Scarcely a hundred years after Einstein revealed the equations for his theory of gravity (“General Relativity”) on November 25th, 1915, the world today awaits an announcement from the LIGO experiment, where the G in LIGO stands for Gravity. (The full acronym stands for “Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.”) As you’ve surely heard, the widely reported rumors are that at some point in the last few months, LIGO, recently upgraded to its “Advanced” version, finally observed gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space (more accurately, of space-time). These waves, which can make the length of LIGO shorter and longer by an incredibly tiny amount, seem to have come from the violent merger of two black holes, each with a mass [rest-mass!] dozens of times larger than the Sun. Their coalescence occurred long long ago (billions of years) in a galaxy far far away (a good fraction of the distance across the visible part of the universe), but the ripples from the event arrived at Earth just weeks ago. For a brief moment, it is rumored, they shook LIGO hard enough to be convincingly observed.
For today’s purposes, let me assume the rumors are true, and let me assume also that the result to be announced is actually correct. We’ll learn today whether the first assumption is right, but the second assumption may not be certain for some months (remember OPERA’s [NOT] faster-than-light neutrinos and BICEP2’s [PROBABLY NOT] gravitational waves from inflation). We must always keep in mind that any extraordinary scientific result has to be scrutinized and confirmed by experts before scientists will believe it! Discovery is difficult, and a large fraction of such claims — large — fail the test of time.
What the Big News Isn’t
There will be so much press and so many blog articles about this subject that I’m just going to point out a few things that I suspect most articles will miss, especially those in the press.
Most importantly, if LIGO has indeed directly discovered gravitational waves, that’s exciting of course. But it’s by no means the most important story here.
That’s because gravitational waves were already observed indirectly, quite some time ago, in a system of two neutron stars orbiting each other. This pair of neutron stars, discovered by Joe Taylor and his graduate student Russell Hulse, is interesting because one of the neutron stars is a pulsar, an object whose rotation and strong magnetic field combine to make it a natural lighthouse, or more accurately a radiohouse, sending out pulses of radio waves that can be detected at great distances. The time between pulses shifts very slightly as the pulsar moves toward and away from Earth, so the pulsar’s motion around its companion can be carefully monitored. Its orbital period has slowly changed over the decades, and the changes are perfectly consistent with what one would expect if the system were losing energy, emitting it in the form of unseen gravitational waves at just the rate predicted by Einstein’s theory (as shown in this graph.) For their discovery, Hulse and Taylor received the 1993 Nobel Prize. By now, there are other examples of similar pairs of neutron stars, also showing the same type of energy loss in detailed accord with Einstein’s equations.
A bit more subtle (so you can skip this paragraph if you want), but also more general, is that some kind of gravitational waves are inevitable… inevitable, after you accept Einstein’s earlier (1905) equations of special relativity, in which he suggested that the speed of light is a sort of universal speed limit on everything, imposed by the structure of space-time. Sound waves, for instance, exist because the speed of sound is finite; if it were infinite, a vibrating guitar string would make the whole atmosphere wiggle back and forth in sync with the guitar string. Similarly, since effects of gravity must travel at a finite speed, the gravitational effects of orbiting objects must create waves. The only question is the specific properties those waves might have.
No one, therefore, should be surprised that gravitational waves exist, or that they travel at the universal speed limit, just like electromagnetic waves (including visible light, radio waves, etc.) No one should even be surprised that the waves LIGO is (perhaps) detecting have properties predicted by Einstein’s specific equations for gravity; if they were different in a dramatic way, the Hulse-Taylor neutron stars would have behaved differently than expected.
Furthermore, no one should be surprised if waves from a black hole merger have been observed by the Advanced LIGO experiment. This experiment was designed from the beginning, decades ago, so that it could hardly fail to discover gravitational waves from the coalescence of two black holes, two neutron stars, or one of each. We know these mergers happen, and the experts were very confident that Advanced LIGO could find them. The really serious questions were: (a) would Advanced LIGO work as advertised? (b) if it worked, how soon would it make its first discovery? and (c) would the discovery agree in detail with expectations from Einstein’s equations?
Big News In Scientific Technology
So the first big story is that Advanced LIGO WORKS! This experiment represents one of the greatest technological achievements in human history. Congratulations are due to the designers, builders, and operators of this experiment — and to the National Science Foundation of the United States, which is LIGO’s largest funding source. U.S. taxpayers, who on average each contributed a few cents per year over the past two-plus decades, can be proud. And because of the new engineering and technology that were required to make Advanced LIGO functional, I suspect that, over the long run, taxpayers will get a positive financial return on their investment. That’s in addition of course to a vast scientific return.
Advanced LIGO is not even in its final form; further improvements are in the works. Currently, Advanced LIGO consists of two detectors located 2000 miles (3000 kilometers) apart. Each detector consists of two “arms” a few miles (kilometers) long, oriented at right angles, and the lengths of the arms are continuously compared. This is done using exceptionally stable lasers reflecting off exceptionally perfect mirrors, and requiring use of sophisticated tricks for mitigating all sorts of normal vibrations and even effects of quantum “jitter” from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. With these tools, Advanced LIGO can detect when passing gravitational waves change the lengths of LIGO’s arms by … incredibly … less than one part in a billion trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). That’s an astoundingly tiny distance: a thousand times smaller than the radius of a proton. (A proton itself is a hundred thousand times smaller, in radius, than an atom. Indeed, LIGO is measuring a distance as small as can be probed by the Large Hadron Collider — albeit with a very very tiny energy, in contrast to the collider.) By any measure, the gravitational experimenters have done something absolutely extraordinary.
Big News In Gravity
The second big story: from the gravitational waves that LIGO has perhaps seen, we would learn that the merger of two black holes occurs, to a large extent, as Einstein’s theory predicts. The success of this prediction for what the pattern of gravitational waves should be is a far more powerful test of Einstein’s equations than the mere existence of the gravitational waves!
Imagine, if you can… Two city-sized black holes, each with a mass [rest-mass!] tens of times greater than the Sun, and separated by a few tens of miles (tens of kilometers), orbit each other. They circle faster and faster, as often, in their last few seconds, as 100 times per second. They move at a speed that approaches the universal speed limit. This extreme motion creates an ever larger and increasingly rapid vibration in space-time, generating large space-time waves that rush outward into space. Finally the two black holes spiral toward each other, meet, and join together to make a single black hole, larger than the first two and spinning at an incredible rate. It takes a short moment to settle down to its final form, emitting still more gravitational waves.
During this whole process, the total amount of energy emitted in the vibrations of space-time is a few times larger than you’d get if you could take the entire Sun and (magically) extract all of the energy stored in its rest-mass (E=mc²). This is an immense amount of energy, significantly more than emitted in a typical supernova. Indeed, LIGO’s black hole merger may perhaps be the most titanic event ever detected by humans!
This violent dance of darkness involves very strong and complicated warping of space and time. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 or so that the full calculation of the process, including the actual moment of coalescence, was possible, using highly advanced mathematical techniques and powerful supercomputers!
By contrast, the resulting ripples we get to observe, billions of years later, are much more tame. Traveling far across the cosmos, they have spread out and weakened. Today they create extremely small and rather simple wiggles in space and time. You can learn how to calculate their properties in an advanced university textbook on Einstein’s gravity equations. Not for the faint of heart, but certainly no supercomputers required.
So gravitational waves are the (relatively) easy part. It’s the prediction of the merger’s properties that was the really big challenge, and its success would represent a remarkable achievement by gravitational theorists. And it would provide powerful new tests of whether Einstein’s equations are in any way incomplete in their description of gravity, black holes, space and time.
Big News in Astronomy
The third big story: If today’s rumor is indeed of a real discovery, we are witnessing the birth of an entirely new field of science: gravitational-wave astronomy. This type of astronomy is complementary to the many other methods we have of “looking” at the universe. What’s great about gravitational wave astronomy is that although dramatic events can occur in the universe without leaving a signal visible to the eye, and even without creating any electromagnetic waves at all, nothing violent can happen in the universe without making waves in space-time. Every object creates gravity, through the curvature of space-time, and every object feels gravity too. You can try to hide in the shadows, but there’s no hiding from gravity.
Advanced LIGO may have been rather lucky to observe a two-black-hole merger so early in its life. But we can be optimistic that the early discovery means that black hole mergers will be observed as often as several times a year even with the current version of Advanced LIGO, which will be further improved over the next few years. This in turn would imply that gravitational wave astronomy will soon be a very rich subject, with lots and lots of interesting data to come, even within 2016. We will look back on today as just the beginning.
Although the rumored discovery is of something expected — experts were pretty certain that mergers of black holes of this size happen on a fairly regular basis — gravitational wave astronomy might soon show us something completely unanticipated. Perhaps it will teach us surprising facts about the numbers or properties of black holes, neutron stars, or other massive objects. Perhaps it will help us solve some existing mysteries, such as those of gamma-ray bursts. Or perhaps it will reveal currently unsuspected cataclysmic events that may have occurred somewhere in our universe’s past.
Prizes On Order?
So it’s really not the gravitational waves themselves that we should celebrate, although I suspect that’s what the press will focus on. Scientists already knew that these waves exist, just as they were aware of the existence of atoms, neutrinos, and top quarks long before these objects were directly observed. The historic aspects of today’s announcement would be in the successful operation of Advanced LIGO, in its new way of “seeing” the universe that allows us to observe two black holes becoming one, and in the ability of Einstein’s gravitational equations to predict the complexities of such an astronomical convulsion.
Of course all of this is under the assumptions that the rumors are true, and also that LIGO’s results are confirmed by further observations. Let’s hope that any claims of discovery survive the careful and proper scrutiny to which they will now be subjected. If so, then prizes of the highest level are clearly in store, and will be doled out to quite a few people, experimenters for designing and building LIGO and theorists for predicting what black-hole mergers would look like. As always, though, the only prize that really matters is given by Nature… and the many scientists and engineers who have contributed to Advanced LIGO may have already won.
Enjoy the press conference this morning. I, ironically, will be in the most inaccessible of places: over the Atlantic Ocean. I was invited to speak at a workshop on Large Hadron Collider physics this week, and I’ll just be flying home. I suppose I can wait 12 hours to find out the news… it’s been 44 years since LIGO was proposed…