, plasma and dust between stars). This structure is known as a supernova remnant.

The bubble of a supernova remnant

The youngest known supernova remnant, G1.9+0.3 (it’s just 150 years old), observed in X-ray and optical light. The ejected material forms a shock wave as it pushes the interstellar material out of the way. Credit: NASA/CXC/NCSU/DSS/Borkowski et al.

At the centre of the supernova remnant may be what is left following the collapse of the core of the star. Depending upon the mass of the star, this could be a black hole or a neutron star (or it could be nothing). We’re interested in the case it is a neutron star.

Neutron stars

Neutron stars are incredibly dense. One teaspoon’s worth would have about as much mass as 300 million elephants. Neutron stars are like giant atomic nuclei. We’re not sure how matter behaves in such extreme conditions as they are impossible to replicate here on Earth.

If a neutron star rotates rapidly (we know many do) and has an uneven or if there are waves in the the neutron star that moves lots of material around (like Rossby waves on Earth), then it can emit continuous gravitational waves. Measuring these gravitational waves would tell you about how bumpy the neutron star is or how big the waves are, and therefore something about what the neutron star is made from.

Neutron stars are most likely to emit loud gravitational waves when they are young. This is for two reasons. First, the supernova explosion is likely to give the neutron star a big whack, this could ruffle up its surface and set off lots of waves, giving rise to the sort of bumps and wobbles that emit gravitational waves. As the neutron star ages, things can quiet down, the neutron star relaxes, bumps smooth out and waves dissipate. This leaves us with smaller gravitational waves. Second, gravitational waves carry away energy, slowing the rotation of the neutron star. This also means that the signal gets quieter (and harder) to detect as the  neutron star ages.

Since young neutron stars are the best potential sources, this study looked at nine young supernova remnants in the hopes of finding continuous gravitational waves. Searching for gravitational waves from particular sources is less computationally expensive than searching the entire sky. The search included Cassiopeia A, which had been previously searched in LIGO’s fifth science run, and G1.9+0.3, which is only 150 years old, as discovered by Dave Green. The positions of the searched supernova remnants are shown in the map of the Galaxy below.

Galactic map of supernova remnants

The nine young supernova remnants searched for continuous gravitational waves. The yellow dot marks the position of the Solar System. The green markers show the supernova remnants, which are close to the Galactic plane. Two possible positions for Vela Jr (G266.2−1.2) were used, since we are uncertain of its distance. Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt.

Gravitational-wave limits

No gravitational waves were found. The search checks how well template waveforms match up with the data. We tested that this works by injecting some fake signals into the data.  Since we didn’t detect anything, we can place upper limits on how loud any gravitational waves could be. These limits were double-checked by injecting some more fake signals at the limit, to see if we could detect them. We quoted 95% upper limits, that is where we expect that if a signal was present we could see it 95% of the time. The results actually have a small safety margin built in, so the injected signals were typically found 96%–97% of the time. In any case, we are fairly sure that there aren’t gravitational waves at or above the upper limits.

These upper limits are starting to tell us interesting things about the size of neutron-star bumps and waves. Hopefully, with data from Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo, we’ll actually be able to make a detection. Then we’ll not only be able to say that these bumps and waves are smaller than a particular size, but they are this size. Then we might be able to figure out the recipe for making the stuff of neutron stars (I think it might be more interesting than just flour and water).

arXiv: 1412.5942 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal; 813(1):39(16); 2015
Science summary: Searching for the youngest neutron stars in the Galaxy
Favourite supernova remnant:
 Cassiopeia A

On symmetry

Dave Green only combs half of his beard, the rest follows by symmetry. — Dave Green Facts

Physicists love symmetry! Using symmetry can dramatically simplify a problem. The concept of symmetry is at the heart of modern theoretical physics and some of the most beautiful of scientific results.

In this post, I’ll give a brief introduction to how physicists think about symmetry. Symmetry can be employed in a number of ways when tackling a problem; we’ll have a look at how they can help you ask the right question and then check that your answer makes sense. In a future post I hope to talk about Noether’s Theorem, my all-time favourite result in theoretical physics, which is deeply entwined with the concept of symmetry. First, we shall discuss what we mean when we talk about symmetry.

What is symmetry?

We say something is symmetric with respect to a particular operation if it is unchanged after that operation. That might sound rather generic, but that’s because the operation can be practically anything. Let’s consider a few examples:

  • Possibly the most familiar symmetry would be reflection symmetry, when something is identical to its mirror image. Something has reflection symmetry if it is invariant under switching left and right. Squares have reflection symmetry along lines in the middle of their sides and along their diagonals, rectangles only have reflection symmetry along the lines in the middle of their sides, and circles have reflection symmetry through any line that goes through their centre.
    The Star Trek Mirror Universe actually does not have reflection symmetry with our own Universe. First, they switch good and evil, rather than left and right, and second, after this transformation, we can tell the two universes apart by checking Spock’s beard.
  • Rotational symmetry is when an object is identical after being rotated. Squares are the same after a 90° rotation, rectangles are the same after a 180° rotation, and circles are the same after a rotation by any angle. There is a link between the rotational symmetry of these shapes and their mirror symmetry: you can combine two reflections to make a rotation. With rotations we have seen that symmetries can either be discrete, as for a square when we have to rotate by multiples of 90°, or continuous, as for the circle where we can pick any angle we like.
  • Translational symmetry is similar to rotational symmetry, but is when an object is the same when shifted along a particular direction. This could be a spatial direction, so shifting everything to the left, or in time. This are a little more difficult to apply to the real world than the simplified models that physicists like to imagine.
    For translational invariance, imagine an infinite, flat plane, the same in all directions. This would be translational invariant in any direction parallel to the ground. It would be a terrible place to lose your keys. If you can imagine an infinite blob of tangerine jelly, that is entirely the same in all directions, we can translate in any direction we like. We think the Universe is pretty much like this on the largest scales (where details like galaxies are no longer important), except, it’s not quite as delicious.
    The backgrounds in some Scooby-Doo cartoons show periodic translational invariance: they repeat on a loop, so if you translate by the right amount they are the same. This is a discrete symmetry, just like rotating my a fixed angle. Similarly, if you have a rigid daily routine, such that you do the same thing at the same time every day, then your schedule is symmetric with respect to a time translation of 24 hours.
  • Exchange symmetry is when you can swap two (or more) things. If you are building a LEGO model, you can switch two bricks of the same size and colour and end up with the same result, hence it is symmetric under the exchange of those bricks. The idea that we have the same physical system when we swap two particles, like two electrons, is important in quantum mechanics. In my description of translational symmetry, I could have equally well have used lime jelly instead of tangerine, or even strawberry, hence the argument is symmetric under exchange of flavours. The symmetry is destroyed should we eat the infinite jelly Universe (we might also get stomach ache).
    Mario and Luigi are not symmetric under exchange, as anyone who has tried to play multiplayer Super Mario Bros. will know, as Luigi is the better jumper and has the better moustache.

There are lots more potential symmetries. Some used by physicists seem quite obscure, such as Lorentz symmetry, but the important thing to remember is that a symmetry of a system means we get the same thing back after a transformation.

Sometimes we consider approximate symmetries, when something is almost the same under a transformation. Coke and Pepsi are approximately exchange symmetric: try switching them for yourself. They are similar, but it is possible to tell them apart. The Earth has approximate rotational symmetry, but it is not exact as it is lumpy. The spaceship at the start of Spaceballs has approximate translational invariance: it just keeps going and going, but the symmetry is not exact as it does end eventually, so the symmetry only applies to the middle.

How to use symmetry

When studying for an undergraduate degree in physics, one of the first things you come to appreciate is that some coordinate systems make problems much easier than others. Coordinates are the set of numbers that describe a position in some space. The most familiar are Cartesian coordinates, when you use x and y to describe horizontal and vertical position respectively. Cartesian coordinates give you a nice grid with everything at right-angles. Undergrad students often like to stick with Cartesian coordinates as they are straight-forward and familiar. However, they can be a pain when describing a circle. If we want to plot a line five units from the origin of of coordinate system (0,\,0), we have to solve \sqrt{x^2 + y^2} = 5. However, if we used a polar coordinate system, it would simply be r = 5. By using coordinates that match the symmetry of our system we greatly simplify the problem!

Treasure map

Pirates are trying to figure out where they buried their treasure. They know it’s 5 yarrrds from the doughnut. Calculating positions using Cartesian coordinates is difficult, but they are good for specifying specific locations, like of the palm tree.

Treasure map

Using polar coordinates, it is easy to specify the location of points 5 yarrrds from the doughnut. Pirates prefer using the polar coordinates, they really like using r.

Picking a coordinate system for a problem should depend on the symmetries of the system. If we had a system that was translation invariant, Cartesian coordinates are the best to use. If the system was invariant with respect to translation in the horizontal direction, then we know that our answer should not depend on x. If we have a system that is rotation invariant, polar coordinates are the best, as we should get an answer that doesn’t depend on the rotation angle \varphi. By understanding symmetries, we can formulate our analysis of the problem such that we ask the best questions.

At the end of my undergrad degree, my friends and I went along to an awards ceremony. I think we were hoping they’d have the miniature éclairs they normally had for special occasions. There was a chap from an evil corporation™ giving away branded clocks, that apparently ran on water. We were fairly convinced there was more to it than that, so, as now fully qualified physicists, we though we should able to figure it out. We quickly came up with two ideas: that there was some powder inside the water tank that reacted with the water to produce energy, or that the electrodes reacted in a similar way to in a potato clock. We then started to argue about how to figure this out. At this point, Peter Littlewood, then head of the Cavendish Laboratory, wandered over. We explained the problem, but not our ideas. Immediately, he said that it must be to do with the electrodes due to symmetry. Current flows to power the clock. It’ll either flow left to right through the tank, or right to left. It doesn’t matter which, but the important thing is the clock can’t have reflection symmetry. If it did, there would be no preferred direction for the current to flow. To break the symmetry, the two (similar looking) electrodes must actually be different (and hence the potato clock theory is along the right lines). My friends and I all felt appropriately impressed and humbled, but it served as a good reminder that a simple concept like symmetry can be a powerful tool.

A concept I now try to impress upon my students, is to use symmetry to guide their answers. Most are happy enough to use symmetry for error checking: if the solution is meant to have rotational symmetry and their answer depends on \varphi they know they’ve made a mistake. However, symmetry can sometimes directly tell you the answer.

Lets imagine that you’ve baked a perfectly doughnut, such that it has rotational symmetry. For some reason you sprinkled it with an even coating of electrons instead of hundreds and thousands. We now want to calculate the electric field surrounding the doughnut (for obvious reasons). The electric field tells us which way charges are pushed/pulled. We’d expect positive charges to be attracted towards our negatively charged doughnut. There should be a radial electric field to pull positive charges in, but since it has rotational symmetry, there shouldn’t be any field in the \varphi direction, as there’s now reason for charges to be pulled clockwise or anticlockwise round our doughnut. Therefore, we should be able to write down immediately that the electric field in the \varphi direction is zero, by symmetry.

Most undergrads, though, will feel that this is cheating, and will often attempt to do all the algebra (hopefully using polar coordinates). Some will get this wrong, although there might be a few who are smart enough to note that their answer must be incorrect because of the symmetry. If symmetry tells you the answer, use it! Although it is good to practise your algebra (you get better by training), you can’t learn anything more than you already knew by symmetry. Working efficiently isn’t cheating, it’s smart.

Symmetry is a useful tool for problem solving, and something that everyone should make use of.