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.

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

Review

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.

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.

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?

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:
Soundproof

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…

Moves:

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.

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

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.

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?

GW150914—The papers

In 2015 I made a resolution to write a blog post for each paper I had published. In 2016 I’ll have to break this because there are too many to keep up with. A suite of papers were prepared to accompany the announcement of the detection of GW150914 [bonus note], and in this post I’ll give an overview of these.

The papers

As well as the Discovery Paper published in Physical Review Letters [bonus note], there are 12 companion papers. All the papers are listed below in order of arXiv posting. My favourite is the Parameter Estimation Paper.

Subsequently, we have produced additional papers on GW150914, describing work that wasn’t finished in time for the announcement. The most up-to-date results are currently given in the O2 Catalogue Paper.

0. The Discovery Paper

Title: Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger
arXiv:
1602.03837 [gr-qc]
Journal:
Physical Review Letters; 116(6):061102(16); 2016
LIGO science summary:
Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger

This is the central paper that announces the observation of gravitational waves. There are three discoveries which are describe here: (i) the direct detection of gravitational waves, (ii) the existence of stellar-mass binary black holes, and (iii) that the black holes and gravitational waves are consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. That’s not too shabby in under 11 pages (if you exclude the author list). Coming 100 years after Einstein first published his prediction of gravitational waves and Schwarzschild published his black hole solution, this is the perfect birthday present.

More details: The Discovery Paper summary

1. The Detector Paper

Title: GW150914: The Advanced LIGO detectors in the era of first discoveries
arXiv:
1602.03838 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(13):131103(12); 2016
LIGO science summary: GW150914: The Advanced LIGO detectors in the era of the first discoveries

This paper gives a short summary of how the LIGO detectors work and their configuration in O1 (see the Advanced LIGO paper for the full design). Giant lasers and tiny measurements, the experimentalists do some cool things (even if their paper titles are a little cheesy and they seem to be allergic to error bars).

More details: The Detector Paper summary

2. The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper

Title: GW150914: First results from the search for binary black hole coalescence with Advanced LIGO
arXiv:
1602.03839 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122003(21); 2016
LIGO science summary: How we searched for merging black holes and found GW150914

Here we explain how we search for binary black holes and calculate the significance of potential candidates. This is the evidence to back up (i) in the Discovery Paper. We can potentially detect binary black holes in two ways: with searches that use templates, or with searches that look for coherent signals in both detectors without assuming a particular shape. The first type is also used for neutron star–black hole or binary neutron star coalescences, collectively known as compact binary coalescences. This type of search is described here, while the other type is described in the Burst Paper.

This paper describes the compact binary coalescence search pipelines and their results. As well as GW150914 there is also another interesting event, LVT151012. This isn’t significant enough to be claimed as a detection, but it is worth considering in more detail.

More details: The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper summary

3. The Parameter Estimation Paper

Title: Properties of the binary black hole merger GW150914
arXiv:
1602.03840 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(24):241102(19); 2016
LIGO science summary: The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

If you’re interested in the properties of the binary black hole system, then this is the paper for you! Here we explain how we do parameter estimation and how it is possible to extract masses, spins, location, etc. from the signal. These are the results I’ve been most heavily involved with, so I hope lots of people will find them useful! This is the paper to cite if you’re using our best masses, spins, distance or sky maps. The masses we infer are so large we conclude that the system must contain black holes, which is discovery (ii) reported in the Discovery Paper.

More details: The Parameter Estimation Paper summary

4. The Testing General Relativity Paper

Title: Tests of general relativity with GW150914
arXiv:
1602.03841 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(22):221101(19); 2016
LIGO science summary:
Was Einstein right about strong gravity?

The observation of GW150914 provides a new insight into the behaviour of gravity. We have never before probed such strong gravitational fields or such highly dynamical spacetime. These are the sorts of places you might imagine that we could start to see deviations from the predictions of general relativity. Aside from checking that we understand gravity, we also need to check to see if there is any evidence that our estimated parameters for the system could be off. We find that everything is consistent with general relativity, which is good for Einstein and is also discovery (iii) in the Discovery Paper.

More details: The Testing General Relativity Paper summary

5. The Rates Paper

Title: The rate of binary black hole mergers inferred from Advanced LIGO observations surrounding GW150914
arXiv:
1602.03842 [astro-ph.HE]1606.03939 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 833(1):L1(8); 2016; Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series; 227(2):14(11); 2016
LIGO science summary: The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

Given that we’ve spotted one binary black hole (plus maybe another with LVT151012), how many more are out there and how many more should we expect to find? We answer this here, although there’s a large uncertainty on the estimates since we don’t know (yet) the distribution of masses for binary black holes.

More details: The Rates Paper summary

6. The Burst Paper

Title: Observing gravitational-wave transient GW150914 with minimal assumptions
arXiv: 1602.03843 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122004(20); 2016

What can you learn about GW150914 without having to make the assumptions that it corresponds to gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger (as predicted by general relativity)? This paper describes and presents the results of the burst searches. Since the pipeline which first found GW150914 was a burst pipeline, it seems a little unfair that this paper comes after the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper, but I guess the idea is to first present results assuming it is a binary (since these are tightest) and then see how things change if you relax the assumptions. The waveforms reconstructed by the burst models do match the templates for a binary black hole coalescence.

More details: The Burst Paper summary

7. The Detector Characterisation Paper

Title: Characterization of transient noise in Advanced LIGO relevant to gravitational wave signal GW150914
arXiv: 1602.03844 [gr-qc]
Journal: Classical & Quantum Gravity; 33(13):134001(34); 2016
LIGO science summary:
How do we know GW150914 was real? Vetting a Gravitational Wave Signal of Astrophysical Origin
CQG+ post: How do we know LIGO detected gravitational waves? [featuring awesome cartoons]

Could GW150914 be caused by something other than a gravitational wave: are there sources of noise that could mimic a signal, or ways that the detector could be disturbed to produce something that would be mistaken for a detection? This paper looks at these problems and details all the ways we monitor the detectors and the external environment. We can find nothing that can explain GW150914 (and LVT151012) other than either a gravitational wave or a really lucky random noise fluctuation. I think this paper is extremely important to our ability to claim a detection and I’m surprised it’s not number 2 in the list of companion papers. If you want to know how thorough the Collaboration is in monitoring the detectors, this is the paper for you.

More details: The Detector Characterisation Paper summary

8. The Calibration Paper

Title: Calibration of the Advanced LIGO detectors for the discovery of the binary black-hole merger GW150914
arXiv:
1602.03845 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review D; 95(6):062003(16); 2017
LIGO science summary:
Calibration of the Advanced LIGO detectors for the discovery of the binary black-hole merger GW150914

Completing the triumvirate of instrumental papers with the Detector Paper and the Detector Characterisation Paper, this paper describes how the LIGO detectors are calibrated. There are some cunning control mechanisms involved in operating the interferometers, and we need to understand these to quantify how they effect what we measure. Building a better model for calibration uncertainties is high on the to-do list for improving parameter estimation, so this is an interesting area to watch for me.

More details: The Calibration Paper summary

9. The Astrophysics Paper

Title: Astrophysical implications of the binary black-hole merger GW150914
arXiv:
1602.03846 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 818(2):L22(15); 2016
LIGO science summary:
The first measurement of a black hole merger and what it means

Having estimated source parameters and rate of mergers, what can we say about astrophysics? This paper reviews results related to binary black holes to put our findings in context and also makes statements about what we could hope to learn in the future.

More details: The Astrophysics Paper summary

10. The Stochastic Paper

Title: GW150914: Implications for the stochastic gravitational wave background from binary black holes
arXiv:
1602.03847 [gr-qc]
Journal: Physical Review Letters; 116(13):131102(12); 2016
LIGO science summary: Background of gravitational waves expected from binary black hole events like GW150914

For every loud signal we detect, we expect that there will be many more quiet ones. This paper considers how many quiet binary black hole signals could add up to form a stochastic background. We may be able to see this background as the detectors are upgraded, so we should start thinking about what to do to identify it and learn from it.

More details: The Stochastic Paper summary

11. The Neutrino Paper

Title: High-energy neutrino follow-up search of gravitational wave event GW150914 with ANTARES and IceCube
arXiv:
1602.05411 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Physical Review D; 93(12):122010(15); 2016
LIGO science summary: Search for neutrinos from merging black holes

We are interested so see if there’s any other signal that coincides with a gravitational wave signal. We wouldn’t expect something to accompany a black hole merger, but it’s good to check. This paper describes the search for high-energy neutrinos. We didn’t find anything, but perhaps we will in the future (perhaps for a binary neutron star merger).

More details: The Neutrino Paper summary

12. The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper

Title: Localization and broadband follow-up of the gravitational-wave transient GW150914
arXiv: 1602.08492 [astro-ph.HE]; 1604.07864 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 826(1):L13(8); 2016; Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series; 225(1):8(15); 2016

As well as looking for coincident neutrinos, we are also interested in electromagnetic observations (gamma-ray, X-ray, optical, infra-red or radio). We had a large group of observers interesting in following up on gravitational wave triggers, and 25 teams have reported observations. This companion describes the procedure for follow-up observations and discusses sky localisation.

This work split into a main article and a supplement which goes into more technical details.

More details: The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper summary

The Discovery Paper

Synopsis: Discovery Paper
Read this if: You want an overview of The Event
Favourite part: The entire conclusion:

The LIGO detectors have observed gravitational waves from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes. The detected waveform matches the predictions of general relativity for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. These observations demonstrate the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.

The Discovery Paper gives the key science results and is remarkably well written. It seems a shame to summarise it: you should read it for yourself! (It’s free).

The Detector Paper

Synopsis: Detector Paper
Read this if: You want a brief description of the detector configuration for O1
Favourite part: It’s short!

The LIGO detectors contain lots of cool pieces of physics. This paper briefly outlines them all: the mirror suspensions, the vacuum (the LIGO arms are the largest vacuum envelopes in the world and some of the cleanest), the mirror coatings, the laser optics and the control systems. A full description is given in the Advanced LIGO paper, but the specs there are for design sensitivity (it is also heavy reading). The main difference between the current configuration and that for design sensitivity is the laser power. Currently the circulating power in the arms is $100~\mathrm{kW}$, the plan is to go up to $750~\mathrm{kW}$. This will reduce shot noise, but raises all sorts of control issues, such as how to avoid parametric instabilities.

The noise amplitude spectral density. The curves for the current observations are shown in red (dark for Hanford, light for Livingston). This is around a factor 3 better than in the final run of initial LIGO (green), but still a factor of 3 off design sensitivity (dark blue). The light blue curve shows the impact of potential future upgrades. The improvement at low frequencies is especially useful for high-mass systems like GW150914. Part of Fig. 1 of the Detector Paper.

The Compact Binary Coalescence Paper

Synopsis: Compact Binary Coalescence Paper
Read this if: You are interested in detection significance or in LVT151012
Favourite part: We might have found a second binary black hole merger

There are two compact binary coalescence searches that look for binary black holes: PyCBC and GstLAL. Both match templates to the data from the detectors to look for anything binary like, they then calculate the probability that such a match would happen by chance due to a random noise fluctuation (the false alarm probability or p-value [unhappy bonus note]). The false alarm probability isn’t the probability that there is a gravitational wave, but gives a good indication of how surprised we should be to find this signal if there wasn’t one. Here we report the results of both pipelines on the first 38.6 days of data (about 17 days where both detectors were working at the same time).

Both searches use the same set of templates to look for binary black holes [bonus note]. They look for where the same template matches the data from both detectors within a time interval consistent with the travel time between the two. However, the two searches rank candidate events and calculate false alarm probabilities using different methods. Basically, both searches use a detection statistic (the quantity used to rank candidates: higher means less likely to be noise), that is based on the signal-to-noise ratio (how loud the signal is) and a goodness-of-fit statistic. They assess the significance of a particular value of this detection statistic by calculating how frequently this would be obtained if there was just random noise (this is done by comparing data from the two detectors when there is not a coincident trigger in both). Consistency between the two searches gives us greater confidence in the results.

PyCBC’s detection statistic is a reweighted signal-to-noise ratio $\hat{\rho}_c$ which takes into account the consistency of the signal in different frequency bands. You can get a large signal-to-noise ratio from a loud glitch, but this doesn’t match the template across a range of frequencies, which is why this test is useful. The consistency is quantified by a reduced chi-squared statistic. This is used, depending on its value, to weight the signal-to-noise ratio. When it is large (indicating inconsistency across frequency bins), the reweighted signal-to-noise ratio becomes smaller.

To calculate the background, PyCBC uses time slides. Data from the two detectors are shifted in time so that any coincidences can’t be due to a real gravitational wave. Seeing how often you get something signal-like then tells you how often you’d expect this to happen due to random noise.

GstLAL calculates the signal-to-noise ratio and a residual after subtracting the template. As a detection statistic, it uses a likelihood ratio $\mathcal{L}$: the probability of finding the particular values of the signal-to-noise ratio and residual in both detectors for signals (assuming signal sources are uniformly distributed isotropically in space), divided by the probability of finding them for noise.

The background from GstLAL is worked out by looking at the likelihood ratio fro triggers that only appear in one detector. Since there’s no coincident signal in the other, these triggers can’t correspond to a real gravitational wave. Looking at their distribution tells you how frequently such things happen due to noise, and hence how probable it is for both detectors to see something signal-like at the same time.

The results of the searches are shown in the figure below.

Search results for PyCBC (left) and GstLAL (right). The histograms show the number of candidate events (orange squares) compare to the background. The black line includes GW150914 in the background estimate, the purple removes it (assuming that it is a signal). The further an orange square is above the lines, the more significant it is. Particle physicists like to quote significance in terms of $\sigma$ and for some reason we’ve copied them. The second most significant event (around $2\sigma$) is LVT151012. Fig. 7 from the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper.

GW150914 is the most significant event in both searches (it is the most significant PyCBC event even considering just single-detector triggers). They both find GW150914 with the same template values. The significance is literally off the charts. PyCBC can only calculate an upper bound on the false alarm probability of $< 2 \times 10^{-7}$. GstLAL calculates a false alarm probability of $1.4 \times 10^{-11}$, but this is reaching the level that we have to worry about the accuracy of assumptions that go into this (that the distribution of noise triggers in uniform across templates—if this is not the case, the false alarm probability could be about $10^3$ times larger). Therefore, for our overall result, we stick to the upper bound, which is consistent with both searches. The false alarm probability is so tiny, I don’t think anyone doubts this signal is real.

There is a second event that pops up above the background. This is LVT151012. It is found by both searches. Its signal-to-noise ratio is $9.6$, compared with GW150914’s $24$, so it is quiet. The false alarm probability from PyCBC is $0.02$, and from GstLAL is $0.05$, consistent with what we would expect for such a signal. LVT151012 does not reach the standards we would like to claim a detection, but it is still interesting.

Running parameter estimation on LVT151012, as we did for GW150914, gives beautiful results. If it is astrophysical in origin, it is another binary black hole merger. The component masses are lower, $m_1^\mathrm{source} = 23^{+18}_{-5} M_\odot$ and $m_2^\mathrm{source} 13^{+4}_{-5} M_\odot$ (the asymmetric uncertainties come from imposing $m_1^\mathrm{source} \geq m_2^\mathrm{source}$); the chirp mass is $\mathcal{M} = 15^{+1}_{-1} M_\odot$. The effective spin, as for GW150914, is close to zero $\chi_\mathrm{eff} = 0.0^{+0.3}_{-0.2}$. The luminosity distance is $D_\mathrm{L} = 1100^{+500}_{-500}~\mathrm{Mpc}$, meaning it is about twice as far away as GW150914’s source. I hope we’ll write more about this event in the future; there are some more details in the Rates Paper.

Is it random noise or is it a gravitational wave? LVT151012 remains a mystery. This candidate event is discussed in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper (where it is found), the Rates Paper (which calculates the probability that it is extraterrestrial in origin), and the Detector Characterisation Paper (where known environmental sources fail to explain it). SPOILERS

The Parameter Estimation Paper

Synopsis: Parameter Estimation Paper
Read this if: You want to know the properties of GW150914’s source
Favourite part: We inferred the properties of black holes using measurements of spacetime itself!

The gravitational wave signal encodes all sorts of information about its source. Here, we explain how we extract this information  to produce probability distributions for the source parameters. I wrote about the properties of GW150914 in my previous post, so here I’ll go into a few more technical details.

To measure parameters we match a template waveform to the data from the two instruments. The better the fit, the more likely it is that the source had the particular parameters which were used to generate that particular template. Changing different parameters has different effects on the waveform (for example, changing the distance changes the amplitude, while changing the relative arrival times changes the sky position), so we often talk about different pieces of the waveform containing different pieces of information, even though we fit the whole lot at once.

The shape of the gravitational wave encodes the properties of the source. This information is what lets us infer parameters. The example signal is GW150914. I made this explainer with Ban Farr and Nutsinee Kijbunchoo for the LIGO Magazine.

The waveform for a binary black hole merger has three fuzzily defined parts: the inspiral (where the two black holes orbit each other), the merger (where the black holes plunge together and form a single black hole) and ringdown (where the final black hole relaxes to its final state). Having waveforms which include all of these stages is a fairly recent development, and we’re still working on efficient ways of including all the effects of the spin of the initial black holes.

We currently have two favourite binary black hole waveforms for parameter estimation:

• The first we refer to as EOBNR, short for its proper name of SEOBNRv2_ROM_DoubleSpin. This is constructed by using some cunning analytic techniques to calculate the dynamics (known as effective-one-body or EOB) and tuning the results to match numerical relativity (NR) simulations. This waveform only includes the effects of spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum of the binary, so it doesn’t allow us to measure the effects of precession (wobbling around caused by the spins).
• The second we refer to as IMRPhenom, short for IMRPhenomPv2. This is constructed by fitting to the frequency dependence of EOB and NR waveforms. The dominant effects of precession of included by twisting up the waveform.

We’re currently working on results using a waveform that includes the full effects of spin, but that is extremely slow (it’s about half done now), so those results won’t be out for a while.

The results from the two waveforms agree really well, even though they’ve been created by different teams using different pieces of physics. This was a huge relief when I was first making a comparison of results! (We had been worried about systematic errors from waveform modelling). The consistency of results is partly because our models have improved and partly because the properties of the source are such that the remaining differences aren’t important. We’re quite confident that we’ve most of the parameters are reliably measured!

The component masses are the most important factor for controlling the evolution of the waveform, but we don’t measure the two masses independently.  The evolution of the inspiral is dominated by a combination called the chirp mass, and the merger and ringdown are dominated by the total mass. For lighter mass systems, where we gets lots of inspiral, we measure the chirp mass really well, and for high mass systems, where the merger and ringdown are the loudest parts, we measure the total mass. GW150914 is somewhere in the middle. The probability distribution for the masses are shown below: we can compensate for one of the component masses being smaller if we make the other larger, as this keeps chirp mass and total mass about the same.

Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The sharp diagonal line cut-off in the two-dimensional plot is a consequence of requiring $m_1^\mathrm{source} \geq m_2^\mathrm{source}$.  Fig. 1 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

To work out these masses, we need to take into account the expansion of the Universe. As the Universe expands, it stretches the wavelength of the gravitational waves. The same happens to light: visible light becomes redder, so the phenomenon is known as redshifting (even for gravitational waves). If you don’t take this into account, the masses you measure are too large. To work out how much redshift there is you need to know the distance to the source. The probability distribution for the distance is shown below, we plot the distance together with the inclination, since both of these affect the amplitude of the waves (the source is quietest when we look at it edge-on from the side, and loudest when seen face-on/off from above/below).

Estimated luminosity distance and binary inclination angle. An inclination of $\theta_{JN} = 90^\circ$ means we are looking at the binary (approximately) edge-on. Results are shown for the EOBNR waveform and the IMRPhenom: both agree well. The Overall results come from averaging the two. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals.  Fig. 2 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

After the masses, the most important properties for the evolution of the binary are the spins. We don’t measure these too well, but the probability distribution for their magnitudes and orientations from the precessing IMRPhenom model are shown below. Both waveform models agree that the effective spin $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$, which is a combination of both spins in the direction of the orbital angular momentum) is small. Therefore, either the spins are small or are larger but not aligned (or antialigned) with the orbital angular momentum. The spin of the more massive black hole is the better measured of the two.

Estimated orientation and magnitude of the two component spins from the precessing IMRPhenom model. The magnitude is between 0 and 1 and is perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum if the angle is 0. The distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. Part of Fig. 5 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

The Testing General Relativity Paper

Synopsis: Testing General Relativity Paper
Read this if: You want to know more about the nature of gravity.
Favourite part: Einstein was right! (Or more correctly, we can’t prove he was wrong… yet)

The Testing General Relativity Paper is one of my favourites as it packs a lot of science in. Our first direct detection of gravitational waves and of the merger of two black holes provides a new laboratory to test gravity, and this paper runs through the results of the first few experiments.

Before we start making any claims about general relativity being wrong, we first have to check if there’s any weird noise present. You don’t want to have to rewrite the textbooks just because of an instrumental artifact. After taking out a good guess for the waveform (as predicted by general relativity), we find that the residuals do match what we expect for instrumental noise, so we’re good to continue.

I’ve written about a couple of tests of general relativity in my previous post: the consistency of the inspiral and merger–ringdown parts of the waveform, and the bounds on the mass of the graviton (from evolution of the signal). I’ll cover the others now.

The final part of the signal, where the black hole settles down to its final state (the ringdown), is the place to look to check that the object is a black hole and not some other type of mysterious dark and dense object. It is tricky to measure this part of the signal, but we don’t see anything odd. We can’t yet confirm that the object has all the properties you’d want to pin down that it is exactly a black hole as predicted by general relativity; we’re going to have to wait for a louder signal for this. This test is especially poignant, as Steven Detweiler, who pioneered a lot of the work calculating the ringdown of black holes, died a week before the announcement.

We can allow terms in our waveform (here based on the IMRPhenom model) to vary and see which values best fit the signal. If there is evidence for differences compared with the predictions from general relativity, we would have evidence for needing an alternative. Results for this analysis are shown below for a set of different waveform parameters $\hat{p}_i$: the $\varphi_i$ parameters determine the inspiral, the $\alpha_i$ parameters determine the merger–ringdown and the $\beta_i$ parameters cover the intermediate regime. If the deviation $\delta \hat{p}_i$ is zero, the value coincides with the value from general relativity. The plot shows what would happen if you allow all the variable to vary at once (the multiple results) and if you tried just that parameter on its own (the single results).

Probability distributions for waveform parameters. The single analysis only varies one parameter, the multiple analysis varies all of them, and the J0737-3039 result is the existing bound from the double pulsar. A deviation of zero is consistent with general relativity. Fig. 7 from the Testing General Relativity Paper.

Overall the results look good. Some of the single results are centred away from zero, but we think that this is just a random fluctuate caused by noise (we’ve seen similar behaviour in tests, so don’t panic yet). It’s not surprising the $\varphi_3$, $\varphi_4$ and $\varphi_{5l}$ all show this behaviour, as they are sensitive to similar noise features. These measurements are much tighter than from any test we’ve done before, except for the measurement of $\varphi_0$ which is better measured from the double pulsar (since we have lots and lots of orbits of that measured).

The final test is to look for additional polarizations of gravitational waves. These are predicted in several alternative theories of gravity. Unfortunately, because we only have two detectors which are pretty much aligned we can’t say much, at least without knowing for certain the location of the source. Extra detectors will be useful here!

In conclusion, we have found no evidence to suggest we need to throw away general relativity, but future events will help us to perform new and stronger tests.

The Rates Paper

Synopsis: Rates Paper
Read this if: You want to know how often binary black holes merge (and how many we’ll detect)
Favourite part: There’s a good chance we’ll have ten detections by the end of our second observing run (O2)

Before September 14, we had never seen a binary stellar-mass black hole system. We were therefore rather uncertain about how many we would see. We had predictions based on simulations of the evolution of stars and their dynamical interactions. These said we shouldn’t be too surprised if we saw something in O1, but that we shouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see anything for many years either. We weren’t really expecting to see a black hole system so soon (the smart money was on a binary neutron star). However, we did find a binary black hole, and this happened right at the start of our observations! What do we now believe about the rate of mergers?

To work out the rate, you first need to count the number of events you have detected and then work out how sensitive you are to the population of signals (how many could you see out of the total).

Counting detections sounds simple: we have GW150914 without a doubt. However, what about all the quieter signals? If you have 100 events each with a 1% probability of being real, then even though you can’t say with certainty that anyone is an actual signal, you would expect one to be so. We want to work out how many events are real and how many are due to noise. Handily, trying to tell apart different populations of things when you’re not certain about individual members is a common problem is astrophysics (where it’s often difficult to go and check what something actually is), so there exists a probabilistic framework for doing this.

Using the expected number of real and noise events for a given detection statistic (as described in the Compact Binary Coalescence Paper), we count the number of detections and as a bonus, get a probability that each event is of astrophysical origin. There are two events with more than a 50% chance of being real: GW150914, where the probability is close to 100%, and LVT151012, where to probability is 84% based on GstLAL and 91% based on PyCBC.

By injecting lots of fake signals into some data and running our detection pipelines, we can work out how sensitive they are (in effect, how far away can they find particular types of sources). For a given number of detections, the more sensitive we are, the lower the actual rate of mergers should be (for lower sensitivity we would miss more, while there’s no hiding for higher sensitivity).

There is one final difficulty in working out the total number of binary black hole mergers: we need to know the distribution of masses, because our sensitivity depends on this. However, we don’t yet know this as we’ve only seen GW150914 and (maybe) LVT151012. Therefore, we try three possibilities to get an idea of what the merger rate could be.

1. We assume that binary black holes are either like GW150914 or like LVT151012. Given that these are our only possible detections at the moment, this should give a reasonable estimate. A similar approach has been used for estimating the population of binary neutron stars from pulsar observations [bonus note].
2. We assume that the distribution of masses is flat in the logarithm of the masses. This probably gives more heavy black holes than in reality (and so a lower merger rate)
3. We assume that black holes follow a power law like the initial masses of stars. This probably gives too many low mass black holes (and so a higher merger rate)

The estimated merger rates (number of binary black hole mergers per volume per time) are then: 1. $83^{+168}_{-63}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$; 2. $61^{+124}_{-48}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$, and 3. $200^{+400}_{-160}~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$. There is a huge scatter, but the flat and power-law rates hopefully bound the true value.

We’ll pin down the rate better after a few more detections. How many more should we expect to see? Using the projected sensitivity of the detectors over our coming observing runs, we can work out the probability of making $N$ more detections. This is shown in the plot below. It looks like there’s about about a 10% chance of not seeing anything else in O1, but we’re confident that we’ll have 10 more by the end of O2, and 35 more by the end of O3! I may need to lie down…

The percentage chance of making 0, 10, 35 and 70 more detections of binary black holes as time goes on and detector sensitivity improves (based upon our data so far). This is a simplified version of part of Fig. 3 of the Rates Paper taken from the science summary.

The Burst Paper

Synopsis: Burst Paper
Read this if: You want to check what we can do without a waveform template
Favourite part: You don’t need a template to make a detection

When discussing what we can learn from gravitational wave astronomy, you can almost guarantee that someone will say something about discovering the unexpected. Whenever we’ve looked at the sky in a new band of the electromagnetic spectrum, we found something we weren’t looking for: pulsars for radio, gamma-ray burst for gamma-rays, etc. Can we do the same in gravitational wave astronomy? There may well be signals we weren’t anticipating out there, but will we be able to detect them? The burst pipelines have our back here, at least for short signals.

The burst search pipelines, like their compact binary coalescence partners, assign candidate events a detection statistic and then work out a probability associated with being a false alarm caused by noise. The difference is that the burst pipelines try to find a wider range of signals.

There are three burst pipelines described: coherent WaveBurst (cWB), which famously first found GW150914; omicron–LALInferenceBurst (oLIB), and BayesWave, which follows up on cWB triggers.

As you might guess from the name, cWB looks for a coherent signal in both detectors. It looks for excess power (indicating a signal) in a time–frequency plot, and then classifies candidates based upon their structure. There’s one class for blip glitches and resonance lines (see the Detector Characterisation Paper), these are all thrown away as noise; one class for chirp-like signals that increase in frequency with time, this is where GW150914 was found, and one class for everything else. cWB’s detection statistic $\eta_c$ is something like a signal-to-noise ratio constructed based upon the correlated power in the detectors. The value for GW150914 was $\eta_c = 20$, which is higher than for any other candidate. The false alarm probability (or p-value), folding in all three search classes, is $2\times 10^{-6}$, which is pretty tiny, even if not as significant as for the tailored compact binary searches.

The oLIB search has two stages. First it makes a time–frequency plot and looks for power coincident between the two detectors. Likely candidates are then followed up by matching a sine–Gaussian wavelet to the data, using a similar algorithm to the one used for parameter estimation. It’s detection statistic is something like a likelihood ratio for the signal verses noise. It calculates a false alarm probability of about $2\times 10^{-6}$ too.

BayesWave fits a variable number of sine–Gaussian wavelets to the data. This can model both a signal (when the wavelets are the same for both detectors) and glitches (when the wavelets are independent). This is really clever, but is too computationally expensive to be left running on all the data. Therefore, it follows up on things highlighted by cWB, potentially increasing their significance. It’s detection statistic is the Bayes factor comparing the signal and glitch models. It estimates the false alarm probability to be about $7 \times 10^{-7}$ (which agrees with the cWB estimate if you only consider chirp-like triggers).

None of the searches find LVT151012. However, as this is a quiet, lower mass binary black hole, I think that this is not necessarily surprising.

cWB and BayesWave also output a reconstruction of the waveform. Reassuringly, this does look like binary black hole coalescence!

Gravitational waveforms from our analyses of GW150914. The wiggly grey line are the data from Hanford (top) and Livinston (bottom); these are analysed coherently. The plots show waveforms whitened by the noise power spectral density. The dark band shows the waveform reconstructed by BayesWave without assuming that the signal is from a binary black hole (BBH). The light bands show the distribution of BBH template waveforms that were found to be most probable from our parameter-estimation analysis. The two techniques give consistent results: the match between the two models is $94^{+2}_{-3}\%$. Fig. 6 of the Parameter Estimation Paper.

The paper concludes by performing some simple fits to the reconstructed waveforms. For this, you do have to assume that the signal cane from a binary black hole. They find parameters roughly consistent with those from the full parameter-estimation analysis, which is a nice sanity check of our results.

The Detector Characterisation Paper

Synopsis: Detector Characteristation Paper
Read this if: You’re curious if something other than a gravitational wave could be responsible for GW150914 or LVT151012
Favourite part: Mega lightning bolts can cause correlated noise

The output from the detectors that we analyses for signals is simple. It is a single channel that records the strain. To monitor instrumental behaviour and environmental conditions the detector characterisation team record over 200,000 other channels. These measure everything from the alignment of the optics through ground motion to incidence of cosmic rays. Most of the data taken by LIGO is to monitor things which are not gravitational waves.

This paper examines all the potential sources of noise in the LIGO detectors, how we monitor them to ensure they are not confused for a signal, and the impact they could have on estimating the significance of events in our searches. It is amazingly thorough work.

There are lots of potential noise sources for LIGO. Uncorrelated noise sources happen independently at both sites, therefore they can only be mistaken for a gravitational wave if by chance two occur at the right time. Correlated noise sources effect both detectors, and so could be more confusing for our searches, although there’s no guarantee that they would cause a disturbance that looks anything like a binary black hole merger.

Sources of uncorrelated noise include:

• Ground motion caused by earthquakes or ocean waves. These create wibbling which can affect the instruments, even though they are well isolated. This is usually at low frequencies (below $0.1~\mathrm{Hz}$ for earthquakes, although it can be higher if the epicentre is near), unless there is motion in the optics around (which can couple to cause higher frequency noise). There is a network of seismometers to measure earthquakes at both sites. There where two magnitude 2.1 earthquakes within 20 minutes of GW150914 (one off the coast of Alaska, the other south-west of Seattle), but both produced ground motion that is ten times too small to impact the detectors. There was some low frequency noise in Livingston at the time of LVT151012 which is associated with a period of bad ocean waves. however, there is no evidence that these could be converted to the frequency range associated with the signal.
• People moving around near the detectors can also cause vibrational or acoustic disturbances. People are kept away from the detectors while they are running and accelerometers, microphones and seismometers monitor the environment.
• Modulation of the lasers at $9~\mathrm{MHz}$ and $45~\mathrm{MHz}$ is done to monitor and control several parts of the optics. There is a fault somewhere in the system which means that there is a coupling to the output channel and we get noise across $10~\mathrm{Hz}$ to $2~\mathrm{kHz}$, which is where we look for compact binary coalescences. Rai Weiss suggested shutting down the instruments to fix the source of this and delaying the start of observations—it’s a good job we didn’t. Periods of data where this fault occurs are flagged and not included in the analysis.
• Blip transients are a short glitch that occurs for unknown reasons. They’re quite mysterious. They are at the right frequency range ($30~\mathrm{Hz}$ to $250~\mathrm{Hz}$) to be confused with binary black holes, but don’t have the right frequency evolution. They contribute to the background of noise triggers in the compact binary coalescence searches, but are unlikely to be the cause of GW150914 or LVT151012 since they don’t have the characteristic chirp shape.

A time–frequency plot of a blip glitch in LIGO-Livingston. Blip glitches are the right frequency range to be confused with binary coalescences, but don’t have the chirp-like structure. Blips are symmetric in time, whereas binary coalescences sweep up in frequency. Fig. 3 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

Correlated noise can be caused by:

• Electromagnetic signals which can come from lightning, solar weather or radio communications. This is measured by radio receivers and magnetometers, and its extremely difficult to produce a signal that is strong enough to have any impact of the detectors’ output. There was one strong  (peak current of about $500~\mathrm{kA}$) lightning strike in the same second as GW150914 over Burkino Faso. However, the magnetic disturbances were at least a thousand times too small to explain the amplitude of GW150914.
• Cosmic ray showers can cause electromagnetic radiation and particle showers. The particle flux become negligible after a few kilometres, so it’s unlikely that both Livingston and Hanford would be affected, but just in case there is a cosmic ray detector at Hanford. It has seen nothing suspicious.

All the monitoring channels give us a lot of insight into the behaviour of the instruments. Times which can be identified as having especially bad noise properties (where the noise could influence the measured output), or where the detectors are not working properly, are flagged and not included in the search analyses. Applying these vetoes mean that we can’t claim a detection when we know something else could mimic a gravitational wave signal, but it also helps us clean up our background of noise triggers. This has the impact of increasing the significance of the triggers which remain (since there are fewer false alarms they could be confused with). For example, if we leave the bad period in, the PyCBC false alarm probability for LVT151012 goes up from $0.02$ to $0.14$. The significance of GW150914 is so great that we don’t really need to worry about the effects of vetoes.

At the time of GW150914 the detectors were running well, the data around the event are clean, and there is nothing in any of the auxiliary channels that record anything which could have caused the event. The only source of a correlated signal which has not been rules out is a gravitational wave from a binary black hole merger. The time–frequency plots of the measured strains are shown below, and its easy to pick out the chirps.

Time–frequency plots for GW150914 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). These show the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger. The signal is clearly visible above the noise. Fig. 10 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

The data around LVT151012 are significantly less stationary than around GW150914. There was an elevated noise transient rate around this time. This is probably due to extra ground motion caused by ocean waves. This low frequency noise is clearly visible in the Livingston time–frequency plot below. There is no evidence that this gets converted to higher frequencies though. None of the detector characterisation results suggest that LVT151012 has was caused by a noise artifact.

Time–frequency plots for LVT151012 as measured by Hanford (left) and Livingston (right). You can see the characteristic increase in frequency with time of the chirp of a binary merger, but this is mixed in with noise. The scale is reduced compared with for GW150914, which is why noise features appear more prominent. The band at low frequency in Livingston is due to ground motion; this is not present in Hanford. Fig. 13 of the Detector Characterisation Paper.

If you’re curious about the state of the LIGO sites and their array of sensors, you can see more about the physical environment monitors at pem.ligo.org.

The Calibration Paper

Synopsis: Calibration Paper
Read this if: You like control engineering or precision measurement
Favourite part: Not only are the LIGO detectors sensitive enough to feel the push from a beam of light, they are so sensitive that you have to worry about where on the mirrors you push

We want to measure the gravitational wave strain—the change in length across our detectors caused by a passing gravitational wave. What we actually record is the intensity of laser light out the output of our interferometer. (The output should be dark when the strain is zero, and the intensity increases when the interferometer is stretched or squashed). We need a way to convert intensity to strain, and this requires careful calibration of the instruments.

The calibration is complicated by the control systems. The LIGO instruments are incredibly sensitive, and maintaining them in a stable condition requires lots of feedback systems. These can impact how the strain is transduced into the signal readout by the interferometer. A schematic of how what would be the change in the length of the arms without control systems $\Delta L_\mathrm{free}$ is changed into the measured strain $h$ is shown below. The calibration pipeline build models to correct for the effects of the control system to provide an accurate model of the true gravitational wave strain.

Model for how a differential arm length caused by a gravitational wave $\Delta L_\mathrm{free}$ or a photon calibration signal $x_\mathrm{T}^\mathrm{(PC)}$ is converted into the measured signal $h$. Fig. 2 from the Calibration Paper.

To measure the different responses of the system, the calibration team make several careful measurements. The primary means is using photon calibration: an auxiliary laser is used to push the mirrors and the response is measured. The spots where the lasers are pointed are carefully chosen to minimise distortion to the mirrors caused by pushing on them. A secondary means is to use actuators which are parts of the suspension system to excite the system.

As a cross-check, we can also use two auxiliary green lasers to measure changes in length using either a frequency modulation or their wavelength. These are similar approaches to those used in initial LIGO. These go give consistent results with the other methods, but they are not as accurate.

Overall, the uncertainty in the calibration of the amplitude of the strain is less than $10\%$ between $20~\mathrm{Hz}$ and $1~\mathrm{kHz}$, and the uncertainty in phase calibration is less than $10^\circ$. These are the values that we use in our parameter-estimation runs. However, the calibration uncertainty actually varies as a function of frequency, with some ranges having much less uncertainty. We’re currently working on implementing a better model for the uncertainty, which may improve our measurements. Fortunately the masses, aren’t too affected by the calibration uncertainty, but sky localization is, so we might get some gain here. We’ll hopefully produce results with updated calibration in the near future.

The Astrophysics Paper

Synopsis: Astrophysics Paper
Read this if: You are interested in how binary black holes form
Favourite part: We might be able to see similar mass binary black holes with eLISA before they merge in the LIGO band [bonus note]

This paper puts our observations of GW150914 in context with regards to existing observations of stellar-mass black holes and theoretical models for binary black hole mergers. Although it doesn’t explicitly mention LVT151012, most of the conclusions would be just as applicable to it’s source, if it is real. I expect there will be rapid development of the field now, but if you want to catch up on some background reading, this paper is the place to start.

The paper contains lots of references to good papers to delve into. It also highlights the main conclusion we can draw in italics, so its easy to skim through if you want a summary. I discussed the main astrophysical conclusions in my previous post. We will know more about binary black holes and their formation when we get more observations, so I think it is a good time to get interested in this area.

The Stochastic Paper

Synopsis: Stochastic Paper
Read this if: You like stochastic backgrounds
Favourite part: We might detect a background in the next decade

A stochastic gravitational wave background could be created by an incoherent superposition of many signals. In pulsar timing, they are looking for a background from many merging supermassive black holes. Could we have a similar thing from stellar-mass black holes? The loudest signals, like GW150914, are resolvable, they stand out from the background. However, for every loud signal, there will be many quiet signals, and the ones below our detection threshold could form a background. Since we’ve found that binary black hole mergers are probably plentiful, the background may be at the high end of previous predictions.

The background from stellar-mass black holes is different than the one from supermassive black holes because the signals are short. While the supermassive black holes produce an almost constant hum throughout your observations, stellar-mass black hole mergers produce short chirps. Instead of having lots of signals that overlap in time, we have a popcorn background, with one arriving on average every 15 minutes. This might allow us to do some different things when it comes to detection, but for now, we just use the standard approach.

This paper calculates the energy density of gravitational waves from binary black holes, excluding the contribution from signals loud enough to be detected. This is done for several different models. The standard (fiducial) model assumes parameters broadly consistent with those of GW150914’s source, plus a particular model for the formation of merging binaries. There are then variations on the the model for formation, considering different time delays between formation and merger, and adding in lower mass systems consistent with LVT151012. All these models are rather crude, but give an idea of potential variations in the background. Hopefully more realistic distributions will be considered in the future. There is some change between models, but this is within the (considerable) statistical uncertainty, so predictions seems robust.

Different models for the stochastic background of binary black holes. This is plotted in terms of energy density. The red band indicates the uncertainty on the fiducial model. The dashed line indicates the sensitivity of the LIGO and Virgo detectors after several years at design sensitivity. Fig. 2 of the Stochastic Paper.

After a couple of years at design sensitivity we may be able to make a confident detection of the stochastic background. The background from binary black holes is more significant than we expected.

If you’re wondering about if we could see other types of backgrounds, such as one of cosmological origin, then the background due to binary black holes could make detection more difficult. In effect, it acts as another source of noise, masking the other background. However, we may be able to distinguish the different backgrounds by measuring their frequency dependencies (we expect them to have different slopes), if they are loud enough.

The Neutrino Paper

Synopsis: Neutrino Paper
Read this if: You really like high energy neutrinos
Favourite part: We’re doing astronomy with neutrinos and gravitational waves—this is multimessenger astronomy without any form of electromagnetic radiation

There are multiple detectors that can look for high energy neutrinos. Currently, LIGO–Virgo Observations are being followed up by searches from ANTARES and IceCube. Both of these are Cherenkov detectors: they look for flashes of light created by fast moving particles, not the neutrinos themselves, but things they’ve interacted with. ANTARES searches the waters of the Mediterranean while IceCube uses the ice of Antarctica.

Within 500 seconds either side of the time of GW150914, ANTARES found no neutrinos and IceCube found three. These results are consistent with background levels (you would expect on average less than one and 4.4 neutrinos over that time from the two respectively). Additionally, none of the IceCube neutrinos are consistent with the sky localization of GW150914 (even though the sky area is pretty big). There is no sign of a neutrino counterpart, which is what we were expecting.

Subsequent non-detections have been reported by KamLAND, the Pierre Auger ObservatorySuper-Kamiokande, Borexino and NOvA.

The Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper

Synopsis: Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper
Read this if: You are interested in the search for electromagnetic counterparts
Favourite part: So many people were involved in this work that not only do we have to abbreviate the list of authors (Abbott, B.P. et al.), but we should probably abbreviate the list of collaborations too (LIGO Scientific & Virgo Collaboration et al.)

This is the last of the set of companion papers to be released—it took a huge amount of coordinating because of all the teams involved. The paper describes how we released information about GW150914. This should not be typical of how we will do things going forward (i) because we didn’t have all the infrastructure in place on September 14 and (ii) because it was the first time we had something we thought was real.

The first announcement was sent out on September 16, and this contained sky maps from the Burst codes cWB and LIB. In the future, we should be able to send out automated alerts with a few minutes latency.

For the first alert, we didn’t have any results which assumed the the source was a binary, as the searches which issue triggers at low latency were only looking for lower mass systems which would contain a neutron star. I suspect we’ll be reprioritising things going forward. The first information we shared about the potential masses for the source was shared on October 3. Since this was the first detection, everyone was cautious about triple-checking results, which caused the delay. Revised false alarm rates including results from GstLAL and PyCBC were sent out October 20.

The final sky maps were shared January 13. This is when we’d about finished our own reviews and knew that we would be submitting the papers soon [bonus note]. Our best sky map is the one from the Parameter Estimation Paper. You might it expect to be more con straining than the results from the burst pipelines since it uses a proper model for the gravitational waves from a binary black hole. This is the case if we ignore calibration uncertainty (which is not yet included in the burst codes), then the 50% area is $48~\mathrm{deg}^2$ and the 90% area is $150~\mathrm{deg^2}$. However, including calibration uncertainty, the sky areas are $150~\mathrm{deg^2}$ and $590~\mathrm{deg^2}$ at 50% and 90% probability respectively. Calibration uncertainty has the largest effect on sky area. All the sky maps agree that the source is in in some region of the annulus set by the time delay between the two detectors.

The different sky maps for GW150914 in an orthographic projection. The contours show the 90% region for each algorithm. The faint circles show lines of constant time delay $\Delta t_\mathrm{HL}$ between the two detectors. BAYESTAR rapidly computes sky maps for binary coalescences, but it needs the output of one of the detection pipelines to run, and so was not available at low latency. The LALInference map is our best result. All the sky maps are available as part of the data release. Fig. 2 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

A timeline of events is shown below. There were follow-up observations across the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma-rays and X-rays through the optical and near infra-red to radio.

Timeline for observations of GW15014. The top (grey) band shows information about gravitational waves. The second (blue) band shows high-energy (gamma- and X-ray) observations. The third and fourth (green) bands show optical and near infra-red observations respectively. The bottom (red) band shows radio observations. Fig. 1 from the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

Observations have been reported (via GCN notices) by

Together they cover an impressive amount of the sky as shown below. Many targeted the Large Magellanic Cloud before the knew the source was a binary black hole.

Footprints of observations compared with the 50% and 90% areas of the initially distributed (cWB: thick lines; LIB: thin lines) sky maps, also in orthographic projection. The all-sky observations are not shown. The grey background is the Galactic plane. Fig. 3 of the Electromagnetic Follow-up Paper.

Additional observations have been done using archival data by XMM-Newton and AGILE.

We don’t expect any electromagnetic counterpart to a binary black hole. No-one found anything with the exception of Fermi GBM. This has found a weak signal which may be coincident. More work is required to figure out if this is genuine (the statistical analysis looks OK, but some times you do have a false alarm). It would be a surprise if it is, so most people are sceptical. However, I think this will make people more interested in following up on our next binary black hole signal!

Bonus notes

Naming The Event

GW150914 is the name we have given to the signal detected by the two LIGO instruments. The “GW” is short for gravitational wave (not galactic worm), and the numbers give the date the wave reached the detectors (2015 September 14). It was originally known as G184098, its ID in our database of candidate events (most circulars sent to and from our observer partners use this ID). That was universally agreed to be terrible to remember. We tried to think of a good nickname for the event, but failed to, so rather by default, it has informally become known as The Event within the Collaboration. I think this is fitting given its significance.

LVT151012 is the name of the most significant candidate after GW150914, it doesn’t reach our criteria to claim detection (a false alarm rate of less than once per century), which is why it’s not GW151012. The “LVT” is short for LIGO–Virgo trigger. It took a long time to settle on this and up until the final week before the announcement it was still going by G197392. Informally, it was known as The Second Monday Event, as it too was found on a Monday. You’ll have to wait for us to finish looking at the rest of the O1 data to see if the Monday trend continues. If it does, it could have serious repercussions for our understanding of Garfield.

Following the publication of the O2 Catalogue Paper, LVT151012 was upgraded to GW151012, AND we decided to get rid of the LVT class as it was rather confusing.

Publishing in Physical Review Letters

Several people have asked me if the Discovery Paper was submitted to Science or Nature. It was not. The decision that any detection would be submitted to Physical Review was made ahead of the run. As far as I am aware, there was never much debate about this. Physical Review had been good about publishing all our non-detections and upper limits, so it only seemed fair that they got the discovery too. You don’t abandon your friends when you strike it rich. I am glad that we submitted to them.

Gaby González, the LIGO Spokesperson, contacted the editors of Physical Review Letters ahead of submission to let them know of the anticipated results. They then started to line up some referees to give confidential and prompt reviews.

The initial plan was to submit on January 19, and we held a Collaboration-wide tele-conference to discuss the science. There were a few more things still to do, so the paper was submitted on January 21, following another presentation (and a long discussion of whether a number should be a six or a two) and a vote. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of submission.

We got the referee reports back on January 27, although they were circulated to the Collaboration the following day. This was a rapid turnaround! From their comments, I suspect that Referee A may be a particle physicist who has dealt with similar claims of first detection—they were most concerned about statistical significance; Referee B seemed like a relativist—they made comments about the effect of spin on measurements, knew about waveforms and even historical papers on gravitational waves, and I would guess that Referee C was an astronomer involved with pulsars—they mentioned observations of binary pulsars potentially claiming the title of first detection and were also curious about sky localization. While I can’t be certain who the referees were, I am certain that I have never had such positive reviews before! Referee A wrote

The paper is extremely well written and clear. These results are obviously going to make history.

Referee B wrote

This paper is a major breakthrough and a milestone in gravitational science. The results are overall very well presented and its suitability for publication in Physical Review Letters is beyond question.

and Referee C wrote

It is an honor to have the opportunity to review this paper. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the most enjoyable paper I’ve ever read. […] I unreservedly recommend the paper for publication in Physical Review Letters. I expect that it will be among the most cited PRL papers ever.

I suspect I will never have such emphatic reviews again [happy bonus note][unhappy bonus note].

Publishing in Physical Review Letters seems to have been a huge success. So much so that their servers collapsed under the demand, despite them adding two more in anticipation. In the end they had to quintuple their number of servers to keep up with demand. There were 229,000 downloads from their website in the first 24 hours. Many people remarked that it was good that the paper was freely available. However, we always make our papers public on the arXiv or via LIGO’s Document Control Center [bonus bonus note], so there should never be a case where you miss out on reading a LIGO paper!

Publishing the Parameter Estimation Paper

The reviews for the Parameter Estimation Paper were also extremely positive. Referee A, who had some careful comments on clarifying notation, wrote

This is a beautiful paper on a spectacular result.

Referee B, who commendably did some back-of-the-envelope checks, wrote

The paper is also very well written, and includes enough background that I think a decent fraction of it will be accessible to non-experts. This, together with the profound nature of the results (first direct detection of gravitational waves, first direct evidence that Kerr black holes exist, first direct evidence that binary black holes can form and merge in a Hubble time, first data on the dynamical strong-field regime of general relativity, observation of stellar mass black holes more massive than any observed to date in our galaxy), makes me recommend this paper for publication in PRL without hesitation.

Referee C, who made some suggestions to help a non-specialist reader, wrote

This is a generally excellent paper describing the properties of LIGO’s first detection.

Physical Review Letters were also kind enough to publish this paper open access without charge!

Publishing the Rates Paper

It wasn’t all clear sailing getting the companion papers published. Referees did give papers the thorough checking that they deserved. The most difficult review was of the Rates Paper. There were two referees, one astrophysics, one statistics. The astrophysics referee was happy with the results and made a few suggestions to clarify or further justify the text. The statistics referee has more serious complaints…

There are five main things which I think made the statistics referee angry. First, the referee objected to our terminology

While overall I’ve been impressed with the statistics in LIGO papers, in one respect there is truly egregious malpractice, but fortunately easy to remedy. It concerns incorrectly using the term “false alarm probability” (FAP) to refer to what statisticians call a p-value, a deliberately vague term (“false alarm rate” is similarly misused). […] There is nothing subtle or controversial about the LIGO usage being erroneous, and the practice has to stop, not just within this paper, but throughout the LIGO collaboration (and as a matter of ApJ policy).

I agree with this. What we call the false alarm probability is not the probability that the detection is a false alarm. It is not the probability that the given signal is noise rather that astrophysical, but instead it is the probability that if we only had noise that we would get a detection statistic as significant or more so. It might take a minute to realise why those are different. The former (the one we should call p-value) is what the search pipelines give us, but is less useful than the latter for actually working out if the signal is real. The probabilities calculated in the Rates Paper that the signal is astrophysical are really what you want.

p-values are often misinterpreted, but most scientists are aware of this, and so are cautious when they come across them

As a consequence of this complaint, the Collaboration is purging “false alarm probability” from our papers. It is used in most of the companion papers, as they were published before we got this report (and managed to convince everyone that it is important).

Second, we were lacking in references to existing literature

Regarding scholarship, the paper is quite poor. I take it the authors have written this paper with the expectation, or at least the hope, that it would be read […] If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am.

This is fair enough. The referee made some good suggestions to work done on inferring the rate of gamma-ray bursts by Loredo & Wasserman (Part I, Part II, Part III), as well as by Petit, Kavelaars, Gladman & Loredo on trans-Neptunian objects, and we made sure to add as much work as possible in revisions. There’s no excuse for not properly citing useful work!

Third, the referee didn’t understand how we could be certain of the distribution of signal-to-noise ratio $\rho$ without also worrying about the distribution of parameters like the black hole masses. The signal-to-noise ratio is inversely proportional to distance, and we expect sources to be uniformly distributed in volume. Putting these together (and ignoring corrections from cosmology) gives a distribution for signal-to-noise ratio of $p(\rho) \propto \rho^{-4}$ (Schulz 2011).  This is sufficiently well known within the gravitational-wave community that we forgot that those outside wouldn’t appreciate it without some discussion. Therefore, it was useful that the referee did point this out.

Fourth, the referee thought we had made an error in our approach. They provided an alternative derivation which

if useful, should not be used directly without some kind of attribution

Unfortunately, they were missing some terms in their expressions. When these were added in, their approach reproduced our own (I had a go at checking this myself). Given that we had annoyed the referee on so many other points, it was tricky trying to convince them of this. Most of the time spent responding to the referees was actually working on the referee response and not on the paper.

Finally, the referee was unhappy that we didn’t make all our data public so that they could check things themselves. I think it would be great, and it will happen, it was just too early at the time.

LIGO Document Control Center

Papers in the LIGO Document Control Center are assigned a number starting with P (for “paper”) and then several digits. The Discover Paper’s reference is P150914. I only realised why this was the case on the day of submission.

The überbank

The set of templates used in the searches is designed to be able to catch binary neutron stars, neutron star–black hole binaries and binary neutron stars. It covers component masses from 1 to 99 solar masses, with total masses less than 100 solar masses. The upper cut off is chosen for computational convenience, rather than physical reasons: we do look for higher mass systems in a similar way, but they are easier to confuse with glitches and so we have to be more careful tuning the search. Since bank of templates is so comprehensive, it is known as the überbank. Although it could find binary neutron stars or neutron star–black hole binaries, we only discuss binary black holes here.

The template bank doesn’t cover the full parameter space, in particular it assumes that spins are aligned for the two components. This shouldn’t significantly affect its efficiency at finding signals, but gives another reason (together with the coarse placement of templates) why we need to do proper parameter estimation to measure properties of the source.

Alphabet soup

In the calculation of rates, the probabilistic means for counting sources is known as the FGMC method after its authors (who include two Birmingham colleagues and my former supervisor). The means of calculating rates assuming that the population is divided into one class to match each observation is also named for the initial of its authors as the KKL approach. The combined FGMCKKL method for estimating merger rates goes by the name alphabet soup, as that is much easier to swallow.

Multi-band gravitational wave astronomy

The prospect of detecting a binary black hole with a space-based detector and then seeing the same binary merger with ground-based detectors is especially exciting. My officemate Alberto Sesana (who’s not in LIGO) has just written a paper on the promise of multi-band gravitational wave astronomy. Black hole binaries like GW150914 could be spotted by eLISA (if you assume one of the better sensitivities for a detector with three arms). Then a few years to weeks later they merge, and spend their last moments emitting in LIGO’s band. The evolution of some binary black holes is sketched in the plot below.

The evolution of binary black hole mergers (shown in blue). The eLISA and Advanced LIGO sensitivity curves are shown in purple and orange respectively. As the black holes inspiral, they emit gravitational waves at higher frequency, shifting from the eLISa band to the LIGO band (where they merge). The scale at the top gives the approximate time until merger. Fig. 1 of Sesana (2016).

Seeing the signal in two bands can help in several ways. First it can increase our confidence in detection, potentially picking out signals that we wouldn’t otherwise. Second, it gives us a way to verify the calibration of our instruments. Third, it lets us improve our parameter-estimation precision—eLISA would see thousands of cycles, which lets it pin down the masses to high accuracy, these results can be combined with LIGO’s measurements of the strong-field dynamics during merger to give a fantastic overall picture of the system. Finally, since eLISA can measure the signal for a considerable time, it can well localise the source, perhaps just to a square degree; since we’ll also be able to predict when the merger will happen, you can point telescopes at the right place ahead of time to look for any electromagnetic counterparts which may exist. Opening up the gravitational wave spectrum is awesome!

The LALInference sky map

One of my jobs as part of the Parameter Estimation group was to produce the sky maps from our parameter-estimation runs. This is a relatively simple job of just running our sky area code. I had done it many times while were collecting our results, so I knew that the final versions were perfectly consistent with everything else we had seen. While I was comfortable with running the code and checking the results, I was rather nervous uploading the results to our database to be shared with our observational partners. I somehow managed to upload three copies by accident. D’oh! Perhaps future historians will someday look back at the records for G184098/GW150914 and wonder what was this idiot Christopher Berry doing? Probably no-one would every notice, but I know the records are there…

The first observing run (O1) of Advanced LIGO was scheduled to start 9 am GMT (10 am BST), 14 September 2015. Both gravitational-wave detectors were running fine, but there were few a extra things the calibration team wanted to do and not all the automated analysis had been set up, so it was decided to postpone the start of the run until 18 September. No-one told the Universe. At 9:50 am, 14 September there was an event. To those of us in the Collaboration, it is known as The Event.

The Event’s signal as measured by LIGO Hanford and LIGO Livingston. The shown signal has been filtered to make it more presentable. The Hanford signal is inverted because of the relative orientations of the two interferometers. You can clearly see that both observatories see that same signal, and even without fancy analysis, that there are definitely some wibbles there! Part of Fig. 1 from the Discovery Paper.

Detection

The detectors were taking data and the coherent WaveBurst (cWB) detection pipeline was set up analysing this. It finds triggers in near real time, and so about 3 minutes after the gravitational wave reached Earth, cWB found it. I remember seeing the first few emails… and ignoring them—I was busy trying to finalise details for our default parameter-estimation runs for the start of O1. However, the emails kept on coming. And coming. Something exciting was happening. The detector scientists at the sites swung in to action and made sure that the instruments would run undisturbed so we could get lots of data about their behaviour; meanwhile, the remaining data analysis codes were set running with ruthless efficiency.

The cWB algorithm doesn’t search for a particular type of signal, instead it looks for the same thing in both detectors—it’s what we call a burst search. Burst searches could find supernova explosions, black hole mergers, or something unexpected (so long as the signal is short). Looking at the data, we saw that the frequency increased with time, there was the characteristic chirp of a binary black hole merger! This meant that the searches that specifically look for the coalescence of binaries (black hole or neutron stars) should find it too, if the signal was from a binary black hole. It also meant that we could analyse the data to measure the parameters.

A time–frequency plot that shows The Event’s signal power in the detectors. You can see the signal increase in frequency as time goes on: the characteristic chirp of a binary merger! The fact that you can spot the signal by eye shows how loud it is. Part of Fig. 1 from the Discovery Paper.

The signal was quite short, so it was quick for us to run parameter estimation on it—this makes a welcome change as runs on long, binary neutron-star signals can take months. We actually had the first runs done before all the detection pipelines had finished running. We kept the results secret: the detection people didn’t want to know the results before they looked at their own results (it reminded me of the episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads where they try to avoid hearing the results of the football until they can watch the match). The results from each of the detection pipelines came in [bonus note]. There were the other burst searches: LALInferenceBurst found strong evidence for a signal, and BayesWave classified it clearly as a signal, not noise or a glitch; then the binary searches: both GstLAL and PyCBC found the signal (the same signal) at high significance. The parameter-estimation results were beautiful—we had seen the merger of two black holes!

At first, we couldn’t quite believe that we had actually made the detection. The signal seemed too perfect. Famously, LIGO conducts blind injections: fake signals are secretly put into the data to check that we do things properly. This happened during the run of initial LIGO (an event known as the Big Dog), and many people still remembered the disappointment. We weren’t set up for injections at the time (that was part of getting ready for O1), and the heads of the Collaboration said that there were no plans for blind injections, but people wanted to be sure. Only three or four people in the Collaboration can perform a blind injection; however, it’s a little publicised fact that you can tell if there was an injection. The data from the instruments is recorded at many stages, so there’s a channel which records the injected signal. During a blind-injection run, we’re not allowed to look at this, but this wasn’t a blind-injection run, so this was checked and rechecked. There was nothing. People considered other ways of injecting the signal that wouldn’t be recorded (perhaps splitting the signal up and putting small bits in lots of different systems), but no-one actually understands all the control systems well enough to get this to work. There were basically two ways you could fake the signal. The first is hack into the servers at both sites and CalTech simultaneously and modify the data before it got distributed. You would need to replace all the back-ups and make sure you didn’t leave any traces of tampering. You would also need to understand the control system well enough that all the auxiliary channels (the signal as recorded at over 30 different stages throughout the detectors’ systems) had the right data. The second is to place a device inside the interferometers that would inject the signal. As long as you had a detailed understanding of the instruments, this would be simple: you’d just need to break into both interferometers without being noticed. Since the interferometers are two of the most sensitive machines ever made, this is like that scene from Mission:Impossible, except on the actually impossible difficulty setting. You would need to break into the vacuum tube (by installing an airlock in the concrete tubes without disturbing the seismometers), not disturb the instrument while working on it, and not scatter any of the (invisible) infra-red laser light. You’d need to do this at both sites, and then break in again to remove the devices so they’re not found now that O1 is finished. The devices would also need to be perfectly synchronised. I would love to see a movie where they try to fake the signal, but I am convinced, absolutely, that the easiest way to inject the signal is to collide two black holes a billion years ago. (Also a good plot for a film?)

There is no doubt. We have detected gravitational waves. (I cannot articulate how happy I was to hit the button to update that page! [bonus note])

I still remember the exact moment this hit me. I was giving a public talk on black holes. It was a talk similar to ones I have given many times before. I start with introducing general relativity and the curving of spacetime, then I talk about the idea of a black hole. Next I move on to evidence for astrophysical black holes, and I showed the video zooming into the centre of the Milky Way, ending with the stars orbiting around Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole in the centre of our galaxy (shown below). I said that the motion of the stars was our best evidence for the existence of black holes, then I realised that this was no longer the case. Now, we have a whole new insight into the properties of black holes.

Gravitational-wave astronomy

Having caught a gravitational wave, what do you do with it? It turns out that there’s rather a lot of science you can do. The last few months have been exhausting. I think we’ve done a good job as a Collaboration of assembling all the results we wanted to go with the detection—especially since lots of things were being done for the first time! I’m sure we’ll update our analysis with better techniques and find new ways of using the data, but for now I hope everyone can enjoy what we have discovered so far.

I will write up a more technical post on the results, here we’ll run through some of the highlights. For more details of anything, check out the data release.

The source

The results of our parameter-estimation runs tell us about the nature of the source. We have a binary with objects of masses $36^{+5}_{-4} M_\odot$ and $29^{+4}_{-4} M_\odot$, where $M_\odot$ indicates the mass of our Sun (about $2 \times 10^{30}$ kilograms). If you’re curious what’s going with these numbers and the pluses and minuses, check out this bonus note.

Estimated masses for the two black holes in the binary. $m_1^\mathrm{source}$ is the mass of the heavier black hole and $m_2^\mathrm{source}$ is the mass of the lighter black hole. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The different coloured curves show different models: they agree which made me incredibly happy! Fig. 1 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

We know that we’re dealing with compact objects (regular stars could never get close enough together to orbit fast enough to emit gravitational waves at the right frequency), and the only compact objects that can be as massive as these object are black holes. This means we’re discovered the first stellar-mass black hole binary! We’ve also never seen stellar-mass black holes (as opposed to the supermassive flavour that live in the centres of galaxies) this heavy, but don’t get too attached to that record.

Black holes have at most three properties. This makes them much simpler than a Starbucks Coffee (they also stay black regardless of how much milk you add). Black holes are described by their mass, their spin (how much they rotate), and their electric charge. We don’t expect black holes out in the Universe to have much electric charge because (i) its very hard to separate lots of positive and negative charge in the first place, and (ii) even if you succeed at (i), it’s difficult to keep positive and negative charge apart. This is kind of like separating small children and sticky things that are likely to stain. Since the electric charge can be ignored, we just need mass and spin. We’ve measured masses, can we measure spins?

Black hole spins are defined to be between 0 (no spin) and 1 (the maximum amount you can have). Our best estimates are that the bigger black hole has spin $0.3_{-0.3}^{+0.5}$, and the small one has spin $0.5_{-0.4}^{+0.5}$ (these numbers have been rounded). These aren’t great measurements. For the smaller black hole, its spin is almost equally probable to take any allowed value; this isn’t quite the case, but we haven’t learnt much about its size. For the bigger black hole, we do slightly better, and it seems that the spin is on the smaller side. This is interesting, as measurements of spins for black holes in X-ray binaries tend to be on the higher side: perhaps there are different types of black holes?

We can’t measure the spins precisely for a few reasons. The signal is short, so we don’t see lots of wibbling while the binaries are orbiting each other (the tell-tale sign of spin). Results for the orientation of the binary also suggest that we’re looking at it either face on or face off, which makes any wobbles in the orbit that are there less visible. However, there is one particular combination of the spins, which we call the effective spin, that we can measure. The effective spin controls how the black holes spiral together. It has a value of 1 if both black holes have max spin values, and are rotating the same way as the binary is orbiting. It has a value of −1 if the black holes have max spin values and are both rotating exactly the opposite way to the binary’s orbit. We find that the effective spin is small, $-0.06_{-0.18}^{+0.17}$. This could mean that both black holes have small spins, or that they have larger spins that aren’t aligned with the orbit (or each other). We have learnt something about the spins, it’s just not too easy to tease that apart to give values for each of the black holes.

As the two black holes orbit each other, they (obviously, given what we’ve seen) emit gravitational waves. These carry away energy and angular momentum, so the orbit shrinks and the black holes inspiral together. Eventually they merge and settle down into a single bigger black hole. All this happens while we’re watching (we have great seats). A simulation of this happening is below. You can see that the frequency of the gravitational waves is twice that of the orbit, and the video freezes around the merger so you can see two become one.

What are the properties of the final black hole? The mass of the remnant black holes is $62^{+4}_{-4} M_\odot$. It is the new record holder for the largest observed stellar-mass black hole!

If you do some quick sums, you’ll notice that the final black hole is lighter than the sum of the two initial black holes. This is because of that energy that was carried away by the gravitational waves. Over the entire evolution of the system, $3.0^{+0.5}_{-0.4} M_\odot c^2 \simeq 5.3_{-0.8}^{+0.9} \times 10^{47}~\mathrm{J}$ of energy was radiated away as gravitational waves (where $c$ is the speed of light as in Einstein’s famous equation). This is a colossal amount of energy. You’d need to eat over eight billion times the mass of the Sun in butter to get the equivalent amount of calories. (Do not attempt the wafer-thin mint afterwards). The majority of that energy is radiated within the final second. For a brief moment, this one black hole merger outshines the whole visible Universe if you compare its gravitational-wave luminosity, to everything else’s visible-light luminosity!

We’ve measured mass, what about spin? The final black hole’s spin in $0.67^{+0.05}_{-0.07}$, which is in the middling-to-high range. You’ll notice that we can deduce this to a much higher precisely than the spins of the two initial black holes. This is because it is largely fixed by the orbital angular momentum of the binary, and so its value is set by orbital dynamics and gravitational physics. I think its incredibly satisfying that we we can such a clean measurement of the spin.

We have measured both of the properties of the final black hole, and we have done this using spacetime itself. This is astounding!

Estimated mass $M_\mathrm{f}^\mathrm{source}$ and spin $a_\mathrm{f}^\mathrm{source}$ for the final black hole. The dotted lines mark the edge of our 90% probability intervals. The different coloured curves show different models: they agree which still makes me incredibly happy! Fig. 3 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

How big is the final black hole? My colleague Nathan Johnson-McDaniel has done some calculations and finds that the total distance around the equator of the black hole’s event horizon is about $1100~\mathrm{km}$ (about six times the length of the M25). Since the black hole is spinning, its event horizon is not a perfect sphere, but it bulges out around the equator. The circumference going over the black hole’s poles is about $1000~\mathrm{km}$ (about five and a half M25s, so maybe this would be the better route for your morning commute). The total area of the event horizon is about $37000~\mathrm{km}^2$. If you flattened this out, it would cover an area about the size of Montana. Neil Cornish (of Montana State University) said that he’s not sure which we know more accurately: the area of the event horizon or the area of Montana!

OK, we’ve covered the properties of the black holes, perhaps it’s time for a celebratory biscuit and a sit down? But we’re not finished yet, where is the source?

We infer that the source is at a luminosity distance of $410^{+160}_{-180}~\mathrm{Mpc}$, a megaparsec is a unit of length (regardless of what Han Solo thinks) equal to about 3 million light-years. The luminosity distance isn’t quite the same as the distance you would record using a tape measure because it takes into account the effects of the expansion of the Universe. But it’s pretty close. Using our 90% probability range, the merger would have happened sometime between 700 million years and 1.6 billion years ago. This coincides with the Proterozoic Eon on Earth, the time when the first oxygen-dependent animals appeared. Gasp!

With only the two LIGO detectors in operation, it is difficult to localise where on the sky source came from. To have a 90% chance of finding the source, you’d need to cover $600~\mathrm{deg^2}$ of the sky. For comparison, the full Moon is about $0.2~\mathrm{deg^2}$. This is a large area to cover with a telescope, and we don’t expect there to be anything to see for a black hole merger, but that hasn’t stopped our intrepid partners from trying. For a lovely visualisation of where we think the source could be, marvel at the Gravoscope.

Astrophysics

The detection of this black hole merger tells us:

• Black holes 30 times the mass of our Sun do form These must be the remains of really massive stars. Stars lose mass throughout their lifetime through stellar winds. How much they lose depends on what they are made from. Astronomers have a simple periodic table: hydrogen, helium and metals. (Everything that is not hydrogen or helium is a metal regardless of what it actually is). More metals means more mass loss, so to end up with our black holes, we expect that they must have started out as stars with less than half the fraction of metals found in our Sun. This may mean the parent stars were some of the first stars to be born in the Universe.
• Binary black holes exist There are two ways to make a black hole binary. You can start with two stars in a binary (stars love company, so most have at least one companion), and have them live their entire lives together, leaving behind the two black holes. Alternatively, you could have somewhere where there are lots of stars and black holes, like a globular cluster, and the two black holes could wander close enough together to form the binary. People have suggested that either (or both) could happen. You might be able to tell the two apart using spin measurements. The spins of the black holes are more likely to be aligned (with each other and the way that the binary orbits) if they came from stars formed in a binary. The spins would be randomly orientated if two black holes came together to form a binary by chance. We can’t tell the two apart now, but perhaps when we have more observations!
• Binary black holes merge Since we’ve seen a signal from two black holes inspiralling together and merging, we know that this happens. We can also estimate how often this happens, given how many signals we’ve seen in our observations. Somewhere in the observable Universe, a similar binary could be merging about every 15 minutes. For LIGO, this should mean that we’ll be seeing more. As the detectors’ sensitivity improves (especially at lower frequencies), we’ll be able to detect more and more systems [bonus note]. We’re still uncertain in our predictions of exactly how many we’ll see. We’ll understand things better after observing for longer: were we just lucky, or were we unlucky not to have seen more? Given these early results, we estimate that the end of the third observing run (O3), we could have over 30. It looks like I will be kept busy over the next few years…

Gravitational physics

Black holes are the parts of the Universe with the strongest possible gravity. They are the ideal place to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The gravitational waves from a black hole merger let us probe right down to the event horizon, using ripples in spacetime itself. This makes gravitational waves a perfect way of testing our understanding of gravity.

We have run some tests on the signal to see how well it matches our expectations. We find no reason to doubt that Einstein was right.

The first check is that if we try to reconstruct the signal, without putting in information about what gravitational waves from a binary merger look like, we find something that agrees wonderfully with our predictions. We can reverse engineer what the gravitational waves from a black hole merger look like from the data!

Recovered gravitational waveforms from our analysis of The Event. The dark band shows our estimate for the waveform without assuming a particular source (it is build from wavelets, which sound adorable to me). The light bands show results if we assume it is a binary black hole (BBH) as predicted by general relativity. They match really well! Fig. 6 from the Parameter Estimation Paper.

As a consistency test, we checked what would happen if you split the signal in two, and analysed each half independently with our parameter-estimation codes. If there’s something weird, we would expect to get different results. We cut the data into a high frequency piece and a low frequency piece at roughly where we think the merger starts. The lower frequency (mostly) inspiral part is more similar to the physics we’ve tested before, while the higher frequency (mostly) merger and ringdown is new and hence more uncertain. Looking at estimates for the mass and spin of the final black hole, we find that the two pieces are consistent as expected.

In general relativity, gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. (The speed of light is misnamed, it’s really a property of spacetime, rather than of light). If gravitons, the theoretical particle that carries the gravitational force, have a mass, then gravitational waves can’t travel at the speed of light, but would travel slightly slower. Because our signals match general relativity so well, we can put a limit on the maximum allowed mass. The mass of the graviton is less than $1.2 \times 10^{-22}~\mathrm{eV\,c^{-2}}$ (in units that the particle physicists like). This is tiny! It is about as many times lighter than an electron as an electron is lighter than a teaspoon of water (well, $4~\mathrm{g}$, which is just under a full teaspoon), or as many times lighter than the almost teaspoon of water is than three Earths.

Bounds on the Compton wavelength $\lambda_g$ of the graviton from The Event (GW150914). The Compton wavelength is a length defined by the mass of a particle: smaller masses mean large wavelengths. We place much better limits than existing tests from the Solar System or the double pulsar. There are some cosmological tests which are stronger still (but they make assumptions about dark matter). Fig. 8 from the Testing General Relativity Paper.

Overall things look good for general relativity, it has passed a tough new test. However, it will be extremely exciting to get more observations. Then we can combine all our results to get the best insights into gravity ever. Perhaps we’ll find a hint of something new, or perhaps we’ll discover that general relativity is perfect? We’ll have to wait and see.

Conclusion

100 years after Einstein predicted gravitational waves and Schwarzschild found the equations describing a black hole, LIGO has detected gravitational waves from two black holes orbiting each other. This is the culmination of over forty years of effort. The black holes inspiral together and merge to form a bigger black hole. This is the signal I would have wished for. From the signal we can infer the properties of the source (some better than others), which makes me exceedingly happy. We’re starting to learn about the properties of black holes, and to test Einstein’s theory. As we continue to look for gravitational waves (with Advanced Virgo hopefully joining next year), we’ll learn more and perhaps make other detections too. The era of gravitational-wave astronomy has begun!

After all that, I am in need of a good nap! (I was too excited to sleep last night, it was like a cross between Christmas Eve and the night before final exams). For more on the story from scientists inside the LIGO–Virgo Collaboration, check out posts by:

• Matt Pitkin (the tireless reviewer of our parameter-estimation work)
• Brynley Pearlstone (who’s just arrived at the LIGO Hanford site)
• Amber Stuver (who  blogged through LIGO’s initial runs too)
• Rebecca Douglas (a good person to ask about what build a detector out of)
• Daniel Williams (someone fresh to the Collaboration)
• Sean Leavey (a PhD student working on on interferometry)
• Andrew Williamson (who likes to look for gravitational waves that coincide with gamma-ray bursts)
• Shane Larson (another fan of space-based gravitational-wave detectors)
• Roy Williams (who helps to make all the wonderful open data releases for LIGO)
• Chris North (creator of the Gravoscope amongst other things)

There’s also this video from my the heads of my group in Birmingham on their reactions to the discovery (the credits at the end show how large an effort the detection is).

Discovery paper: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger
Date release:
LIGO Open Science Center

Bonus notes

Search pipelines

At the Large Hadron Collider, there are separate experiments that independently analyse data, and this is an excellent cross-check of any big discoveries (like the Higgs). We’re not in a position to do this for gravitational waves. However, the different search pipelines are mostly independent of each other. They use different criteria to rank potential candidates, and the burst and binary searches even look for different types of signals. Therefore, the different searches act as a check of each other. The teams can get competitive at times, so they do check each other’s results thoroughly.

The announcement

Updating Have we detected gravitational waves yet? was doubly exciting as I had to successfully connect to the University’s wi-fi. I managed this with about a minute to spare. Then I hovered with my finger on the button until David Reitze said “We. Have detected. Gravitational waves!” The exact moment is captured in the video below, I’m just off to the left.

The moment of the announcement of the first observation of gravitational waves at the University of Birmingham. Credit: Kat Grover

Parameters and uncertainty

We don’t get a single definite number from our analysis, we have some uncertainty too. Therefore, our results are usually written  as the median value (which means we think that the true value is equally probable to be above or below this number), plus the range needed to safely enclose 90% of the probability (so there’s a 10% chance the true value is outside this range. For the mass of the bigger black hole, the median estimate is $36 M_\odot$, we think there’s a 5% chance that the mass is below $32 M_\odot =(36 - 4) M_\odot$, and a 5% chance it’s above $41 M_\odot =(36 + 5) M_\odot$, so we write our result as $36^{+5}_{-4} M_\odot$.

Sensitivity and ranges

Gravitational-wave detectors measure the amplitude of the wave (the amount of stretch and squash). The measured amplitude is smaller for sources that are further away: if you double the luminosity distance of a source, you halve its amplitude. Therefore, if you improve your detectors’ sensitivity by a factor of two, you can see things twice as far away. This means that we observe a volume of space (2 × 2 × 2) = 8 times as big. (This isn’t exactly the case because of pesky factors from the expansion of the Universe, but is approximately right). Even a small improvement in sensitivity can have a considerable impact on the number of signals detected!

General relativity at 100

General relativity, our best theory of gravitation, turns 100 this week!

Happy birthday general relativity! Einstein presented his field equations to the Prussian Academy of Science on 25 November 1915.

Gravity is the force which pulls us down towards the ground and keeps the Earth in orbit around the Sun. It is the most important force in astrophysics, causing gas clouds to collapse down to become stars; binding gas, stars and dark matter to become galaxies, and governing the overall evolution of the Universe.

Our understanding of gravity dates back to Isaac Newton. Newton realised that the same force that makes apples fall from trees also controls the motion of the planets. Realising that we could use physics to explain the everyday and the entire cosmos was a big leap! Newton’s theory was hugely successful, but he was never quite satisfied with it. In his theory gravity acted between distant objects (the Earth and an apple or the Earth and the Sun) instantaneously, without any explanation of what was linking them. The solution to this would come over 200 years later from Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s first big idea didn’t come from thinking about gravity, but thinking about electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is the force that is responsible for fridge magnets sticking, atoms binding to form molecules and the inner workings of whatever device you are currently reading this on. According to the rules of electromagnetism, ripples in electromagnetic fields (better known as light) always travel at a particular speed. This tweaked Einstein’s curiosity, as the rules didn’t say what this speed was relative to: you should measure the same speed if standing still, travelling at 100 miles per hour in a train or at a million miles per hour in a spacecraft. Speed is the distance travelled divided by the time taken, so Einstein realised that if the speed is always the same, then distances and times must appear different depending upon how you are moving! Moving clocks tick slower; at everyday speeds this effect is tiny, but we have confirmed that this is indeed the case. These ideas about space and time became known as Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Special relativity has a couple of important consequences, one is the infamous equation, the other is that the speed of light becomes a universal speed limit.

Special relativity says that no information can travel faster than the speed of light; this is a problem for Newton’s theory of gravitation, where the effects of gravity are transmitted instantaneously. Einstein knew that he would have to extend his theory to include gravity and freely falling objects, and he spend almost 11 years pondering on the problem. The result was general relativity.

In special relativity, space and time become linked, merging into one another depending upon how you are moving relative to what you are measuring. General relativity takes this further and has space–time distorted by the energy and matter. This idea can be a little tricky to explain.

In Newtonian mechanics, things (apples, light, billiard balls, etc.) like to travel in straight lines. They keep going at a constant speed in the same direction unless there is a force acting on them. Gravity is a force which pulls things away from their straight line, pulling the Earth into its circular orbit around the Sun, and accelerating an apple towards the ground. In general relativity, we take a different view. Things still travel in a straight line, but the effect of gravity is to bend space–time! A straight line in a curved space is a curve. If we don’t know about the curvature, it looks like the object is pulled off its straight line and there must be a force doing this, which we call gravity. Alternatively, we can say that gravity curves the space–time, and that the object follows its straight line in this. In general relativity, space–time tells matter how to move; matter tells space–time how to curve.

The shortest way to travel from London Heathrow airport to JFK International airport. On a long-distance flight, you may have noticed that it appears that you are moving along a curved line, but that is because the shortest distance across the Earth’s curved surface is a curve. We call this a geodesic, and the same idea applies to curved space–time in general relativity. Credit: Mr Reid.

General relativity solves Newton’s original worries. Objects are connected by space–time. This is not the rigid background of Newtonian physics, but a dynamic object, that is shaped by its contents. Space–time is curved by mass, and when the mass moves or reshapes itself, it takes time for the curvature everywhere else to readjust. When you drop a pebble into a pond, you disturb the surface, but it takes a while for the water further away to know about the splash; there’s a ripple that travels outwards, carrying the information about the disturbance. A similar thing happens for changes in gravity, there are ripples in space–time. Ripples in electromagnetic fields are electromagnetic waves, and these ripples in the gravitational fields are gravitational waves: both travel at the speed of light, in agreement with special relativity.

General relativity is not only a beautiful theory, it has so far passed every experimental test. Right from the start Einstein looked for checks of his theory. One of the calculations he did while formulating his theory was how the orbit of Mercury would change. Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun and so experiences the strongest gravity. Its orbit isn’t a perfect circle, but an ellipse so that Mercury is sometimes a little closer to the Sun, and is sometimes a little further. In Newtonian gravity, each orbit should trace out exactly the same path, but in general relativity there is some extra rotation. Each orbit is slightly shifted with respect to the last, so if you traced out many orbits, you’d end up with a Spirograph-like pattern. This is known as precession of the orbit, and is a consequence of there being slightly greater curvature closer to the Sun. This evolution of Mercury’s orbit had already been measured. Some thought it indicated there was a new planet inside Mercury’s orbit (which was called Vulcan but isn’t Spock’s home) that was giving it a little pull. However, Einstein calculated the general relativity predicted exactly the right amount of extra rotation!

The next test came in 1919. General relativity predicts that the path of light is bent by massive objects. This is gravitational lensing. At the time, the only object that could cause measurable bending was the Sun. If we could measure a change in the position of background stars when the Sun was in front of them, we could check if the amount of bending was as expected. There’s an obvious problem here: the Sun’s so bright that you can’t see stars around it. Arthur Eddington had the idea of making the measurement during an eclipse. He mounted an expedition and confirmed the prediction. This was big news and made Einstein a superstar.

Now, 100 years after Einstein proposed his theory, we are poised to make the most precise tests. There is currently a global effort to directly detect gravitational waves. Measuring the gravitational waves will tell us if ripples in space–time behave as Einstein predicted. The waves will also tell us about the systems that created them, this will give us an up-close glimpse of black holes. Black holes are the regions of strongest gravity; they are where the curvature of space–time becomes so immense that all straight lines lead inwards. Checking that the black holes of Nature match what we expect from general relativity, will test the theory in the most extreme conditions possible.

The Advanced LIGO detectors are currently listening for gravitational-wave signals from merging neutron stars or black holes, and next year Advanced Virgo plans join the hunt too. We don’t (yet) know how often such signals occur, so we can’t say when the first detection will be made. Perhaps this will be soon and we will learn something more about gravitation…

Merging black holes create ripples in space time. These can be detected with a laser interferometer. Credit: Gravitational Wave Group.

12 Astronomy Highlights of Christmas

I regularly help out with Astronomy in the City here at the University. Our most recent event was a Christmas special, and we gave a talk on 12 festive highlights covering events past, present and future, somewhat biased towards our research interests. Here is our count-down again.

A Newton under an apple tree

Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest physicist of all time, was born on 25 December 1642. I expect he may have got many joint birthday–Christmas presents. Newton is most famous for his theory of gravity, which he allegedly thought up after being hit on the head by a falling apple. Realising that the same force could be responsible for mundane things like falling as for keeping celestial bodies such as the planets in their orbits, was a big leap (or fall?). Netwon’s theory of gravity is highly successful, it’s accurate enough to get us to the Moon (more on that later) and only breaks down for particularly strong gravitational fields. That’s when you need Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Newton may have been a Pink Floyd fan, we may never know.

Newton also did much work on optics. He nearly blinded himself while prodding his eye to see how that would affect his sight. Even smart people do stupid things. Newton designed the first practical reflecting telescope. Modern astronomical telescopes are reflecting (using a mirror to focus light) rather than refracting (using a lens). The first telescope installed at the University’s Observatory was a Newtonian reflector.

Newton’s reflecting telescope, one of the treasures of the Royal Society. Newton was President of the Royal Society, as well as Master of the Royal Mint, Member of Parliament for University of Cambridge and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. It’s surprising he had any time for alchemy.

2 clear nights

At Astronomy in the City, we have talks on the night sky and topics in astrophysics, a question and answer session, plus some fun activities after to accompany tea and biscuits. There’s also the chance to visit the Observatory and (if it’s clear) use the Astronomical Society’s telescopes. Since the British weather is so cooperative, we only had two clear observing nights from this year’s events (prior to the December one, which was clear).

If you had made one of the clear nights, you could have viewed the nebulae M78 and M42, or Neptune and its moons. Neptune, being one of the ice giants, is a good wintry subject for a Christmas talk. It’s pretty chilly, with the top of its atmosphere being −218 °C. You don’t have a white Christmas on Neptune though. It’s blue colouring is due to methane, which with ammonia (and good old water) makes up what astronomers call ices (I guess you should be suspicious of cocktails made by astronomers).

One of the most exciting views of the year was supernova 2014J, back in January. This was first spotted by students at University College London (it was cloudy here at the time). It’s located in nearby galaxy M82, and we got some pretty good views of it. You can see it out-shine its entire host galaxy. Supernovae are pretty bright!

Supernova 2014J in M82. Image from the University of Birmingham Observatory.

3 components of a cluster

Galaxy clusters are big. They are the largest gravitationally-bound objects in the Universe. They are one of astrophysical objects that we’re particularly interested in here at Birmingham, so they’ll pop up a few times in this post.

Galaxy clusters have three main components. Like trifles. Obviously there are the galaxies, which we can see because they are composed of stars. Around the galaxies there is lots of hot gas. This is tens of millions of degrees and we can spot it because it emits X-rays. Don’t put this in your trifles at home. The final component is dark matter, the mysterious custard of our trifle. We cannot directly see the dark matter (that’s why it’s dark), but we know its there because of the effects of its gravity. We can map out its location using gravitational lensing: the bending of light by gravity, one of the predictions of general relativity.

Different views of cluster Abell 209. The bottom right is a familiar optical image. Above that is a smoothed map of infra-red luminosity (from old stars). The top left is a map of the total mass (mostly due to dark matter) as measured with gravitational lensing. The bottom left is a X-ray map of the hot intergalactic gas. Credit: Subaru/UKIRT/Chandra/University of Birmingham/Nordic Optical Telescope/University of Hawaii.

Measuring the dark matter is tricky, but some of the work done in Birmingham this year shows that is closely follows the infra-red emission. You can use the distribution of jelly in your trifle to estimate how much custard there should be. In the picture above of galaxy cluster Abell 209, you can see how similar the top two images are. Using the infra-red could be a handy way of estimating the amount of dark matter when you don’t have access to gravitational-lensing measurements.

4 km long laser arms

A highlight for next year: the first observing run of Advanced LIGO. Advanced LIGO is trying to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are tiny stretches and squeezes in spacetime, to detect them you need to very carefully measure the distance between two points. This is where the 4 km arms come in: the Advanced LIGO detectors bounce lasers up and down their arms to measure the distance between the mirrors at the ends. The arms need to be as long as possible to make measuring the change in length as easy as possible. A typical change in length may be one part in 1021 (that is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or one sextillion… ). For comparison, that’s the same as measuring the distance between the Earth and the Sun to the diameter of a hydrogen atom or the distance from here to Alpha Centuri to the width of a human hair.

Aerial shot of LIGO Livingston, Louisiana. Two arms come out from the central building, one goes up the middle of the picture, the other goes off to the left out of shot. I think this gives a fair indication of the scale of the detectors. In addition to the instruments in Livingston, there is another LIGO in Hanford, Washington.

Making such an precise instrument is tricky. At least twice as tricky as remembering the names of all seven of the dwarfs. We shouldn’t be Bashful about saying how difficult it is. We need to keep the mirrors extremely still, any little wibbles from earth tremors, nearby traffic, or passing clouds need to be filtered out. Lots of clever Docs have been working on cunning means of keeping the mirrors still and then precisely measuring their position with the lasers. Some of that work was done here in Birmingham, in particular some of the mirror suspension systems. We’ll be rather Grumpy if those don’t work. However, things seem to be going rather well. Getting the mirrors working isn’t as simple as pushing a big red button, so it takes a while. On the 3 December, which is when we gave this talk at Astronomy in the City, the second detector achieved its first full lock: lock is when the mirrors are correctly held stably in position. This made me Happy. Also rather Sleepy, as it was a late night.

Team inspecting the optical systems at LIGO Livingston back at the start of 2014. (It’s a bit harder to detect the systems now, since they’re in a vacuum). You need to wear masks in case you are Sneezy, you’d feel rather Dopey if you ruined the mirrors by sneezing all over them. Credit: Michael Fyffe

5 (or more) planet-forming rings!

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disc. The gaps in the disc indicate the formation of planets that sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA, C. Brogan & B. Saxton

One of the most exciting discoveries of 2014 is this remarkable image of a planet-forming disc.There may be more than five planets, but it seemed like a shame not to fit this into our countdown here. The image is of the star HL Tauri. This is a young star, only a million years old (our Sun is about 4.6 billion years old). Remarkably, even at this young age, there seems to be indication of the formation of planets. The gaps are where planets have sucked up the dust, gas and loose change of the disc. This is the first time we’ve seen planet-formation in such detail, and matches predictions extremely well.

6 Frontier Fields

The six Frontier Fields are a group of six galaxy clusters that are being studied in unprecedented detail. They are being observing with three of NASA’s great observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope (which observes in the infra-red) and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. These should allow us to measure all three components of the clusters (even the custard of the trifle). The clusters are all selected because the show strong gravitational lensing. This should give us excellent measurements of the mass of the clusters, and hence the distribution of dark matter.

Gravitational lensing by a galaxy cluster. The mass of the galaxy cluster bends spacetime. Light travelling through this curved spacetime is bent, just like passing through a lens. The amount of bending depends upon the mass, so we can weigh galaxy clusters by measuring the lensing. Credit: NASA, ESA & L. Calcada.

7 months until New Horizons reaches Pluto

New Horizons is a planetary mission to Pluto (and beyond). Launched in January 2006, New Horizons has been travelling through the Solar System ever since. In 2007 it made a fly-by of Jupiter, taking some amazing pictures. It is now just 7 months from reaching Pluto. This will give us the first ever detailed look at Pluto and its moons. You’ll need to wrap up warm if you wanted to head there yourself. I hope that New Horizons packed some mittens. New Horizons will tell us about Pluto and other icy (yes, that’s astronomers’ definition of ice again) items in the Kuiper belt.

Full trajectory of New Horizons, it’s come a long way! Credit: John Hopkins

New Horizons has been in hibernation for much of its flight. Who doesn’t like a good nap? New Horizons was woken up ahead of arriving at Pluto on 7 December. It got a special wake-up call from Russell Watson. I don’t think it has access to coffee though.

800 TB of data

This year’s Interstellar featured the most detailed simulations of the appearance of black holes. This involved a truly astounding amount of data. I’ve previously written about some of the science in Interstellar. I think it’s done a good at getting people interested in the topic of gravity. It’s scientific accuracy can be traced to the involvement of Kip Thorne, who has written a book on the film’s science (which might be a good Christmas present). Kip has done many things during his career, including being one of the pioneers of LIGO. After an exciting 2014 with the release of Interstellar, I’m sure he’s looking forward to 2015 and the first observations of Advanced LIGO too.

Light-bending around the black hole Gargantua in Interstellar. This shows the accretion disc about the black hole, the disc seen above and below the hole are actually the top and bottom of the disc behind the black hole. This extreme light-bending is a consequence of the extremely curved spacetime close to the black hole. This light-bending is exactly the same as the gravitational-lensing done by galaxy clusters, except much stronger!

999 Kepler exoplanets

When we gave the talk on 3 December, Kepler had discovered 998 exoplanets. It’s now 999, which I think means we get all the bonus points! Kepler is still doing good science, despite some technical difficulties. Kepler has been hugely successful. We now know that planets (as well as forming in quite short times) are common, that they are pretty much everywhere. Possibly even down the back of the sofa. Some of the work done here in Birmingham has been to estimate just how common planets are. On average, stars similar to the Sun have around 4 planets with periods shorter than 3 years (and radii bigger than 20% of Earth’s). That’s quite a few planets! But, if Christopher Nolan wants to direct another reasonably accurate sci-fi, we need to know how many of those are Earth-like. We don’t have enough data to work out details of atmospheres, but just looking at how many planets have a radius and period about the same as Earth’s, it seems that about 4% of these stars have Earth-like planets.

Kepler-186, the first system discovered with an Earth-sized planet on the edge of the habitable zone (where liquid water could exist), was discovered in 2014.

10 lunar orbits

A Christmas highlight from 1968. On December 21, Apollo 8 launched. This was the first manned mission to ever leave Earth orbit. On Christmas Eve, it entered into orbit about the Moon. It’s three-man crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders were the first people ever to orbit a body other than the Earth. To date, only 24 men have ever done so. Of course, even fewer have actually walked on the Moon, perhaps we should go back? Jim Lovell was also on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission (you may have seen the film), making him the only person to orbit the Moon on two separate occasions and never land. Apollo 8 was successful, it orbited the Moon 10 times, giving us the first ever peek at the dark side of the moon (not the Pink Floyd album). This was also the first viewing of an Earthrise. Their Christmas Eve broadcast was most watched TV broadcast at the time. After orbiting, Apollo 8 returned home, splashing down December 27. I’m guessing they had a good New Year’s celebration!

Earthrise taken by the crew of Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968. Credit: NASA

11 (10 ¾) years for Rosetta

This year we landed on a comet. Rosetta has received fair amount of press. It is an amazing feat, Rosetta was in space for almost 11 years before making its comet rendezvous. It’ll be doing lots of science form orbit, such as determining that comets are unlikely to have delivered water to Earth. Most of the excitement surrounded the landing of Philae on the surface of the comet. That didn’t go quite as planned, but still taught us quite a bit. Rosetta has been heralded as one of the science breakthroughs of 2014. We’ll have to see what 2015 brings.

Colour image (yes, it’s grey) of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Rosetta. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

12 (or more) galaxies in a cluster

To finish up, back to galaxy clusters. Galaxy clusters grow by merging. We throw two trifles together to get a bigger one. As you might imagine, if you throw two triffles together, you don’t get a nice, neat trifle. The layers do tend to mix. For galaxy clusters, you can get layers separating out: dark matter passes freely through everything, so it isn’t affected by a collision. The gas, however, does feel the shock and ends up a turbulent mess. It has been suggested that turbulence caused by mergers could trigger star formation: you squeeze the gas and some of it collapses down into stars. However, recent observational work at Birmingham can’t find any evidence for this. We’ll have to see if this riddle gets unravelled in 2015.

The merging bullet cluster. A composite of an optical image (showing galaxies), an X-ray image (in red, showing the hot gas), and a map of the total mass (in blue, from gravitational lensing). Dark matter, making up most of the mass, has past straight through the collision without interacting. Credit: NASA/CXC/CfA/STScI/ESO/U.Arizona/M. Markevitch/D. Clowe

Interstellar—science and fiction

Planet and accretion disc orbiting Gargantua, the black hole in Interstellar. Visual effects produced by the cunning people of Double Negative.

Interstellar is the latest film from Christopher Nolan. After completing his work with the Dark Knight, it seems he has moved onto even darker material: black holes. I have been looking forward to the film for some time, but not because of Nolan’s involvement (even though I have enjoyed his previous work). The film is based upon the ideas of Kip Thorne, an eminent theoretical physicist. Kip literally wrote the book on general relativity. He was a pioneer of gravitational-wave science, and earlier versions of the script included the detection of gravitational waves (I’m sad that this has been removed). Here, I’ll briefly discuss the film, before going on to look at it’s science (there are some minor spoilers).

My copies of Gravitation by Misner, Thorne & Wheeler, and General Theory of Relativity by Dirac. The difference in length might tell you something about the authors. MTW (as Gravitation is often called) is a useful textbook. It is so heavy that you can actually use it for experiments testing gravity.

Last week, my research group organised a meeting for our LIGO collaborators. We all got together in Birmingham to work on how we analyse gravitational-wave data. It was actually rather productive. We decided to celebrate the end of our meeting with a trip to see Interstellar. The consensus was that it was good. We were rather pleased by the amount of science in the film, undoubtedly due to Kip’s involvement (even if he doesn’t approve of everything)—we also liked how there was a robot called KIPP.

My favourite characters were, by far, the robots. They had more personality than any of the other characters: I was more concerned for their survival than for anyone else. (No-one was wearing red, but I thought it was quite obvious who was expendable). Michael Caine’s character is apparently based upon Kip—they do have similar beards.

The film is beautiful. Its visualisations have been much hyped (we’ll discuss these later). It shows an obvious debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is both for better and worse: mimicking the wonderful cinematography and the slow pacing. However, the conclusion lacks the mystery of 2001 or even the intelligence of Nolan’s earlier work Memento or Inception (both of which I would highly recommend).

I don’t want to say too much about the plot. I (unsurprisingly) approve of its pro-science perspective. There were some plot points that irked me. In particular, why on Earth (or off Earth) would a mission with the aim of continuing the human race only take one woman? Had no-one heard about putting all your eggs in one basket? Also, using Morse code to transmit complicated scientific data seems like a bad idea™. What if there were a typo? However, I did enjoy the action sequences and the few tense moments.

Why so scientific?

I expect that if you were after a proper film critique you’d be reading something else, so let’s discuss science. There is a lot of science in Interstellar, and I can’t go through it all, so I want to highlight a couple of pieces that I think are really cool.

Time is relative

An interesting story device is the idea that time is relative, and its passing depends upon where you are in gravitational field. This is entirely correct (and although time might flow at different apparent speeds, it never goes backwards). Imagine that you are tied to a length of extremely long and strong string, and lowered towards a black hole. (I wonder if that would make a good movie?) Let’s start off by considering a non-rotating black hole. The passage of time for you, relative to your friend with the other end of the string infinitely far away from the black hole, depends how close to the black hole you are. Times are related by

$\displaystyle \Delta T_\mathrm{infinity} = \left(1 - \frac{2 G M}{c^2 r}\right)^{-1/2} \Delta T_\mathrm{string}$,

where $M$ is the black hole’s mass, $G$ is Newton’s gravitational constant, $c$ is the speed of light, and $r$ measures how far you are from (the centre of) the black hole (more on this in a moment). If you were to flash a light every $\Delta T_\mathrm{string}$, your friend at infinity would see them separated by time $\Delta T_\mathrm{infinity}$; it would be as if you were doing things in slow motion.

You might recognise $2GM/c^2$ as the location of the event horizon: the point of no return from a black hole. At the event horizon, we would be dividing by zero in the equation above, time would appear to run infinitely slowly for you. This is rather curious, time continues to run fine for you, but watching from infinity you would fade to a complete stand-still.

Actually, you would also fade from view too. The frequency of light gets shifted by gravity. Light is a wave, it’s frequency is set by how fast it completes one cycle. The period of the wave gets stretched using the formula above. As you get closer to a black hole, light from you becomes more red (then infra-red, radio, etc.), and also becomes dimmer (as less energy arrives at your friend at infinity in a given time). You appear to fade to to black as you approach the event horizon. This stretching of light to lower frequencies is known as red-shifting (as red light has the lowest frequencies of the visible spectrum). I didn’t see much sign of it in Interstellar (we’ll see the effect it should have had below), although it has appeared in an episode of Stargate: SG-1 as a plot device.

The event horizon is also the point where the force on the string would become infinite. Your friend at infinity would only be able to pull you back up if they ate an infinite amount of spinach, and sadly there is not enough balsamic dressing to go around.

A technicality that is often brushed over is what the distance $r$ actually measures. I said it tells you how how you are from the centre of the black hole, but it’s not as simple as dropping a tape measure in the see where the singularity is. In fact, we measure the distance differently. We instead measure the distance around the circumference of a circle, and divide this by $2\pi$ to calculate $r$. The further away we are, the bigger the circle, and so the larger $r$. If space were flat, this distance would be exactly the same as the distance to the middle, but when considering a black hole, we do not have flat space!

This time stretching due to gravity is a consequence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. There is another similar effect in his theory of special relativity. If something travels past you with a speed $v$, then time is slowed according to

$\displaystyle \Delta T_\mathrm{you} = \left(1 - \frac{v^2}{c^2}\right)^{-1/2} \Delta T_\mathrm{whizzing\:thing}$.

If it were to travel closer and closer to the speed of light, the passage of time for it would slow to closer and closer to a standstill. This is just like crossing the event horizon.

Imagine that while you were sitting on the end of your string, a planet orbiting the black hole whizzed by. Someone of the planet flashes a torch every second (as they measure time), and when you see this, you flash your torch to your friend at infinity. The passage of time on the planet appears slowed to you because of the planet’s speed (using the special relativity formula above), and the passage of time for you appears slowed because of gravity to your friend at infinity. We can combine the two effects to work out the total difference in the apparent passage of time on the planet and at infinity. We need to know how fast the planet moves, but it’s not too difficult for a circular orbit, and after some algebra

$\displaystyle \Delta T_\mathrm{infinity} = \left(1 - \frac{3 G M}{c^2 r}\right)^{-1/2} \Delta T_\mathrm{planet}$.

In Interstellar, there is a planet where each hour corresponds the seven years at a distance. That is a difference of about 61000. We can get this with our formula if $r \approx 3GM/c^2$. Sadly, you can’t have a stable orbit inside $r = 6GM/c^2$, so there wouldn’t be a planet there. However, the film does say that the black hole is spinning. This does change things (you can orbit closer in), so it should work out. I’ve not done the calculations, but I might give it a go in the future.

Black holes

Interstellar does an excellent job of representing a black hole. Black holes are difficult to visualise, but the film correctly depicts them as three-dimensional: they are not a two-dimensional hole.

As nothing escapes from a black hole (and they don’t have a surface), they are dark, a shadow on the sky. However, we can see their effects. The image at the top shows a disc about the black hole. Material falling into a black hole often has some angular momentum: it doesn’t fall straight in, but goes off to the side and swirls about, exactly as water whirls around the plug-hole before falling in. This material swirling around is known as an accretion disc. In the disc, things closer to the black hole are orbiting faster (just as planets closer to the Sun orbit faster than those further away). Hence different parts of the disc rub against each other. This slows the inner layers (making them lose angular momentum so that they move inwards), and also heats the disc. Try rubbing your hands together for a few seconds, they soon warm up. In an accretion disc about a black hole, things can become so hot (millions of degrees) that they emits X-rays. You wouldn’t want to get close because of this radiation! Looking for these X-rays is one way of spotting black holes.

The video below shows a simulation from NASA of an accretion disc about a black hole. It’s not quite as fancy as the Interstellar one, but it’s pretty cool. You can see the X-rays being red-shifted and blue-shifted (the opposite of red-shifted, when radiation gets squashed to higher frequencies) as a consequence of their orbital motion (the Doppler effect), but I’m not sure if it shows gravitational red-shifting.

Black holes bend spacetime, so light gets bent as it travels close to them. The video above shows this. You can see the light ring towards the centre, from light that has wrapped around the black hole. You can also see this in Interstellar. I especially like how the ring is offset to one side. This is exactly what you should expect for a rotating black hole: you can get closer in when you’re moving with the rotation of the black hole, getting swept around like a plastic duck around a whirlpool. You can also see how the disc appears bent as light from the back of the disc (which has to travel around the black hole) gets curved.

Light-bending around a black hole. This is figure 15 from James, von Tunzelmann, Franklin & Thorne (2015). The top image shows an accretion disc as seen in Interstellar, but without the lens flare. The middle image also includes (Doppler and gravitational) red-shifting that changes the colour of the light. To make the colour changes clear, the brightness has been artificially kept constant. The bottom image also includes the changes in brightness that would come with red-shifting. The left side of the disc is moving towards us, so it is brighter and blue-shifted, the right side is moving away so it is red-shifted. You can see (or rather can’t) how red-shifting causes things to fade from view. This is what the black hole and accretion disc would actually look like, but it was thought too confusing for the actual film.

It’s not only light from the disc that gets distorted, but light from stars (and galaxies) behind the black hole. This is known as gravitational lensing. This is one way of spotting black holes without accretion discs: you watch a field of stars and if a black hole passes in front of one, it’s gravitational lensing will magnify the star. Spotting that change tells you something has passed between you and the star, working our its mass and size can tell you if it’s a black hole.

Looking at the shadow of a black hole (the region from which there is no light, which is surrounded by the innermost light ring) can tell you about the structure of spacetime close to the black hole. This could give you an idea of its mass and spin, or maybe even test if it matches the predictions of general relativity. We are hoping to do this for the massive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy and the massive black hole of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87). This will be done using the Event Horizon Telescope, an exciting project to use several telescopes together to make extremely accurate images.

False-colour image of what the Event Horizon Telescope could see when look at Sagittarius A* (Dexter et al. 2010). Red-shifting makes some part of the the disc appear brighter and other parts dimmer.

Interstellar is science fiction, it contains many elements of fantasy. However, it does much better than most on getting the details of the physics correct. I hope that it will inspire many to investigate the fact behind the fiction (there’s now a paper out in Classical & Quantum Gravity about the visualisation of the black hole, it comes with some interesting videos). If you’ve not seen the film yet, it’s worth a watch. I wonder if they could put the gravitational waves back in for an extended DVD version?

Score out of 5 solar masses: enough for a neutron star, possibly not enough for a black hole.

Update: The Event Horizon Telescope Team did it! They have an image of M87’s black hole. It compares nicely to predictions. I’m impressed (definitely cake-worthy). Science has taken another bite out of science fiction.

The shadow of a black hole reconstructed from the radio observations of the Event Horizon Telescope. The black hole lies at the center of M87, and is about 6.5 billion solar masses. Credit: Event Horizon Team