GW150914—The papers II

GW150914, The Event to its friends, was our first direct observation of gravitational waves. To accompany the detection announcement, the LIGO Scientific & Virgo Collaboration put together a suite of companion papers, each looking at a different aspect of the detection and its implications. Some of the work we wanted to do was not finished at the time of the announcement; in this post I’ll go through the papers we have produced since the announcement.

The papers

I’ve listed the papers below in an order that makes sense to me when considering them together. Each started off as an investigation to check that we really understood the signal and were confident that the inferences made about the source were correct. We had preliminary results for each at the time of the announcement. Since then, the papers have evolved to fill different niches [bonus points note].

13. The Basic Physics Paper

Title: The basic physics of the binary black hole merger GW150914
 1608.01940 [gr-qc]
 Annalen der Physik529(1–2):1600209(17); 2017

The Event was loud enough to spot by eye after some simple filtering (provided that you knew where to look). You can therefore figure out some things about the source with back-of-the-envelope calculations. In particular, you can convince yourself that the source must be two black holes. This paper explains these calculations at a level suitable for a keen high-school or undergraduate physics student.

More details: The Basic Physics Paper summary

14. The Precession Paper

Title: Improved analysis of GW150914 using a fully spin-precessing waveform model
 1606.01210 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review X; 6(4):041014(19); 2016

To properly measure the properties of GW150914’s source, you need to compare the data to predicted gravitational-wave signals. In the Parameter Estimation Paper, we did this using two different waveform models. These models include lots of features binary black hole mergers, but not quite everything. In particular, they don’t include all the effects of precession (the wibbling of the orbit because of the black holes spins). In this paper, we analyse the signal using a model that includes all the precession effects. We find results which are consistent with our initial ones.

More details: The Precession Paper summary

15. The Systematics Paper

Title: Effects of waveform model systematics on the interpretation of GW150914
 1611.07531 [gr-qc]

To check how well our waveform models can measure the properties of the source, we repeat the parameter-estimation analysis on some synthetic signals. These fake signals are calculated using numerical relativity, and so should include all the relevant pieces of physics (even those missing from our models). This paper checks to see if there are any systematic errors in results for a signal like GW150914. It looks like we’re OK, but this won’t always be the case.

More details: The Systematics Paper summary

16. The Numerical Relativity Comparison Paper

Title: Directly comparing GW150914 with numerical solutions of Einstein’s equations for binary black hole coalescence
 1606.01262 [gr-qc]
 Physical Review D; 94(6):064035(30); 2016

Since GW150914 was so short, we can actually compare the data directly to waveforms calculated using numerical relativity. We only have a handful of numerical relativity simulations, but these are enough to give an estimate of the properties of the source. This paper reports the results of this investigation. Unsurprisingly, given all the other checks we’ve done, we find that the results are consistent with our earlier analysis.

If you’re interested in numerical relativity, this paper also gives a nice brief introduction to the field.

More details: The Numerical Relativity Comparison Paper summary

The Basic Physics Paper

Synopsis: Basic Physics Paper
Read this if: You are teaching a class on gravitational waves
Favourite part: This is published in Annalen der Physik, the same journal that Einstein published some of his monumental work on both special and general relativity

It’s fun to play with LIGO data. The LIGO Open Science Center (LOSC), has put together a selection of tutorials to show you some of the basics of analysing signals. I wouldn’t blame you if you went of to try them now, instead of reading the rest of this post. Even though it would mean that no-one read this sentence. Purple monkey dishwasher.

The LOSC tutorials show you how to make your own version of some of the famous plots from the detection announcement. This paper explains how to go from these, using the minimum of theory, to some inferences about the signal’s source: most significantly that it must be the merger of two black holes.

GW150914 is a chirp. It sweeps up from low frequency to high. This is what you would expect of a binary system emitting gravitational waves. The gravitational waves carry away energy and angular momentum, causing the binary’s orbit to shrink. This means that the orbital period gets shorter, and the orbital frequency higher. The gravitational wave frequency is twice the orbital frequency (for circular orbits), so this goes up too.

The rate of change of the frequency depends upon the system’s mass. To first approximation, it is determined by the chirp mass,

\displaystyle \mathcal{M} = \frac{(m_1 m_2)^{3/5}}{(m_1 + m_2)^{1/5}},

where m_1 and m_2 are the masses of the two components of the binary. By looking at the signal (go on, try the LOSC tutorials), we can estimate the gravitational wave frequency f_\mathrm{GW} at different times, and so track how it changes. You can rewrite the equation for the rate of change of the gravitational wave frequency \dot{f}_\mathrm{GW}, to give an expression for the chirp mass

\displaystyle \mathcal{M} = \frac{c^3}{G}\left(\frac{5}{96} \pi^{-8/3} f_\mathrm{GW}^{-11/3} \dot{f}_\mathrm{GW}\right)^{3/5}.

Here c and G are the speed of light and the gravitational constant, which usually pop up in general relativity equations. If you use this formula (perhaps fitting for the trend f_\mathrm{GW}) you can get an estimate for the chirp mass. By fiddling with your fit, you’ll see there is some uncertainty, but you should end up with a value around 30 M_\odot [bonus note].

Next, let’s look at the peak gravitational wave frequency (where the signal is loudest). This should be when the binary finally merges. The peak is at about 150~\mathrm{Hz}. The orbital frequency is half this, so f_\mathrm{orb} \approx 75~\mathrm{Hz}. The orbital separation R is related to the frequency by

\displaystyle R = \left[\frac{GM}{(2\pi f_\mathrm{orb})^2}\right]^{1/3},

where M = m_1 + m_2 is the binary’s total mass. This formula is only strictly true in Newtonian gravity, and not in full general relativity, but it’s still a reasonable approximation. We can estimate a value for the total mass from our chirp mass; if we assume the two components are about the same mass, then M = 2^{6/5} \mathcal{M} \approx 70 M_\odot. We now want to compare the binary’s separation to the size of black hole with the same mass. A typical size for a black hole is given by the Schwarzschild radius

\displaystyle R_\mathrm{S} = \frac{2GM}{c^2}.

If we divide the binary separation by the Schwarzschild radius we get the compactness \mathcal{R} = R/R_\mathrm{S} \approx 1.7. A compactness of \sim 1 could only happen for black holes. We could maybe get a binary made of two neutron stars to have a compactness of \sim2, but the system is too heavy to contain two neutron stars (which have a maximum mass of about 3 M_\odot). The system is so compact, it must contain black holes!

What I especially like about the compactness is that it is unaffected by cosmological redshifting. The expansion of the Universe will stretch the gravitational wave, such that the frequency gets lower. This impacts our estimates for the true orbital frequency and the masses, but these cancel out in the compactness. There’s no arguing that we have a highly relativistic system.

You might now be wondering what if we don’t assume the binary is equal mass (you’ll find it becomes even more compact), or if we factor in black hole spin, or orbital eccentricity, or that the binary will lose mass as the gravitational waves carry away energy? The paper looks at these and shows that there is some wiggle room, but the signal really constrains you to have black holes. This conclusion is almost as inescapable as a black hole itself.

There are a few things which annoy me about this paper—I think it could have been more polished; “Virgo” is improperly capitalised on the author line, and some of the figures are needlessly shabby. However, I think it is a fantastic idea to put together an introductory paper like this which can be used to show students how you can deduce some properties of GW150914’s source with some simple data analysis. I’m happy to be part of a Collaboration that values communicating our science to all levels of expertise, not just writing papers for specialists!

During my undergraduate degree, there was only a single lecture on gravitational waves [bonus note]. I expect the topic will become more popular now. If you’re putting together such a course and are looking for some simple exercises, this paper might come in handy! Or if you’re a student looking for some project work this might be a good starting reference—bonus points if you put together some better looking graphs for your write-up.

If this paper has whetted your appetite for understanding how different properties of the source system leave an imprint in the gravitational wave signal, I’d recommend looking at the Parameter Estimation Paper for more.

The Precession Paper

Synopsis: Precession Paper
Read this if: You want our most detailed analysis of the spins of GW150914’s black holes
Favourite part: We might have previously over-estimated our systematic error

The Basic Physics Paper explained how you could work out some properties of GW150914’s source with simple calculations. These calculations are rather rough, and lead to estimates with large uncertainties. To do things properly, you need templates for the gravitational wave signal. This is what we did in the Parameter Estimation Paper.

In our original analysis, we used two different waveforms:

  • The first we referred to as EOBNR, short for the lengthy technical name SEOBNRv2_ROM_DoubleSpin. In short: This includes the spins of the two black holes, but assumes they are aligned such that there’s no precession. In detail: The waveform is calculated by using effective-one-body dynamics (EOB), an approximation for the binary’s motion calculated by transforming the relevant equations into those for a single object. The S at the start stands for spin: the waveform includes the effects of both black holes having spins which are aligned (or antialigned) with the orbital angular momentum. Since the spins are aligned, there’s no precession. The EOB waveforms are tweaked (or calibrated, if you prefer) by comparing them to numerical relativity (NR) waveforms, in particular to get the merger and ringdown portions of the waveform right. While it is easier to solve the EOB equations than full NR simulations, they still take a while. To speed things up, we use a reduced-order model (ROM), a surrogate model constructed to match the waveforms, so we can go straight from system parameters to the waveform, skipping calculating the dynamics of the binary.
  • The second we refer to as IMRPhenom, short for the technical IMRPhenomPv2. In short: This waveform includes the effects of precession using a simple approximation that captures the most important effects. In detail: The IMR stands for inspiral–merger–ringdown, the three phases of the waveform (which are included in in the EOBNR model too). Phenom is short for phenomenological: the waveform model is constructed by tuning some (arbitrary, but cunningly chosen) functions to match waveforms calculated using a mix of EOB, NR and post-Newtonian theory. This is done for black holes with (anti)aligned spins to first produce the IMRPhenomD model. This is then twisted up, to include the dominant effects of precession to make IMRPhenomPv2. This bit is done by combining the two spins together to create a single parameter, which we call \chi_\mathrm{p}, which determines the amount of precession. Since we are combining the two spins into one number, we lose a bit of the richness of the full dynamics, but we get the main part.

The EOBNR and IMRPhenom models are created by different groups using different methods, so they are useful checks of each other. If there is an error in our waveforms, it would lead to systematic errors in our estimated paramters

In this paper, we use another waveform model, a precessing EOBNR waveform, technically known as SEOBNRv3. This model includes all the effects of precession, not just the simple model of the IMRPhenom model. However, it is also computationally expensive, meaning that the analysis takes a long time (we don’t have a ROM to speed things up, as we do for the other EOBNR waveform)—each waveform takes over 20 times as long to calculate as the IMRPhenom model [bonus note].

Our results show that all three waveforms give similar results. The precessing EOBNR results are generally more like the IMRPhenom results than the non-precessing EOBNR results are. The plot below compares results from the different waveforms [bonus note].

Comparison of results from non-precessing EOBNR, precessing IMRPhenom and precessing EOBNR waveforms

Comparison of parameter estimates for GW150914 using different waveform models. The bars show the 90% credible intervals, the dark bars show the uncertainty on the 5%, 50% and 95% quantiles from the finite number of posterior samples. The top bar is for the non-precessing EOBNR model, the middle is for the precessing IMRPhenom model, and the bottom is for the fully precessing EOBNR model. Figure 1 of the Precession Paper; see Figure 9 for a comparison of averaged EOBNR and IMRPhenom results, which we have used for our overall results.

We had used the difference between the EOBNR and IMRPhenom results to estimate potential systematic error from waveform modelling. Since the two precessing models are generally in better agreement, we have may have been too pessimistic here.

The main difference in results is that our new refined analysis gives tighter constraints on the spins. From the plot above you can see that the uncertainty for the spin magnitudes of the heavier black hole a_1, the lighter black hole a_2 and the final black hole (resulting from the coalescence) a_\mathrm{f}, are slightly narrower. This makes sense, as including the extra imprint from the full effects of precession gives us a bit more information about the spins. The plots below show the constraints on the spins from the two precessing waveforms: the distributions are more condensed with the new results.

Black hole spins estimated using precessing IMRPhenom and EOBNR waveforms

Comparison of orientations and magnitudes of the two component spins. The spin is perfectly aligned with the orbital angular momentum if the angle is 0. The left disk shows results using the precessing IMRPhenom model, the right using the precessing EOBNR model. In each, the distribution for the more massive black hole is on the left, and for the smaller black hole on the right. Adapted from Figure 5 of the Parameter Estimation Paper and Figure 4 of the Precession Paper.

In conclusion, this analysis had shown that included the full effects of precession do give slightly better estimates of the black hole spins. However, it is safe to trust the IMRPhenom results.

If you are looking for the best parameter estimates for GW150914, these results are better than the original results in the Parameter Estimation Paper. However, I would prefer the results in the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper, even though this doesn’t use the fully precessing EOBNR waveform, because we do use an updated calibration of the detector data. Neither the choice of waveform or the calibration make much of an impact on the results, so for most uses it shouldn’t matter too much.

The Systematics Paper

Synopsis: Systematics Paper
Read this if: You want to know how parameter estimation could fare for future detections
Favourite part: There’s no need to panic yet

The Precession Paper highlighted how important it is to have good waveform templates. If there is an error in our templates, either because of modelling or because we are missing some physics, then our estimated parameters could be wrong—we would have a source of systematic error.

We know our waveform models aren’t perfect, so there must be some systematic error, the question is how much? From our analysis so far (such as the good agreement between different waveforms in the Precession Paper), we think that systematic error is less significant than the statistical uncertainty which is a consequence of noise in the detectors. In this paper, we try to quantify systematic error for GW150914-like systems.

To asses systematic errors, we analyse waveforms calculated by numerical relativity simulations into data around the time of GW150914. Numerical relativity exactly solves Einstein’s field equations (which govern general relativity), so results of these simulations give the most accurate predictions for the form of gravitational waves. As we know the true parameters for the injected waveforms, we can compare these to the results of our parameter estimation analysis to check for biases.

We use waveforms computed by two different codes: the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) and the Bifunctional Adaptive Mesh (BAM) code. (Don’t the names make them sound like such fun?) Most waveforms are injected into noise-free data, so that we know that any offset in estimated parameters is dues to the waveforms and not detector noise; however, we also tried a few injections into real data from around the time of GW150914. The signals are analysed using our standard set-up as used in the Parameter Estimation Paper (a couple of injections are also included in the Precession Paper, where they are analysed with the fully precessing EOBNR waveform to illustrate its accuracy).

The results show that in most cases, systematic errors from our waveform models are small. However, systematic errors can be significant for some orientations of precessing binaries. If we are looking at the orbital plane edge on, then there can be errors in the distance, the mass ratio and the spins, as illustrated below [bonus note]. Thankfully, edge-on binaries are quieter than face-on binaries, and so should make up only a small fraction of detected sources (GW150914 is most probably face off). Furthermore, biases are only significant for some polarization angles (an angle which describes the orientation of the detectors relative to the stretch/squash of the gravitational wave polarizations). Factoring this in, a rough estimate is that about 0.3% of detected signals would fall into the unlucky region where waveform biases are important.

Inclination dependence of parameter recovery

Parameter estimation results for two different GW150914-like numerical relativity waveforms for different inclinations and polarization angles. An inclination of 0^\circ means the binary is face on, 180^\circ means it face off, and an inclination around 90^\circ is edge on. The bands show the recovered 90% credible interval; the dark lines the median values, and the dotted lines show the true values. The (grey) polarization angle \psi = 82^\circ was chosen so that the detectors are approximately insensitive to the h_+ polarization. Figure 4 of the Systematics Paper.

While it seems that we don’t have to worry about waveform error for GW150914, this doesn’t mean we can relax. Other systems may show up different aspects of waveform models. For example, our approximants only include the dominant modes (spherical harmonic decompositions of the gravitational waves). Higher-order modes have more of an impact in systems where the two black holes are unequal masses, or where the binary has a higher total mass, so that the merger and ringdown parts of the waveform are more important. We need to continue work on developing improved waveform models (or at least, including our uncertainty about them in our analysis), and remember to check for biases in our results!

The Numerical Relativity Comparison Paper

Synopsis: Numerical Relativity Comparison Paper
Read this if: You are really suspicious of our waveform models, or really like long tables or numerical data
Favourite part: We might one day have enough numerical relativity waveforms to do full parameter estimation with them

In the Precession Paper we discussed how important it was to have accurate waveforms; in the Systematics Paper we analysed numerical relativity waveforms to check the accuracy of our results. Since we do have numerical relativity waveforms, you might be wondering why we don’t just use these in our analysis? In this paper, we give it a go.

Our standard parameter-estimation code (LALInference) randomly hops around parameter space, for each set of parameters we generate a new waveform and see how this matches the data. This is an efficient way of exploring the parameter space. Numerical relativity waveforms are too computationally expensive to generate one each time we hop. We need a different approach.

The alternative, is to use existing waveforms, and see how each of them match. Each simulation gives the gravitational waves for a particular mass ratio and combination of spins, we can scale the waves to examine different total masses, and it is easy to consider what the waves would look like if measured at a different position (distance, inclination or sky location). Therefore, we can actually cover a fair range of possible parameters with a given set of simulations.

To keep things quick, the code averages over positions, this means we don’t currently get an estimate on the redshift, and so all the masses are given as measured in the detector frame and not as the intrinsic masses of the source.

The number of numerical relativity simulations is still quite sparse, so to get nice credible regions, a simple Gaussian fit is used for the likelihood. I’m not convinced that this capture all the detail of the true likelihood, but it should suffice for a broad estimate of the width of the distributions.

The results of this analysis generally agree with those from our standard analysis. This is a relief, but not surprising given all the other checks that we have done! It hints that we might be able to get slightly better measurements of the spins and mass ratios if we used more accurate waveforms in our standard analysis, but the overall conclusions are  sound.

I’ve been asked if since these results use numerical relativity waveforms, they are the best to use? My answer is no. As well as potential error from the sparse sampling of simulations, there are several small things to be wary of.

  • We only have short numerical relativity waveforms. This means that the analysis only goes down to a frequency of 30~\mathrm{Hz} and ignores earlier cycles. The standard analysis includes data down to 20~\mathrm{Hz}, and this extra data does give you a little information about precession. (The limit of the simulation length also means you shouldn’t expect this type of analysis for the longer LVT151012 or GW151226 any time soon).
  • This analysis doesn’t include the effects of calibration uncertainty. There is some uncertainty in how to convert from the measured signal at the detectors’ output to the physical strain of the gravitational wave. Our standard analysis fold this in, but that isn’t done here. The estimates of the spin can be affected by miscalibration. (This paper also uses the earlier calibration, rather than the improved calibration of the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper).
  • Despite numerical relativity simulations producing waveforms which include all higher modes, not all of them are actually used in the analysis. More are included than in the standard analysis, so this will probably make negligible difference.

Finally, I wanted to mention one more detail, as I think it is not widely appreciated. The gravitational wave likelihood is given by an inner product

\displaystyle L \propto \exp \left[- \int_{-\infty}^{\infty}  \mathrm{d}f  \frac{|s(f) - h(f)|^2}{S_n(f)}  \right],

where s(f) is the signal, h(f) is our waveform template and S_n(f) is the noise spectral density (PSD). These are the three things we need to know to get the right answer. This paper, together with the Precession Paper and the Systematics Paper, has been looking at error from our waveform models h(f). Uncertainty from the calibration of s(f) is included in the standard analysis, so we know how to factor this in (and people are currently working on more sophisticated models for calibration error). This leaves the noise PSD S_n(f)

The noise PSD varies all the time, so it needs to be estimated from the data. If you use a different stretch of data, you’ll get a different estimate, and this will impact your results. Ideally, you would want to estimate from the time span that includes the signal itself, but that’s tricky as there’s a signal in the way. The analysis in this paper calculates the noise power spectral density using a different time span and a different method than our standard analysis; therefore, we expect some small difference in the estimated parameters. This might be comparable to (or even bigger than) the difference from switching waveforms! We see from the similarity of results that this cannot be a big effect, but it means that you shouldn’t obsess over small differences, thinking that they could be due to waveform differences, when they could just come from estimation of the noise PSD.

Lots of work is currently going into making sure that the numerator term |s(f) - h(f)|^2 is accurate. I think that the denominator S_n(f) needs attention too. Since we have been kept rather busy, including uncertainty in PSD estimation will have to wait for a future set papers.

Bonus notes


100 bonus points to anyone who folds up the papers to make beaks suitable for eating different foods.

The right answer

Our current best estimate for the chirp mass (from the O1 Binary Black Hole Paper) would be 30.6^{+1.9}_{-1.6} M_\odot. You need proper templates for the gravitational wave signal to calculate this. If you factor in the the gravitational wave gets redshifted (shifted to lower frequency by the expansion of the Universe), then the true chirp mass of the source system is 28.1^{+1.8}_{-1.5} M_\odot.

Formative experiences

My one undergraduate lecture on gravitational waves was the penultimate lecture of the fourth-year general relativity course. I missed this lecture, as I had a PhD interview (at the University of Birmingham). Perhaps if I had sat through it, my research career would have been different?

Good things come…

The computational expense of a waveform is important, as when we are doing parameter estimation, we calculate lots (tens of millions) of waveforms for different parameters to see how they match the data. Before O1, the task of using SEOBNRv3 for parameter estimation seemed quixotic. The first detection, however, was enticing enough to give it a try. It was a truly heroic effort by Vivien Raymond and team that produced these results—I am slightly suspicious the Vivien might actually be a wizard.

GW150914 is a short signal, meaning it is relatively quick to analyse. Still, it required us using all the tricks at our disposal to get results in a reasonable time. When it came time to submit final results for the Discovery Paper, we had just about 1,000 samples from the posterior probability distribution for the precessing EOBNR waveform. For comparison, we had over 45,000 sample for the non-precessing EOBNR waveform. 1,000 samples isn’t enough to accurately map out the probability distributions, so we decided to wait and collect more samples. The preliminary results showed that things looked similar, so there wouldn’t be a big difference in the science we could do. For the Precession Paper, we finally collected 2,700 samples. This is still a relatively small number, so we carefully checked the uncertainty in our results due to the finite number of samples.

The Precession Paper has shown that it is possible to use the precessing EOBNR for parameter estimation, but don’t expect it to become the norm, at least until we have a faster implementation of it. Vivien is only human, and I’m sure his family would like to see him occasionally.

Parameter key

In case you are wondering what all the symbols in the results plots stand for, here are their usual definitions. First up, the various masses

  • m_1—the mass of the heavier black hole, sometimes called the primary black hole;
  • m_2—the mass of the lighter black hole, sometimes called the secondary black hole;
  • M—the total mass of the binary, M = m_1 + m_2;
  • M_\mathrm{f}—the mass of the final black hole (after merger);
  • \mathcal{M}—the chirp mass, the combination of the two component masses which sets how the binary inspirals together;
  • q—the mass ratio, q = m_1/m_2 \leq 1. Confusingly, numerical relativists often use the opposite  convention q = m_2/m_1 \geq 1 (which is why the Numerical Relativity Comparison Paper discusses results in terms of 1/q: we can keep the standard definition, but all the numbers are numerical relativist friendly).

A superscript “source” is sometimes used to distinguish the actual physical masses of the source from those measured by the detector which have been affected by cosmological redshift. The measured detector-frame mass is m = (1 + z) m^\mathrm{source}, where m^\mathrm{source} is the true, redshift-corrected source-frame mass and z is the redshift. The mass ratio q is independent of the redshift. On the topic of redshift, we have

  • z—the cosmological redshift (z = 0 would be now);
  • D_\mathrm{L}—the luminosity distance.

The luminosity distance sets the amplitude of the signal, as does the orientation which we often describe using

  • \iota—the inclination, the angle between the line of sight and the orbital angular momentum (\boldsymbol{L}). This is zero for a face-on binary.
  • \theta_{JN}—the angle between the line of sight (\boldsymbol{N}) and the total angular momentum of the binary (\boldsymbol{J}); this is approximately equal to the inclination, but is easier to use for precessing binaries.

As well as masses, black holes have spins

  • a_1—the (dimensionless) spin magnitude of the heavier black hole, which is between 0 (no spin) and 1 (maximum spin);
  • a_2—the (dimensionless) spin magnitude of the lighter black hole;
  • a_\mathrm{f}—the (dimensionless) spin magnitude of the final black hole;
  • \chi_\mathrm{eff}—the effective inspiral spin parameter, a combinations of the two component spins which has the largest impact on the rate of inspiral (think of it as the spin equivalent of the chirp mass);
  • \chi_\mathrm{p}—the effective precession spin parameter, a combination of spins which indicate the dominant effects of precession, it’s 0 for no precession and 1 for maximal precession;
  • \theta_{LS_1}—the primary tilt angle, the angle between the orbital angular momentum and the heavier black holes spin (\boldsymbol{S_1}). This is zero for aligned spin.
  • \theta_{LS_2}—the secondary tilt angle, the angle between the orbital angular momentum and the lighter black holes spin (\boldsymbol{S_2}).
  • \phi_{12}—the angle between the projections of the two spins on the orbital plane.

The orientation angles change in precessing binaries (when the spins are not perfectly aligned or antialigned with the orbital angular momentum), so we quote values at a reference time corresponding to when the gravitational wave frequency is 20~\mathrm{Hz}. Finally (for the plots shown here)

  • \psi—the polarization angle, this is zero when the detector arms are parallel to the h_+ polarization’s stretch/squash axis.

For more detailed definitions, check out the Parameter Estimation Paper or the LALInference Paper.

The Boxing Day Event

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

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

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

A Christmas gift

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

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

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

The science

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

0. The Boxing Day Discovery Paper

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

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

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

More details: The Boxing Day Discovery Paper summary

1. The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper

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

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

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

More details: The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper summary

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

The Boxing Day Discovery Paper

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

The signal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The source

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

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

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

Binary black hole masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orientation and magnitudes of the two spins

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

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

The O1 Binary Black Hole Paper

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

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


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

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

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

Search results and GW150914, GW151226 and LVT151012

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

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

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

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

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

Parameter estimation

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

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

All binary black hole masses

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

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

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

All mass ratios and effective spins

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

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

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

All final masses and spins

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

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

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

All luminosity distances

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

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

Sky localization relative to Earth.

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

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

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

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

Sky localization in equatorial coordinates

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

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

Tests of general relativity

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

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

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

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

O1 testing general relativity bounds

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrophysical implications

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus notes

Christmas cease-fire

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

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


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

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

Other searches

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

Matched filtering

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

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

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

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

The figure below shows how effective matched filtering can be.

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

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

Electromagnetic follow-up

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

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


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

Black holes are massive

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

Maximum minimum spin

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

Just one more thing…

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

Advanced LIGO: O1 is here!

The LIGO sites

Aerial views of LIGO Hanford (left) and LIGO Livingston (right). Both have 4 km long arms (arranged in an L shape) which house the interferometer beams. Credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT.

The first observing run (O1) of Advanced LIGO began just over a week ago. We officially started at 4 pm British Summer Time, Friday 18 September. It was a little low key: you don’t want lots of fireworks and popping champagne corks next to instruments incredibly sensitive to vibrations. It was a smooth transition from our last engineering run (ER8), so I don’t even think there were any giant switches to throw. Of course, I’m not an instrumentalist, so I’m not qualified to say. In any case, it is an exciting time, and it is good to see some media attention for the Collaboration (with stories from Nature, the BBC and Science).

I would love to keep everyone up to date with the latest happenings from LIGO. However, like everyone in the Collaboration, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement. (You don’t want to cross people with giant lasers). We can’t have someone saying that we have detected a binary black hole (or that we haven’t) before we’ve properly analysed all the data, finalised calibration, reviewed all the code, double checked our results, and agreed amongst ourselves that we know what’s going on. When we are ready, announcements will come from the LIGO Spokespreson Gabriela González and the Virgo Spokesperson Fulvio Ricci. Event rates are uncertain and we’re not yet at final sensitivity, so don’t expect too much of O1.

There are a couple of things that I can share about our status. Whereas normally everything I write is completely unofficial, these are suggested replies to likely questions.

Have you started taking data?
We began collecting science quality data at the beginning of September, in preparation of the first Observing Run that started on Friday, September 18, and are planning on collecting data for about 4 months

We certainly do have data, but there’s nothing new about that (other than the improved sensitivity). Data from the fifth and sixth science runs of initial LIGO are now publicly available from the LIGO Open Science Center. You can go through it and try to find anything we missed (which is pretty cool).

Have you seen anything in the data yet?
We analyse the data “online” in an effort to provide fast information to astronomers for possible follow up of triggers using a relatively low statistical significance (a false alarm rate of ~1/month). We have been tuning the details of the communication procedures, and we have not yet automated all the steps that can be, but we will send alerts to astronomers above the threshold agreed as soon as we can after those triggers are identified. Since analysis to validate and candidate in gravitational-wave data can take months, we will not be able to say anything about results in the data on short time scales. We will share any and all results when ready, though probably not before the end of the Observing Run. 

Analysing the data is tricky, and requires lots of computing time, as well as carefully calibration of the instruments (including how many glitches they produce which could look like a gravitational-wave trigger). It takes a while to get everything done. If you would like to help out, you can sign up for Einstein@Home, which will use your computer’s idle time to crunch through data. It doesn’t just analyse LIGO data, but has also discovered pulsars in radio and gamma-ray data. You can find out more about Einstein@Home in the LIGO Magazine.

We heard that you sent a gravitational-wave trigger to astronomers already—is that true?
During O1, we will send alerts to astronomers above a relatively low significance threshold; we have been practising communication with astronomers in ER8. We are following this policy with partners who have signed agreement with us and have observational capabilities ready to follow up triggers. Because we cannot validate gravitational-wave events until we have enough statistics and diagnostics, we have confidentiality agreements about any triggers that hare shared, and we hope all involved abide by those rules.

I expect this is a pre-emptive question and answer. It would be amazing if we could see an electromagnetic (optical, gamma-ray, radio, etc.) counterpart to a gravitational wave. (I’ve done some work on how well we can localise gravitational-wave sources on the sky). It’s likely that any explosion or afterglow that is visible will fade quickly, so we want astronomers to be able to start looking straight-away. This means candidate events are sent out before they’re fully vetted: they could just be noise, they could be real, or they could be a blind injection. A blind injection is when a fake signal is introduced to the data secretly; this is done to keep us honest and check that our analysis does work as expected (since we know what results we should get for the signal that was injected). There was a famous blind injection during the run of initial LIGO called Big Dog. (We take gravitational-wave detection seriously). We’ve learnt a lot from injections, even if they are disappointing. Alerts will be sent out for events with false alarm rates of about one per month, so we expect a few across O1 just because of random noise.

While I can’t write more about the science from O1, I will still be posting about astrophysics, theory and how we analyse data. Those who are impatient can be reassured that gravitational waves have been detected, just indirectly, from observations of binary pulsars.

Periastron shift of binary pulsar

The orbital decay of the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar (PSR B1913+16). The points are measured values, while the curve is the theoretical prediction for gravitational waves. I love this plot. Credit: Weisberg & Taylor (2005).