The Black Hole `Photo’: Seeing More Clearly

Ok, after yesterday’s post, in which I told you what I still didn’t understand about the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) black hole image (see also the pre-photo blog post in which I explained pedagogically what the image was likely to show and why), today I can tell you that quite a few of the gaps in my understanding are filling in (thanks mainly to conversations with Harvard postdoc Alex Lupsasca and science journalist Davide Castelvecchi, and to direct answers from professor Heino Falcke, who leads the Event Horizon Telescope Science Council and co-wrote a founding paper in this subject).  And I can give you an update to yesterday’s very tentative figure.

First: a very important point, to which I will return in a future post, is that as I suspected, it’s not at all clear what the EHT image really shows.   More precisely, assuming Einstein’s theory of gravity is correct in this context:

  • The image itself clearly shows a black hole’s quasi-silhouette (called a `shadow’ in expert jargon) and its bright photon-sphere where photons [particles of light — of all electromagnetic waves, including radio waves] can be gathered and focused.
  • However, all the light (including the observed radio waves) coming from the photon-sphere was emitted from material well outside the photon-sphere; and the image itself does not tell you where that material is located.  (To quote Falcke: this is `a blessing and a curse’; insensitivity to the illumination source makes it easy to interpret the black hole’s role in the image but hard to learn much about the material near the black hole.) It’s a bit analogous to seeing a brightly shining metal ball while not being able to see what it’s being lit by… except that the photon-sphere isn’t an object.  It’s just a result of the play of the light [well, radio waves] directed by the bending effects of gravity.  More on that in a future post.
  • When you see a picture of an accretion disk and jets drawn to illustrate where the radio waves may come from, keep in mind that it involves additional assumptions — educated assumptions that combine many other measurements of M87’s black hole with simulations of matter, gravity and magnetic fields interacting near a black hole.  But we should be cautious: perhaps not all the assumptions are right.  The image shows no conflicts with those assumptions, but neither does it confirm them on its own.

Just to indicate the importance of these assumptions, let me highlight a remark made at the press conference that the black hole is rotating quickly, clockwise from our perspective.  But (as the EHT papers state) if one doesn’t make some of the above-mentioned assumptions, one cannot conclude from the image alone that the black hole is actually rotating.  The interplay of these assumptions is something I’m still trying to get straight.

Second, if you buy all the assumptions, then the picture I drew in yesterday’s post is mostly correct except (a) the jets are far too narrow, and shown overly disconnected from the disk, and (b) they are slightly mis-oriented relative to the orientation of the image.  Below is an improved version of this picture, probably still not the final one.  The new features: the jets (now pointing in the right directions relative to the photo) are fatter and not entirely disconnected from the accretion disk.  This is important because the dominant source of illumination of the photon-sphere might come from the region where the disk and jets meet.

My3rdGuessBHPhoto.png

Updated version of yesterday’s figure: main changes are the increased width and more accurate orientation of the jets.  Working backwards: the EHT image (lower right) is interpreted, using mainly Einstein’s theory of gravity, as (upper right) a thin photon-sphere of focused light surrounding a dark patch created by the gravity of the black hole, with a little bit of additional illumination from somewhere.  The dark patch is 2.5 – 5 times larger than the event horizon of the black hole, depending on how fast the black hole is rotating; but the image itself does not tell you how the photon-sphere is illuminated or whether the black hole is rotating.  Using further assumptions, based on previous measurements of various types and computer simulations of material, gravity and magnetic fields, a picture of the black hole’s vicinity (upper left) can be inferred by the experts. It consists of a fat but tenuous accretion disk of material, almost face-on, some of which is funneled into jets, one heading almost toward us, the other in the opposite direction.  The material surrounds but is somewhat separated from a rotating black hole’s event horizon.  At this radio frequency, the jets and disk are too dim in radio waves to see in the image; only at (and perhaps close to) the photon-sphere, where some of the radio waves are collected and focused, are they bright enough to be easily discerned by the Event Horizon Telescope.

 

 

The Black Hole `Photo’: What Are We Looking At?

The short answer: I’m really not sure yet.  [This post is now largely superseded by the next one, in which some of the questions raised below have now been answered.]

Neither are some of my colleagues who know more about the black hole geometry than I do. And at this point we still haven’t figured out what the Event Horizon Telescope experts do and don’t know about this question… or whether they agree amongst themselves.

[Note added: last week, a number of people pointed me to a very nice video by Veritasium illustrating some of the features of black holes, accretion disks and the warping of their appearance by the gravity of the black hole.  However, Veritasium’s video illustrates a non-rotating black hole with a thin accretion disk that is edge-on from our perspective; and this is definitely NOT what we are seeing!]

As I emphasized in my pre-photo blog post (in which I described carefully what we were likely to be shown, and the subtleties involved), this is not a simple photograph of what’s `actually there.’ We all agree that what we’re looking at is light from some glowing material around the solar-system-sized black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87.  But that light has been wildly bent on its path toward Earth, and so — just like a room seen through an old, warped window, and a dirty one at that — it’s not simple to interpret what we’re actually seeing. Where, exactly, is the material `in truth’, such that its light appears where it does in the image? Interpretation of the image is potentially ambiguous, and certainly not obvious. Continue reading

A Black Day (and a Happy One) In Scientific History

Wow.

Twenty years ago, astronomers Heino Falcke, Fulvio Melia and Eric Agol (a former colleague of mine at the University of Washington) pointed out that the black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, was probably big enough to be observed — not with a usual camera using visible light, but using radio waves and clever techniques known as “interferometry”.  Soon it was pointed out that the black hole in M87, further but larger, could also be observed.  [How? I explained this yesterday in this post.]   

And today, an image of the latter, looking quite similar to what we expected, was presented to humanity.  Just as with the discovery of the Higgs boson, and with LIGO’s first discovery of gravitational waves, nature, captured by the hard work of an international group of many scientists, gives us something definitive, uncontroversial, and spectacularly in line with expectations.

EHTDiscoveryM87.png

An image of the dead center of the huge galaxy M87, showing a glowing ring of radio waves from a disk of rapidly rotating gas, and the dark quasi-silhouette of a solar-system-sized black hole.  Congratulations to the Event Horizon Telescope team

I’ll have more to say about this later [have to do non-physics work today 😦 ] and in particular about the frustration of not finding any helpful big surprises during this great decade of fundamental science — but for now, let’s just enjoy this incredible image for what it is, and congratulate those who proposed this effort and those who carried it out.

 

A Non-Expert’s Guide to a Black Hole’s Silhouette

[Note added April 16: some minor improvements have been made to this article as my understanding has increased, specifically concerning the photon-sphere, which is the main region from which the radio waves are seen in the recently released image. See later blog posts for the image and its interpretation.]

About fifteen years ago, when I was a professor at the University of Washington, the particle physics theorists and the astronomer theorists occasionally would arrange to have lunch together, to facilitate an informal exchange of information about our adjacent fields. Among the many enjoyable discussions, one I was particularly excited about — as much as an amateur as a professional — was that in which I learned of the plan to make some sort of image of a black hole. I was told that this incredible feat would likely be achieved by 2020. The time, it seems, has arrived.

The goal of this post is to provide readers with what I hope will be a helpful guide through the foggy swamp that is likely to partly obscure this major scientific result. Over the last days I’ve been reading what both scientists and science journalists are writing in advance of the press conference Wednesday morning, and I’m finding many examples of jargon masquerading as English, terms poorly defined, and phrasing that seems likely to mislead. As I’m increasingly concerned that many non-experts will be unable to understand what is presented tomorrow, and what the pictures do and do not mean, I’m using this post to answer a few questions that many readers (and many of these writers) have perhaps not thought to ask. Continue reading

LHCb experiment finds another case of CP violation in nature

The LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider is dedicated mainly to the study of mesons [objects made from a quark of one type, an anti-quark of another type, plus many other particles] that contain bottom quarks (hence the `b’ in the name).  But it also can be used to study many other things, including mesons containing charm quarks.

By examining large numbers of mesons that contain a charm quark and an up anti-quark (or a charm anti-quark and an up quark) and studying carefully how they decay, the LHCb experimenters have discovered a new example of violations of the transformations known as CP (C: exchange of particle with anti-particle; P: reflection of the world in a mirror), of the sort that have been previously seen in mesons containing strange quarks and mesons containing bottom quarks.  Here’s the press release.

Congratulations to LHCb!  This important addition to our basic knowledge is consistent with expectations; CP violation of roughly this size is predicted by the formulas that make up the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  However, our predictions are very rough in this context; it is sometimes difficult to make accurate calculations when the strong nuclear force, which holds mesons (as well as protons and neutrons) together, is involved.  So this is a real coup for LHCb, but not a game-changer for particle physics.  Perhaps, sometime in the future, theorists will learn how to make predictions as precise as LHCb’s measurement!

The Importance and Challenges of “Open Data” at the Large Hadron Collider

A little while back I wrote a short post about some research that some colleagues and I did using “open data” from the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. We used data made public by the CMS experimental collaboration — about 1% of their current data — to search for a new particle, using a couple of twists (as proposed over 10 years ago) on a standard technique.  (CMS is one of the two general-purpose particle detectors at the LHC; the other is called ATLAS.)  We had two motivations: (1) Even if we didn’t find a new particle, we wanted to prove that our search method was effective; and (2) we wanted to stress-test the CMS Open Data framework, to assure it really does provide all the information needed for a search for something unknown.

Recently I discussed (1), and today I want to address (2): to convey why open data from the LHC is useful but controversial, and why we felt it was important, as theoretical physicists (i.e. people who perform particle physics calculations, but do not build and run the actual experiments), to do something with it that is usually the purview of experimenters.

The Importance of Archiving Data

In many subfields of physics and astronomy, data from experiments is made public as a matter of routine. Usually this occurs after an substantial delay, to allow the experimenters who collected the data to analyze it first for major discoveries. That’s as it should be: the experimenters spent years of their lives proposing, building and testing the experiment, and they deserve an uninterrupted opportunity to investigate its data. To force them to release data immediately would create a terrible disincentive for anyone to do all the hard work!

Data from particle physics colliders, however, has not historically been made public. More worrying, it has rarely been archived in a form that is easy for others to use at a later date. I’m not the right person to tell you the history of this situation, but I can give you a sense for why this still happens today. Continue reading

A Broad Search for Fast Hidden Particles

A few days ago I wrote a quick summary of a project that we just completed (and you may find it helpful to read that post first). In this project, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in a novel way, in two senses. Today I’m going to explain what we did, why we did it, and what was unconventional about our search strategy.

The first half of this post will be appropriate for any reader who has been following particle physics as a spectator sport, or in some similar vein. In the second half, I’ll add some comments for my expert colleagues that may be useful in understanding and appreciating some of our results.  [If you just want to read the comments for experts, jump here.]

Why did we do this?

Motivation first. Why, as theorists, would we attempt to take on the role of our experimental colleagues — to try on our own to analyze the extremely complex and challenging data from the LHC? We’re by no means experts in data analysis, and we were very slow at it. And on top of that, we only had access to 1% of the data that CMS has collected. Isn’t it obvious that there is no chance whatsoever of finding something new with just 1% of the data, since the experimenters have had years to look through much larger data sets? Continue reading

Breaking a Little New Ground at the Large Hadron Collider

Today, a small but intrepid band of theoretical particle physicists (professor Jesse Thaler of MIT, postdocs Yotam Soreq and Wei Xue of CERN, Harvard Ph.D. student Cari Cesarotti, and myself) put out a paper that is unconventional in two senses. First, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public. And second, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public.

And no, there’s no error in the previous paragraph.

1) We used a small amount of actual data from the CMS experiment, even though we’re not ourselves members of the CMS experiment, to do a search for a new particle. Both ATLAS and CMS, the two large multipurpose experimental detectors at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], have made a small fraction of their proton-proton collision data public, through a website called the CERN Open Data Portal. Some experts, including my co-authors Thaler, Xue and their colleagues, have used this data (and the simulations that accompany it) to do a variety of important studies involving known particles and their properties. [Here’s a blog post by Thaler concerning Open Data and its importance from his perspective.] But our new study is the first to look for signs of a new particle in this public data. While our chances of finding anything were low, we had a larger goal: to see whether Open Data could be used for such searches. We hope our paper provides some evidence that Open Data offers a reasonable path for preserving priceless LHC data, allowing it to be used as an archive by physicists of the post-LHC era.

2) Since only had a tiny fraction of CMS’s data was available to us, about 1% by some count, how could we have done anything useful compared to what the LHC experts have already done? Well, that’s why we examined the data in a slightly unconventional way (one of several methods that I’ve advocated for many years, but has not been used in any public study). Consequently it allowed us to explore some ground that no one had yet swept clean, and even have a tiny chance of an actual discovery! But the larger scientific goal, absent a discovery, was to prove the value of this unconventional strategy, in hopes that the experts at CMS and ATLAS will use it (and others like it) in future. Their chance of discovering something new, using their full data set, is vastly greater than ours ever was.

Now don’t all go rushing off to download and analyze terabytes of CMS Open Data; you’d better know what you’re getting into first. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not easy going. LHC data is extremely complicated, and until this project I’ve always been skeptical that it could be released in a form that anyone outside the experimental collaborations could use. Downloading the data and turning it into a manageable form is itself a major task. Then, while studying it, there are an enormous number of mistakes that you can make (and we made quite a few of them) and you’d better know how to make lots of cross-checks to find your mistakes (which, fortunately, we did know; we hope we found all of them!) The CMS personnel in charge of the Open Data project were enormously helpful to us, and we’re very grateful to them; but since the project is new, there were inevitable wrinkles which had to be worked around. And you’d better have some friends among the experimentalists who can give you advice when you get stuck, or point out aspects of your results that don’t look quite right. [Our thanks to them!]

All in all, this project took us two years! Well, honestly, it should have taken half that time — but it couldn’t have taken much less than that, with all we had to learn. So trying to use Open Data from an LHC experiment is not something you do in your idle free time.

Nevertheless, I feel it was worth it. At a personal level, I learned a great deal more about how experimental analyses are carried out at CMS, and by extension, at the LHC more generally. And more importantly, we were able to show what we’d hoped to show: that there are still tremendous opportunities for discovery at the LHC, through the use of (even slightly) unconventional model-independent analyses. It’s a big world to explore, and we took only a small step in the easiest direction, but perhaps our efforts will encourage others to take bigger and more challenging ones.

For those readers with greater interest in our work, I’ll put out more details in two blog posts over the next few days: one about what we looked for and how, and one about our views regarding the value of open data from the LHC, not only for our project but for the field of particle physics as a whole.