What GW170729’s exceptional mass and spin tells us about its family tree

One of the great discoveries that came with our first observation of gravitational waves was that black holes can merge—two black holes in a binary can come together and form a bigger black hole. This had long been predicted, but never before witnessed. If black holes can merge once, can they go on to merge again? In this paper, we calculated how to identify a binary containing a second-generation black hole formed in a merger.

Merging black holes

Black holes have two important properties: their mass and their spin. When two black holes merge, the resulting black hole has:

1. A mass which is almost as big as the sum of the masses of its two parents. It is a little less (about 5%) as some of the energy is radiated away as gravitational waves.
2. A spin which is around 0.7. This is set by the angular momentum of the two black holes as they plunge in together. For equal-mass black holes, the orbit of the two black holes will give about enough angular momentum for the final black hole to be about 0.7. The spins of the two parent black holes will cause a bit a variation around this, depending upon the orientations of their spins. For more unequal mass binaries, the spin of the larger parent black hole becomes more important.

To look for second-generation (or higher) black holes formed in mergers, we need to look for more massive black holes with spins of about 0.7 [bonus note].

Combining black holes. The result of a merger is a larger black hole with significant spin. From Dawn Finney.

The difficult bit here is that we don’t know the distribution of masses and spins of the initial first-generation black holes. What is they naturally form with spins of 0.7? How can you tell if a black hole is unexpectedly large if you don’t know what sizes to expect? With the discovery of the 10 binary black holes found in our first and second observing runs, we are able to start making inferences about the properties of black holes—using these measurements of the population, we can estimate how probable it is that a binary contains a second generation black hole versus containing two first generation black hole.

GW170729

Amongst the black holes observed in O1 and O2, the source of GW170729 stands out. It is both the most massive, and one of only two systems (the other being GW151226) showing strong evidence for spin. This got me wondering if it could be a second-generation system? The high mass would be explained as we have a second-generation black hole, and the spin is larger than usual as a spin 0.7 sticks out.

Chase Kimball worked out the relative probability of getting a system with a given chirp mass and effective inspiral spin for a binary with a second-generation black hole verses a binary with only first-generation black holes. We worked in terms of chirp mass and effective inspiral spin, as these are the properties we measure well from a gravitational-wave signal.

Relative likelihood of a binary black hole being second-generation versus first-generation for different values of the chirp mass and the magnitude of the effective inspiral spin. The white contour gives the 90% credible area for GW170729. Figure 1 of Kimball et al. (2019).

The plot above shows the relative probabilities. Yellow indicate chirp mass and effective inspiral spins which are more likely with second-generation systems, while dark purple indicates values more likely with first-generation systems.. The first thing I realised was my idea about the spin was off. We expect binaries with second-generation black holes to be formed dynamically. Following the first merger, the black hole wander around until it gets close enough to form a new binary with a new black hole. For dynamically formed binaries the spins should be randomly distributed. This means that there’s only a small probability of having a spin aligned with the orbital angular momentum as measured for GW170729. Most of the time, you’d measure an effective inspiral spin of around zero.

Since we don’t know exactly the chirp mass and effective inspiral spin for GW170729, we have to average over our uncertainty. That gives the ratio of the probability of observing GW170729 given a second-generation source, verses given a first-generation source. Using different inferred black hole populations (for example, ones inferred including and excluding GW170729), we find ratios of between 0.2 (meaning the first-generation origin is more likely) and 16 (meaning second generation is more likely). The results change significantly as the result is sensitive to the maximum mass of a black hole. If we include GW170729 in our population inference for first-generation systems, the maximum mass goes up, and it’s easier to explain the system as first-generation (as you’d expect).

Before you place your bets, there is one more piece to the calculation. We have calculated the relative probabilities of the observed properties assuming either first-generation black holes or a second-generation black hole, but we have not folded in the relative rates of mergers [bonus note]. We expect first-generation only binaries to be more common than ones containing second generation black holes. In simulations of globular clusters, at most about 20% of merging binaries are with second-generation black holes. For binaries not in an environment like a globular cluster (where there are lots of nearby black holes to grab), we expect the fraction of second-generation black holes in binaries to be basically zero. Therefore, on balance we have at best a weak preference for a second-generation black hole and most probably just two first-generation black holes in GW170729’s source, despite its large mass.

Verdict

What we have learnt from this calculation is that it seems that all of the first 10 binary black holes contain only first-generation black holes. It is safe to infer the properties of first-generation black holes from these observations. Detecting second-generation black holes requires knowledge of this distribution, and crucially if there is a maximum mass. As we get more detection, we’ll be able to pin this down. There is still a lot to learn about the full black hole family.

If you’d like to understand our calculation, the paper is extremely short. It is therefore an excellent paper to bring to journal club if you are a PhD student who forgot you were presenting this week…

arXiv: 1903.07813 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Research Notes of the AAS; 4(1):2; 2020 [bonus note]
Gizmodo story: The gravitational wave detectors are turning back on and we’re psyched
Theme music: Nice to see you!

Bonus notes

Useful papers

Back in 2017 two papers hit the arXiv [bonus bonus note] at pretty much the same time addressing the expected properties of second-generation black holes: Fishbach, Holz & Farr (2017), and Gerosa & Berti (2017). Both are nice reads.

I was asked how we could tell if the black holes we were seeing were themselves the results of mergers back in 2016 when I was giving a talk to the Carolian Astronomical Society. It was a good question. I explained about the masses and spins, but I didn’t think about how to actually do the analysis to infer if we had a merger. I now make a note to remember any questions I’m asked, as they can be good inspiration for projects!

Bayes factor and odds ratio

The quantity we work out in the paper is the Bayes factor for a second-generation system verses a first-generation one

$\displaystyle \frac{P(\mathrm{GW170729}|\mathrm{Gen\ 2})}{P(\mathrm{GW170729}|\mathrm{Gen\ 1})}$.

What we want is the odds ratio

$\displaystyle \frac{P(\mathrm{Gen\ 2}|\mathrm{GW170729})}{P(\mathrm{Gen\ 1}|\mathrm{GW170729})}$,

which gives the betting odds for the two scenarios. The convert the Bayes factor into an odds ratio we need the prior odds

$\displaystyle \frac{P(\mathrm{Gen\ 2})}{P(\mathrm{Gen\ 1})}$.

We’re currently working on a better way to fold these pieces together.

1000 words

As this was a quick calculation, we thought it would be a good paper to be a Research Note. Research Notes are limited to 1000 words, which is a tough limit. We carefully crafted the document, using as many word-saving measures (such as abbreviations), as we could. We made it to the limit by our counting, only to submit and find that we needed to share another 100 off! Fortunately, the arXiv [bonus bonus note] is more forgiving, so you can read our more relaxed (but still delightfully short) version there. It’s the one I’d recommend.

arXiv

For those reading who are not professional physicists, the arXiv (pronounced archive, as the X is really the Greek letter chi χ) is a preprint server. It where physicists can post version of their papers ahead of publication. This allows sharing of results earlier (both good as it can take a while to get a final published paper, and because you can get feedback before finalising a paper), and, vitally, for free. Most published papers require a subscription to read. Fine if you’re at a university, not so good otherwise. The arXiv allows anyone to read the latest research. Admittedly, you have to be careful, as not everything on the arXiv will make it through peer review, and not everyone will update their papers to reflect the published version. However, I think the arXiv is a very good thing™. There are few things I can think of which have benefited modern science as much. I would 100% support those behind the arXiv receiving a Nobel Prize, as I think it has had just as a significant impact on the development of the field as the discovery of dark matter, understanding nuclear fission, or deducing the composition of the Sun.

The O2 Catalogue—It goes up to 11

The full results of our second advanced-detector observing run (O2) have now been released—we’re pleased to announce four new gravitational wave signals: GW170729, GW170809, GW170818 and GW170823 [bonus note]. These latest observations are all of binary black hole systems. Together, they bring our total to 10 observations of binary black holes, and 1 of a binary neutron star. With more frequent detections on the horizon with our third observing run due to start early 2019, the era of gravitational wave astronomy is truly here.

The population of black holes and neutron stars observed with gravitational waves and with electromagnetic astronomy. You can play with an interactive version of this plot online.

The new detections are largely consistent with our previous findings. GW170809, GW170818 and GW170823 are all similar to our first detection GW150914. Their black holes have masses around 20 to 40 times the mass of our Sun. I would lump GW170104 and GW170814 into this class too. Although there were models that predicted black holes of these masses, we weren’t sure they existed until our gravitational wave observations. The family of black holes continues out of this range. GW151012, GW151226 and GW170608 fall on the lower mass side. These overlap with the population of black holes previously observed in X-ray binaries. Lower mass systems can’t be detected as far away, so we find fewer of these. On the higher end we have GW170729 [bonus note]. Its source is made up of black holes with masses $50.2^{+16.2}_{-10.2} M_\odot$ and $34.0^{+9.1}_{-10.1} M_\odot$ (where $M_\odot$ is the mass of our Sun). The larger black hole is a contender for the most massive black hole we’ve found in a binary (the other probable contender is GW170823’s source, which has a $39.5^{+11.2}_{-6.7} M_\odot$ black hole). We have a big happy family of black holes!

Of the new detections, GW170729, GW170809 and GW170818 were both observed by the Virgo detector as well as the two LIGO detectors. Virgo joined O2 for an exciting August [bonus note], and we decided that the data at the time of GW170729 were good enough to use too. Unfortunately, Virgo wasn’t observing at the time of GW170823. GW170729 and GW170809 are very quiet in Virgo, you can’t confidently say there is a signal there [bonus note]. However, GW170818 is a clear detection like GW170814. Well done Virgo!

Using the collection of results, we can start understand the physics of these binary systems. We will be summarising our findings in a series of papers. A huge amount of work went into these.

The papers

The O2 Catalogue Paper

Title: GWTC-1: A gravitational-wave transient catalog of compact binary mergers observed by LIGO and Virgo during the first and second observing runs
arXiv:
1811.12907 [astro-ph.HE]
Data: Catalogue; Parameter estimation results
Journal: Physical Review X; 9(3):031040(49); 2019
LIGO science summary: GWTC-1: A new catalog of gravitational-wave detections

The paper summarises all our observations of binaries to date. It covers our first and second observing runs (O1 and O2). This is the paper to start with if you want any information. It contains estimates of parameters for all our sources, including updates for previous events. It also contains merger rate estimates for binary neutron stars and binary black holes, and an upper limit for neutron star–black hole binaries. We’re still missing a neutron star–black hole detection to complete the set.

More details: The O2 Catalogue Paper

The O2 Populations Paper

Title: Binary black hole population properties inferred from the first and second observing runs of Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo
arXiv:
1811.12940 [astro-ph.HE]
Journal: Astrophysical Journal Letters; 882(2):L24(30); 2019
Data: Population inference results
LIGO science summary: Binary black hole properties inferred from O1 and O2

Using our set of ten binary black holes, we can start to make some statistical statements about the population: the distribution of masses, the distribution of spins, the distribution of mergers over cosmic time. With only ten observations, we still have a lot of uncertainty, and can’t make too many definite statements. However, if you were wondering why we don’t see any more black holes more massive than GW170729, even though we can see these out to significant distances, so are we. We infer that almost all stellar-mass black holes have masses less than $45 M_\odot$.

More details: The O2 Populations Paper

The O2 Catalogue Paper

Synopsis: O2 Catalogue Paper
Read this if: You want the most up-to-date gravitational results
Favourite part: It’s out! We can tell everyone about our FOUR new detections

This is a BIG paper. It covers our first two observing runs and our main searches for coalescing stellar mass binaries. There will be separate papers going into more detail on searches for other gravitational wave signals.

The instruments

Gravitational wave detectors are complicated machines. You don’t just take them out of the box and press go. We’ll be slowly improving the sensitivity of our detectors as we commission them over the next few years. O2 marks the best sensitivity achieved to date. The paper gives a brief overview of the detector configurations in O2 for both LIGO detectors, which did differ, and Virgo.

During O2, we realised that one source of noise was beam jitter, disturbances in the shape of the laser beam. This was particularly notable in Hanford, where there was a spot on the one of the optics. Fortunately, we are able to measure the effects of this, and hence subtract out this noise. This has now been done for the whole of O2. It makes a big difference! Derek Davis and TJ Massinger won the first LIGO Laboratory Award for Excellence in Detector Characterization and Calibration™ for implementing this noise subtraction scheme (the award citation almost spilled the beans on our new detections). I’m happy that GW170104 now has an increased signal-to-noise ratio, which means smaller uncertainties on its parameters.

The searches

We use three search algorithms in this paper. We have two matched-filter searches (GstLAL and PyCBC). These compare a bank of templates to the data to look for matches. We also use coherent WaveBurst (cWB), which is a search for generic short signals, but here has been tuned to find the characteristic chirp of a binary. Since cWB is more flexible in the signals it can find, it’s slightly less sensitive than the matched-filter searches, but it gives us confidence that we’re not missing things.

The two matched-filter searches both identify all 11 signals with the exception of GW170818, which is only found by GstLAL. This is because PyCBC only flags signals above a threshold in each detector. We’re confident it’s real though, as it is seen in all three detectors, albeit below PyCBC’s threshold in Hanford and Virgo. (PyCBC only looked at signals found in coincident Livingston and Hanford in O2, I suspect they would have found it if they were looking at all three detectors, as that would have let them lower their threshold).

The search pipelines try to distinguish between signal-like features in the data and noise fluctuations. Having multiple detectors is a big help here, although we still need to be careful in checking for correlated noise sources. The background of noise falls off quickly, so there’s a rapid transition between almost-certainly noise to almost-certainly signal. Most of the signals are off the charts in terms of significance, with GW170818, GW151012 and GW170729 being the least significant. GW170729 is found with best significance by cWB, that gives reports a false alarm rate of $1/(50~\mathrm{yr})$.

Cumulative histogram of results from GstLAL (top left), PyCBC (top right) and cWB (bottom). The expected background is shown as the dashed line and the shaded regions give Poisson uncertainties. The search results are shown as the solid red line and named gravitational-wave detections are shown as blue dots. More significant results are further to the right of the plot. Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

The false alarm rate indicates how often you would expect to find something at least as signal like if you were to analyse a stretch of data with the same statistical properties as the data considered, assuming that they is only noise in the data. The false alarm rate does not fold in the probability that there are real gravitational waves occurring at some average rate. Therefore, we need to do an extra layer of inference to work out the probability that something flagged by a search pipeline is a real signal versus is noise.

The results of this calculation is given in Table IV. GW170729 has a 94% probability of being real using the cWB results, 98% using the GstLAL results, but only 52% according to PyCBC. Therefore, if you’re feeling bold, you might, say, only wager the entire economy of the UK on it being real.

We also list the most marginal triggers. These all have probabilities way below being 50% of being real: if you were to add them all up you wouldn’t get a total of 1 real event. (In my professional opinion, they are garbage). However, if you want to check for what we might have missed, these may be a place to start. Some of these can be explained away as instrumental noise, say scattered light. Others show no obvious signs of disturbance, so are probably just some noise fluctuation.

The source properties

We give updated parameter estimates for all 11 sources. These use updated estimates of calibration uncertainty (which doesn’t make too much difference), improved estimate of the noise spectrum (which makes some difference to the less well measured parameters like the mass ratio), the cleaned data (which helps for GW170104), and our most currently complete waveform models [bonus note].

This plot shows the masses of the two binary components (you can just make out GW170817 down in the corner). We use the convention that the more massive of the two is $m_1$ and the lighter is $m_2$. We are now really filling in the mass plot! Implications for the population of black holes are discussed in the Populations Paper.

Estimated masses for the two binary objects for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817 (solid), GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions. The grey area is excluded from our convention on masses. Part of Fig. 4 of the O2 Catalogue Paper. The mass ratio is $q = m_2/m_1$.

As well as mass, black holes have a spin. For the final black hole formed in the merger, these spins are always around 0.7, with a little more or less depending upon which way the spins of the two initial black holes were pointing. As well as being probably the most most massive, GW170729’s could have the highest final spin! It is a record breaker. It radiated a colossal $4.8^{+1.7}_{-1.7} M_\odot$ worth of energy in gravitational waves [bonus note].

Estimated final masses and spins for each of the binary black hole events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red–orange) to highest (right; purple): GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions. Part of Fig. 4 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

There is considerable uncertainty on the spins as there are hard to measure. The best combination to pin down is the effective inspiral spin parameter $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$. This is a mass weighted combination of the spins which has the most impact on the signal we observe. It could be zero if the spins are misaligned with each other, point in the orbital plane, or are zero. If it is non-zero, then it means that at least one black hole definitely has some spin. GW151226 and GW170729 have $\chi_\mathrm{eff} > 0$ with more than 99% probability. The rest are consistent with zero. The spin distribution for GW170104 has tightened up for GW170104 as its signal-to-noise ratio has increased, and there’s less support for negative $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$, but there’s been no move towards larger positive $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$.

Estimated effective inspiral spin parameters for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817, GW170608, GW151226, GW151012, GW170104, GW170814, GW170809, GW170818, GW150914, GW170823, GW170729. Part of Fig. 5 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

For our analysis, we use two different waveform models to check for potential sources of systematic error. They agree pretty well. The spins are where they show most difference (which makes sense, as this is where they differ in terms of formulation). For GW151226, the effective precession waveform IMRPhenomPv2 gives $0.20^{+0.18}_{-0.08}$ and the full precession model gives $0.15^{+0.25}_{-0.11}$ and extends to negative $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$. I panicked a little bit when I first saw this, as GW151226 having a non-zero spin was one of our headline results when first announced. Fortunately, when I worked out the numbers, all our conclusions were safe. The probability of $\chi_\mathrm{eff} < 0$ is less than 1%. In fact, we can now say that at least one spin is greater than $0.28$ at 99% probability compared with $0.2$ previously, because the full precession model likes spins in the orbital plane a bit more. Who says data analysis can’t be thrilling?

Our measurement of $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$ tells us about the part of the spins aligned with the orbital angular momentum, but not in the orbital plane. In general, the in-plane components of the spin are only weakly constrained. We basically only get back the information we put in. The leading order effects of in-plane spins is summarised by the effective precession spin parameter $\chi_\mathrm{p}$. The plot below shows the inferred distributions for $\chi_\mathrm{p}$. The left half for each event shows our results, the right shows our prior after imposed the constraints on spin we get from $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$. We get the most information for GW151226 and GW170814, but even then it’s not much, and we generally cover the entire allowed range of values.

Estimated effective inspiral spin parameters for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817, GW170608, GW151226, GW151012, GW170104, GW170814, GW170809, GW170818, GW150914, GW170823, GW170729. The left (coloured) part of the plot shows the posterior distribution; the right (white) shows the prior conditioned by the effective inspiral spin parameter constraints. Part of Fig. 5 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

One final measurement which we can make (albeit with considerable uncertainty) is the distance to the source. The distance influences how loud the signal is (the further away, the quieter it is). This also depends upon the inclination of the source (a binary edge-on is quieter than a binary face-on/off). Therefore, the distance is correlated with the inclination and we end up with some butterfly-like plots. GW170729 is again a record setter. It comes from a luminosity distance of $2.84^{+1.40}_{-1.36}~\mathrm{Gpc}$ away. That means it has travelled across the Universe for $3.2$$6.2$ billion years—it potentially started its journey before the Earth formed!

Estimated luminosity distances and orbital inclinations for each of the events in O1 and O2. From lowest chirp mass (left; red) to highest (right; purple): GW170817 (solid), GW170608 (dashed), GW151226 (solid), GW151012 (dashed), GW170104 (solid), GW170814 (dashed), GW170809 (dashed), GW170818 (dashed), GW150914 (solid), GW170823 (dashed), GW170729 (solid). The contours mark the 90% credible regions.An inclination of zero means that we’re looking face-on along the direction of the total angular momentum, and inclination of $\pi/2$ means we’re looking edge-on perpendicular to the angular momentum. Part of Fig. 7 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Waveform reconstructions

To check our results, we reconstruct the waveforms from the data to see that they match our expectations for binary black hole waveforms (and there’s not anything extra there). To do this, we use unmodelled analyses which assume that there is a coherent signal in the detectors: we use both cWB and BayesWave. The results agree pretty well. The reconstructions beautifully match our templates when the signal is loud, but, as you might expect, can resolve the quieter details. You’ll also notice the reconstructions sometimes pick up a bit of background noise away from the signal. This gives you and idea of potential fluctuations.

Time–frequency maps and reconstructed signal waveforms for the binary black holes. For each event we show the results from the detector where the signal was loudest. The left panel for each shows the time–frequency spectrogram with the upward-sweeping chip. The right show waveforms: blue the modelled waveforms used to infer parameters (LALInf; top panel); the red wavelet reconstructions (BayesWave; top panel); the black is the maximum-likelihood cWB reconstruction (bottom panel), and the green (bottom panel) shows reconstructions for simulated similar signals. I think the agreement is pretty good! All the data have been whitened as this is how we perform the statistical analysis of our data. Fig. 10 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

I still think GW170814 looks like a slug. Some people think they look like crocodiles.

We’ll be doing more tests of the consistency of our signals with general relativity in a future paper.

Merger rates

Given all our observations now, we can set better limits on the merger rates. Going from the number of detections seen to the number merger out in the Universe depends upon what you assume about the mass distribution of the sources. Therefore, we make a few different assumptions.

For binary black holes, we use (i) a power-law model for the more massive black hole similar to the initial mass function of stars, with a uniform distribution on the mass ratio, and (ii) use uniform-in-logarithmic distribution for both masses. These were designed to bracket the two extremes of potential distributions. With our observations, we’re starting to see that the true distribution is more like the power-law, so I expect we’ll be abandoning these soon. Taking the range of possible values from our calculations, the rate is in the range of $9.7$$101~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$ for black holes between $5 M_\odot$ and $50 M_\odot$ [bonus note].

For binary neutron stars, which are perhaps more interesting astronomers, we use a uniform distribution of masses between $0.8 M_\odot$ and $2.3 M_\odot$, and a Gaussian distribution to match electromagnetic observations. We find that these bracket the range $97$$4440~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$. This larger than are previous range, as we hadn’t considered the Gaussian distribution previously.

90% upper limits for neutron star–black hole binaries. Three black hole masses were tried and two spin distributions. Results are shown for the two matched-filter search algorithms. Fig. 14 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Finally, what about neutron star–black holes? Since we don’t have any detections, we can only place an upper limit. This is a maximum of $610~\mathrm{Gpc^{-3}\,yr^{-1}}$. This is about a factor of 2 better than our O1 results, and is starting to get interesting!

We are sure to discover lots more in O3… [bonus note].

The O2 Populations Paper

Synopsis: O2 Populations Paper
Read this if: You want the best family portrait of binary black holes
Favourite part: A maximum black hole mass?

Each detection is exciting. However, we can squeeze even more science out of our observations by looking at the entire population. Using all 10 of our binary black hole observations, we start to trace out the population of binary black holes. Since we still only have 10, we can’t yet be too definite in our conclusions. Our results give us some things to ponder, while we are waiting for the results of O3. I think now is a good time to start making some predictions.

We look at the distribution of black hole masses, black hole spins, and the redshift (cosmological time) of the mergers. The black hole masses tell us something about how you go from a massive star to a black hole. The spins tell us something about how the binaries form. The redshift tells us something about how these processes change as the Universe evolves. Ideally, we would look at these all together allowing for mixtures of binary black holes formed through different means. Given that we only have a few observations, we stick to a few simple models.

To work out the properties of the population, we perform a hierarchical analysis of our 10 binary black holes. We infer the properties of the individual systems, assuming that they come from a given population, and then see how well that population fits our data compared with a different distribution.

In doing this inference, we account for selection effects. Our detectors are not equally sensitive to all sources. For example, nearby sources produce louder signals and we can’t detect signals that are too far away, so if you didn’t account for this you’d conclude that binary black holes only merged in the nearby Universe. Perhaps less obvious is that we are not equally sensitive to all source masses. More massive binaries produce louder signals, so we can detect these further way than lighter binaries (up to the point where these binaries are so high mass that the signals are too low frequency for us to easily spot). This is why we detect more binary black holes than binary neutron stars, even though there are more binary neutron stars out here in the Universe.

Masses

When looking at masses, we try three models of increasing complexity:

• Model A is a simple power law for the mass of the more massive black hole $m_1$. There’s no real reason to expect the masses to follow a power law, but the masses of stars when they form do, and astronomers generally like power laws as they’re friendly, so its a sensible thing to try. We fit for the power-law index. The power law goes from a lower limit of $5 M_\odot$ to an upper limit which we also fit for. The mass of the lighter black hole $m_2$ is assumed to be uniformly distributed between $5 M_\odot$ and the mass of the other black hole.
• Model B is the same power law, but we also allow the lower mass limit to vary from $5 M_\odot$. We don’t have much sensitivity to low masses, so this lower bound is restricted to be above $5 M_\odot$. I’d be interested in exploring lower masses in the future. Additionally, we allow the mass ratio $q = m_2/m_1$ of the black holes to vary, trying $q^{\beta_q}$ instead of Model A’s $q^0$.
• Model C has the same power law, but now with some smoothing at the low-mass end, rather than a sharp turn-on. Additionally, it includes a Gaussian component towards higher masses. This was inspired by the possibility of pulsational pair-instability supernova causing a build up of black holes at certain masses: stars which undergo this lose extra mass, so you’d end up with lower mass black holes than if the stars hadn’t undergone the pulsations. The Gaussian could fit other effects too, for example if there was a secondary formation channel, or just reflect that the pure power law is a bad fit.

In allowing the mass distributions to vary, we find overall rates which match pretty well those we obtain with our main power-law rates calculation included in the O2 Catalogue Paper, higher than with the main uniform-in-log distribution.

The fitted mass distributions are shown in the plot below. The error bars are pretty broad, but I think the models agree on some broad features: there are more light black holes than heavy black holes; the minimum black hole mass is below about $9 M_\odot$, but we can’t place a lower bound on it; the maximum black hole mass is above about $35 M_\odot$ and below about $50 M_\odot$, and we prefer black holes to have more similar masses than different ones. The upper bound on the black hole minimum mass, and the lower bound on the black hole upper mass are set by the smallest and biggest black holes we’ve detected, respectively.

Binary black hole merger rate as a function of the primary mass ($m_1$; top) and mass ratio ($q$; bottom). The solid lines and bands show the medians and 90% intervals. The dashed line shows the posterior predictive distribution: our expectation for future observations averaging over our uncertainties. Fig. 2 of the O2 Populations Paper.

That there does seem to be a drop off at higher masses is interesting. There could be something which stops stars forming black holes in this range. It has been proposed that there is a mass gap due to pair instability supernovae. These explosions completely disrupt their progenitor stars, leaving nothing behind. (I’m not sure if they are accompanied by a flash of green light). You’d expect this to kick for black holes of about $50$$60 M_\odot$. We infer that 99% of merging black holes have masses below $44.0 M_\odot$ with Model A, $41.8 M_\odot$ with Model B, and $41.8 M_\odot$ with Model C. Therefore, our results are not inconsistent with a mass gap. However, we don’t really have enough evidence to be sure.

We can compare how well each of our three models fits the data by looking at their Bayes factors. These naturally incorporate the complexity of the models: models with more parameters (which can be more easily tweaked to match the data) are penalised so that you don’t need to worry about overfitting. We have a preference for Model C. It’s not strong, but I think good evidence that we can’t use a simple power law.

Spins

To model the spins:

• For the magnitude, we assume a beta distribution. There’s no reason for this, but these are convenient distributions for things between 0 and 1, which are the limits on black hole spin (0 is nonspinning, 1 is as fast as you can spin). We assume that both spins are drawn from the same distribution.
• For the spin orientations, we use a mix of an isotropic distribution and a Gaussian centred on being aligned with the orbital angular momentum. You’d expect an isotropic distribution if binaries were assembled dynamically, and perhaps something with spins generally aligned with each other if the binary evolved in isolation.

We don’t get any useful information on the mixture fraction. Looking at the spin magnitudes, we have a preference towards smaller spins, but still have support for large spins. The more misaligned spins are, the larger the spin magnitudes can be: for the isotropic distribution, we have support all the way up to maximal values.

Inferred spin magnitude distributions. The left shows results for the parametric distribution, assuming a mixture of almost aligned and isotropic spin, with the median (solid), 50% and 90% intervals shaded, and the posterior predictive distribution as the dashed line. Results are included both for beta distributions which can be singular at 0 and 1, and with these excluded. Model V is a very low spin model shown for comparison. The right shows a binned reconstruction of the distribution for aligned and isotropic distributions, showing the median and 90% intervals. Fig. 8 of the O2 Populations Paper.

Since spins are harder to measure than masses, it is not surprising that we can’t make strong statements yet. If we were to find something with definitely negative $\chi_\mathrm{eff}$, we would be able to deduce that spins can be seriously misaligned.

Redshift evolution

As a simple model of evolution over cosmological time, we allow the merger rate to evolve as $(1+z)^\lambda$. That’s right, another power law! Since we’re only sensitive to relatively small redshifts for the masses we detect ($z < 1$), this gives a good approximation to a range of different evolution schemes.

Evolution of the binary black hole merger rate (blue), showing median, 50% and 90% intervals. For comparison, a non-evolving rate calculated using Model B is shown too. Fig. 6 of the O2 Populations Paper.

We find that we prefer evolutions that increase with redshift. There’s an 88% probability that $\lambda > 0$, but we’re still consistent with no evolution. We might expect rate to increase as star formation was higher bach towards $z =2$. If we can measure the time delay between forming stars and black holes merging, we could figure out what happens to these systems in the meantime.

The local merger rate is broadly consistent with what we infer with our non-evolving distributions, but is a little on the lower side.

Bonus notes

Naming

Gravitational waves are named as GW-year-month-day, so our first observation from 14 September 2015 is GW150914. We realise that this convention suffers from a Y2K-style bug, but by the time we hit 2100, we’ll have so many detections we’ll need a new scheme anyway.

Previously, we had a second designation for less significant potential detections. They were LIGO–Virgo Triggers (LVT), the one example being LVT151012. No-one was really happy with this designation, but it stems from us being cautious with our first announcement, and not wishing to appear over bold with claiming we’d seen two gravitational waves when the second wasn’t that certain. Now we’re a bit more confident, and we’ve decided to simplify naming by labelling everything a GW on the understanding that this now includes more uncertain events. Under the old scheme, GW170729 would have been LVT170729. The idea is that the broader community can decide which events they want to consider as real for their own studies. The current condition for being called a GW is that the probability of it being a real astrophysical signal is at least 50%. Our 11 GWs are safely above that limit.

The naming change has hidden the fact that now when we used our improved search pipelines, the significance of GW151012 has increased. It would now be a GW even under the old scheme. Congratulations LVT151012, I always believed in you!

Is it of extraterrestrial origin, or is it just a blurry figure? GW151012: the truth is out there!.

Burning bright

We are lacking nicknames for our new events. They came in so fast that we kind of lost track. Ilya Mandel has suggested that GW170729 should be the Tiger, as it happened on the International Tiger Day. Since tigers are the biggest of the big cats, this seems apt.

Carl-Johan Haster argues that LIGO+tiger = Liger. Since ligers are even bigger than tigers, this seems like an excellent case to me! I’d vote for calling the bigger of the two progenitor black holes GW170729-tiger, the smaller GW170729-lion, and the final black hole GW17-729-liger.

Suggestions for other nicknames are welcome, leave your ideas in the comments.

August 2017—Something fishy or just Poisson statistics?

The final few weeks of O2 were exhausting. I was trying to write job applications at the time, and each time I sat down to work on my research proposal, my phone went off with another alert. You may be wondering about was special about August. Some have hypothesised that it is because Aaron Zimmerman, my partner for the analysis of GW170104, was on the Parameter Estimation rota to analyse the last few weeks of O2. The legend goes that Aaron is especially lucky as he was bitten by a radioactive Leprechaun. I can neither confirm nor deny this. However, I make a point of playing any lottery numbers suggested by him.

A slightly more mundane explanation is that August was when the detectors were running nice and stably. They were observing for a large fraction of the time. LIGO Livingston reached its best sensitivity at this time, although it was less happy for Hanford. We often quantify the sensitivity of our detectors using their binary neutron star range, the average distance they could see a binary neutron star system with a signal-to-noise ratio of 8. If this increases by a factor of 2, you can see twice as far, which means you survey 8 times the volume. This cubed factor means even small improvements can have a big impact. The LIGO Livingston range peak a little over $100~\mathrm{Mpc}$. We’re targeting at least $120~\mathrm{Mpc}$ for O3, so August 2017 gives an indication of what you can expect.

Binary neutron star range for the instruments across O2. The break around week 3 was for the holidays (We did work Christmas 2015). The break at week 23 was to tune-up the instruments, and clean the mirrors. At week 31 there was an earthquake in Montana, and the Hanford sensitivity didn’t recover by the end of the run. Part of Fig. 1 of the O2 Catalogue Paper.

Of course, in the case of GW170817, we just got lucky.

Sign errors

GW170809 was the first event we identified with Virgo after it joined observing. The signal in Virgo is very quiet. We actually got better results when we flipped the sign of the Virgo data. We were just starting to get paranoid when GW170814 came along and showed us that everything was set up right at Virgo. When I get some time, I’d like to investigate how often this type of confusion happens for quiet signals.

SEOBNRv3

One of the waveforms, which includes the most complete prescription of the precession of the spins of the black holes, we use in our analysis goes by the technical name of SEOBNRv3. It is extremely computationally expensive. Work has been done to improve that, but this hasn’t been implemented in our reviewed codes yet. We managed to complete an analysis for the GW170104 Discovery Paper, which was a huge effort. I said then to not expect it for all future events. We did it for all the black holes, even for the lowest mass sources which have the longest signals. I was responsible for GW151226 runs (as well as GW170104) and I started these back at the start of the summer. Eve Chase put in a heroic effort to get GW170608 results, we pulled out all the stops for that.

Thanksgiving

I have recently enjoyed my first Thanksgiving in the US. I was lucky enough to be hosted for dinner by Shane Larson and his family (and cats). I ate so much I thought I might collapse to a black hole. Apparently, a Thanksgiving dinner can be 3000–4500 calories. That sounds like a lot, but the merger of GW170729 would have emitted about $5 \times 10^{40}$ times more energy. In conclusion, I don’t need to go on a diet.

Confession

We cheated a little bit in calculating the rates. Roughly speaking, the merger rate is given by

$\displaystyle R = \frac{N}{\langle VT\rangle}$,

where $N$ is the number of detections and $\langle VT\rangle$ is the amount of volume and time we’ve searched. You expect to detect more events if you increase the sensitivity of the detectors (and hence $V$), or observer for longer (and hence increase $T$). In our calculation, we included GW170608 in $N$, even though it was found outside of standard observing time. Really, we should increase $\langle VT\rangle$ to factor in the extra time outside of standard observing time when we could have made a detection. This is messy to calculate though, as there’s not really a good way to check this. However, it’s only a small fraction of the time (so the extra $T$ should be small), and for much of the sensitivity of the detectors will be poor (so $V$ will be small too). Therefore, we estimated any bias from neglecting this is smaller than our uncertainty from the calibration of the detectors, and not worth worrying about.

New sources

We saw our first binary black hole shortly after turning on the Advanced LIGO detectors. We saw our first binary neutron star shortly after turning on the Advanced Virgo detector. My money is therefore on our first neutron star–black hole binary shortly after we turn on the KAGRA detector. Because science…