New Gravitational Wave Detection From Colliding Black Hole

New Gravitational Wave Detection From Colliding Black Holes[1]

The LIGO and Virgo detectors in the United States and Europe identified gravitational waves emitted by the collision of two black holes 1.8 billion light years away. The location of the black holes in the night skies is visualized in this map. Credit LIGO/Virgo

In another step forward for the rapidly expanding universe of invisible astronomy, scientists said on Wednesday that on Aug. 14 they had recorded the space-time reverberations known as gravitational waves from the collision of a pair of black holes 1.8 billion light years away from here.

It was the fourth time, officially, in the last two years that astronomers have detected such ripples from the cataclysmic mergers of black holes—objects so dense that space and time are wrapped around them like a glove so that not even light can escape.

In the August event, one black hole with about 31 times the mass of the Sun and another with 25 solar masses, combined to make a hole of 53 solar masses. The remaining three solar masses were converted into gravitational waves that radiated more energy than all the stars in the known universe. The observation is in line with earlier gravitational wave detections, confirming an evolving view of the cosmic night full of monsters and violence.

The detection, announced at a G7 meeting of science ministers in Turin, Italy, and in a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters, marked the successful debut of a new gravitational wave detector known as Virgo, built by a European collaboration and located in Cascina, close to Pisa, Italy.

The first detections of gravitational waves had been made by a pair of L-shaped antennas, called LIGO, in Hanford, Wash. and Livingston, La., which monitor the squeezing and stretching of space between a pair of delicately positioned mirrors as a gravitational wave goes by. That announcement in February 2016 confirmed the existence of gravitational waves first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago, and verified the nature of black holes, causing a sensation. LIGO’s leaders are now front-runners for the Nobel Prize in Physics, to be announced next week.

On Aug. 1, the Virgo antenna, built by the European Gravitational Observatory, came on line to join the existing LIGO antennas.

The addition paid off almost immediately, scientists for the observatories said on Wednesday (September 27, 2017), when a pair of black holes in collision rattled the antennas on Aug. 14, 2017. Although the Virgo antenna is still only about one-fourth as sensitive as the LIGO antennas, it greatly increases the network’s ability to triangulate the sources of gravitational waves so that optical telescopes can search for any accompanying fireworks in the visible sky.

To date none have been detected given that black holes are composed essentially of empty twisted space. But gravitational wave astronomers have hopes of finding other types of collisions, involving dense balls of matter called neutron stars, that will spark up the night aplenty.

The current observing run ended on Aug. 25, 2017. After a year of work improving the sensitivities of their instruments, a new run will begin in the fall of 2018. Hopes are, you might say, sky high.

In a news release from the University of Glasgow sent out before the G7 meeting, Sheila Rowan, director of the university’s Institute for Gravitational Research, said: “We now are demonstrating the capabilities of a network of gravitational wave detectors, which deepens the pool of data we’ll be able to draw from in future and will help to further expand our understanding of the universe.”

MIT’s David Shoemaker, spokesman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said: “This is just the beginning of observations with the network enabled by Virgo and LIGO working together. With the next observing run planned for Fall 2018, we can expect such detections weekly or even more often.”

[1] Dennis Overbye, “New Gravitational Wave Detection from Colliding Black Holes,” New York Times (September 27, 2017) accessed at


Hints of Extra Dimensions in Gravitational Waves

Hints of Extra Dimensions in Gravitational Waves?[1]

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) in Potsdam found that hidden dimensions – as predicted by string theory – could influence gravitational waves. In a recently published paper they study the consequences of extra dimensions on these ripples in space-time, and predict whether their effects could be detected.

Merging black holes generate gravitational waves. These ripples in space-time might be used to unveil hidden dimensions.







LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves from a black-hole binary in September 2015 has opened a new window onto the universe. Now it looks like with this new observing tool physicists cannot only trace black holes and other exotic astrophysical objects but also understand gravity itself. “Compared to the other fundamental forces like, e.g. electromagnetism, gravity is extremely weak,” explains Dr. David Andriot, one of the authors of the study. The reason for this weakness could be that gravity interacts with more than the three dimensions in space and one dimension in time that are part of our everyday experience.

Extra dimensions

Extra dimensions that are hidden because they are very small are an indispensable part of string theory—one of the promising candidates for a theory of quantum gravity. A theory of quantum gravity, unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity, is sought after in order to understand what happens when very large masses at very small distances are involved, e.g. inside a black hole or at the Big Bang.

“Physicists have been looking for extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN but up to now this search has yielded no results,” says Dr. Gustavo Lucena Gómez, the second author of the paper. “But gravitational wave detectors might be able to provide experimental evidence.”

The researchers discovered that extra dimensions should have two different effects on gravitational waves: they would modify the “standard” gravitational waves and would cause additional waves at high frequencies above 1000 Hz. However, the observation of the latter is unlikely since the existing ground-based gravitational wave detectors are not sensitive enough at high frequencies.

On the other hand, the effect that extra dimensions can make a difference in how “standard” gravitational waves stretch and shrink space-time might be easier to detect by making use of more than one detector. Since the Virgo detector will join the two LIGO detectors for the next observing run this might happen after late 2018/beginning of 2019.

[1] Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Albert Einstein Institute,.“Hints of Extra Dimensions in Gravitational Waves?,”(June 28, 2017)

Black Hole Merger

Third Gravitational Wave Detection, From Black-Hole Merger[1]

An artist’s conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO. Astronomers said Thursday (June 7, 2017) that they had felt space-time vibrations known as gravitational waves from the merger of a pair of mammoth black holes resulting in a pit of infinitely deep darkness. (Credit Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State/Caltech/MIT/LIGO)

The void is rocking and rolling with invisible cataclysms.

Astronomers said Thursday (June 7, 2017) that they had felt space-time vibrations known as gravitational waves from the merger of a pair of mammoth black holes resulting in a pit of infinitely deep darkness weighing as much as 49 suns, some 3 billion light-years from here.

This is the third black-hole smashup that astronomers have detected since they started keeping watch on the cosmos back in September 2015, with LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. All of them are more massive than the black holes that astronomers had previously identified as the remnants of dead stars.

In less than two short years, the observatory has wrought twin revolutions. It validated Einstein’s longstanding prediction that space-time can shake like a bowlful of jelly when massive objects swing their weight around, and it has put astronomers on intimate terms with the most extreme objects in his cosmic zoo and the ones so far doing the shaking: massive black holes.

“We are moving in a substantial way away from novelty towards where we can seriously say we are developing black-hole astronomy,” said David Shoemaker, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and spokesman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, an international network of about 1,000 astronomers and physicists who use the LIGO data. They and a similar European group named Virgo are collectively the 1,300 authors of a report on the most recent event that will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters on Thursday.

“We’re starting to fill in the mass spectrum of black holes in the universe,” said David Reitze, director of the LIGO Laboratory, a smaller group of scientists headquartered at Caltech and M.I.T. who built and run the observatory.

The National Science Foundation, which poured $1 billion into LIGO over 40 years, responded with pride. “This is exactly what we hoped for from N.S.F.’s investment in LIGO: taking us deeper into time and space in ways we couldn’t do before the detection of gravitational waves,” France Cordova, the foundation’s director, said in a statement. “In this case, we’re exploring approximately 3 billion light-years away!”

In the latest LIGO event, a black hole 19 times the mass of the Sun and another black hole 31 times the Sun’s mass, married to make a single hole of 49 solar masses. During the last frantic moments of the merger, they were shedding more energy in the form of gravitational waves than all the stars in the observable universe.

After a journey lasting 3 billion years, that is to say, a quarter of the age of the universe, those waves started jiggling LIGO’s mirrors back and forth by a fraction of an atomic diameter 20 times a second. The pitch rose to 180 cycles per second in about a tenth of a second before cutting off.

Zsuzsanna Marka, an astronomer at Columbia University, was sitting in an office on the morning of Jan. 4, 2017 when she got an email alert. She started to smile but then remembered she was not alone and the other person was not a member of LIGO, so she couldn’t say why she was smiling.

“I just kept smiling,” she said.

Upon further analysis it proved to be a perfect chirp, as predicted by Einstein’s equations. Because of the merger’s great distance, the LIGO scientists were able to verify that different frequencies of gravity waves all travel at the same speed, presumably the speed of light. As Dr. Reitze said, “Once again Einstein triumphs.”

“That’s not surprising,” Dr. Reitze went on, adding, “at some point he’s going to be wrong, and we’ll be looking.”

Poor Einstein.

Black holes were an entirely unwelcome consequence of his theory of general relativity that ascribes gravity to the warping of space-time geometry by matter and energy. Too much mass in one place, the equations said, could cause space to wrap itself around in a ball too tight and dense for even light to escape. In effect, Einstein’s theory suggested, matter, say a dead star, could disappear from the universe, leaving behind nothing but its gravitational ghost.

Einstein thought that nature would have more sense than that. But astronomers now agree that the sky is dotted with the dense dark remnants of stars that have burned up all their fuel and collapsed, often in gigantic supernova explosions. Until now, they were detectable only indirectly by the glow of x rays or other radiation from doomed matter heated to stupendous degrees as it swirls around a cosmic drain.

But what telescopes cannot see, gadgets like LIGO now can feel, or “hear.”

Gravitational waves alternately stretch and squeeze space as they travel along at the speed of light. LIGO was designed to look for these changes by using lasers to monitor the distances between mirrors in a pair of L-shaped antennas in Hanford, Wash., and in Livingston, La. There is another antenna in Italy known as Virgo now undergoing its final testing. When it is online, possibly later this summer (2017), having three detectors will greatly improve astronomers’ ability to tell where the gravitational waves are coming from.

The detectors were designed and built and rebuilt over 40 years to be able to detect collisions of neutron stars—the superdense remnants of some kinds of supernova explosions. Astronomers know such pairs exist in abundance, doomed someday for a fiery ending.

Colliding black holes, being more massive, would be even easier to detect, but LIGO’s founders and funders at the National Science Foundation mostly did not know if there were any around to detect.

Now they know.

The current version of the observatory, known as Advanced LIGO, was still preparing for its first official observing run, in September 2015, when it recorded the collision of a pair of black holes 36 and 29 times as massive as the sun. A second collision, on Dec. 26, 2015, was also confirmed to be massive black holes. A third event in October of that year was probably a black hole merger, the collaboration said.

The burning question now is: Where did such massive black holes come from?

“How were such large black-hole binaries created? How did they form?” Szabolcs Marka, a physics professor at Columbia and LIGO member, said recently. “This is indeed one of the big questions of our field today.”

One possibility is that they were born that way, from a pair of massive stars orbiting each other that evolved, died, blew up and then collapsed again into black holes — all without either star getting kicked out of the system during one of those episodes of stellar violence.

Another idea is that two pre-existing black holes came together by chance and captured each other gravitationally in some crowded part of the galaxy, such as near the center, where black holes might naturally collect.

Astronomers won’t say which explanation is preferred, pending more data, but what Dr. Reitze calls a “tantalizing hint” has emerged from analysis of the Jan. 4 (2017) chirp, namely how the black holes were spinning.

If the stars that gave rise to these black holes had been lifting and evolving together in a binary system, their spins should be aligned, spinning on parallel axes like a pair of gold medal skating dancers at the Olympics, Dr. Reitze explained.

Examination of the January chirp, Dr. Reitze said, gives hints that the spins of the black holes were not aligned, complicating the last motions of their mating dance.

“It was not a simple waltz, it was more like a couple of break dancers,” he said.

As for the original stellar identities of these dark dancers, the consensus, said Daniel Holz of the University of Chicago, is that they were probably very massive and primitive stars at least 40 times heavier than the Sun.

According to theoretical calculations, stars composed of primordial hydrogen and helium and lacking heavier elements like oxygen and carbon, which astronomers with their knack for nomenclature call “metals,” can grow monstrously large. They could collapse directly into black holes when their brief violent lives were over without the benefit of a supernova explosion or other cosmic fireworks.

Dr. Holz said in an email: “It is indeed odd to think that some of the most dramatic stellar collapse do not result in massive stellar explosions outshining galaxies, but instead just involve a star winking out of existence. But that’s what the theory says should happen.”

As if on cue, just last week (June, 2017) astronomers from Ohio State reported that a massive star called N6946-BH1 had suddenly disappeared. The star was in a spiral galaxy 22 million light-years away that is nicknamed the “Fireworks Galaxy” because so many supernova explosions happen in it.

The star, estimated to weigh as much as 25 suns had been brightening since 2009 and was presumably on its way to being a supernova. Instead it winked out in 2015. After a search for remains with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, the astronomers concluded that the supernova had probably fizzled and the star had instead collapsed into a black hole.

In a news release from Ohio State, Kris Stanek, a co-leader of this discovery, said it could help explain the LIGO results and why astronomers didn’t see supernovas from really massive stars. “I suspect it’s much easier to make a very massive black hole if there is no supernova,” he said.

In an email Dr. Stanek wrote, “I am obviously biased, but I think this is a very important discovery, and one that the community is not yet fully ‘groking’ in how it will impact a number of things, including LIGO results.”

Dr. Holz agreed. He said, “We think this might be a channel for ‘heavy’ black hole formation, and it’s amazing to see it actually happening in real time.” Noting that the LIGO observations were in some sense the deaths of the black holes that collided, he added, “so now in some sense we get to watch both the birth and the death of the black holes.”

[1] Dennis Overbye, “Third Gravitational Wave Detection, From Black-Hole Merger 3 Billion Light Years Away ,” New York Times (June 1, 2017). A version of this article appears in print on June 2, 2017, on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: “From Cheap Seats on Earth, Sensing a Tiny Echo of a Tumultuous Spectacle.”

Eddington Observes Solar Eclipse to Test General Relativity

May 29, 1919: Eddington Observes Solar Eclipse to Test General Relativity

One of Eddington’s photographs of the May 29, 1919, solar eclipse. The photo was presented in his 1920 paper announcing the successful test of general relativity.

When Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity (GR) in 1915, he proposed three critical tests, insisting in a letter to The Times of London that if any one of these three proved to be wrong, the whole theory would collapse.

  • Advance of the perihelion of Mercury
  • Deflection of light by a gravitational field
  • Gravitational red shift

Once he had completed his theory, Einstein immediately calculated the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, and he could hardly contain himself when GR produced the correct result. The next classical test was the deflection of light by a gravitational field, first performed by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1919.

Born to Quaker parents in December 1882, Arthur was just two years old when he lost his father to a typhoid epidemic that ravaged England. As a child, Eddington was enamored of the night sky and often tried to count the number of stars he could see. Initially Eddington was schooled at home, but when he did start attending school, he excelled so much in mathematics that he won a scholarship to Owens College in Manchester at age 16. He graduated with first class honors in physics, and promptly won another scholarship to attend Trinity College at Cambridge University.

Eddington completed his M.A. in 1905. First, he worked on thermionic emission at the Cavendish Laboratory, and then tried his hand at mathematics research, but neither project went well. He briefly taught mathematics before re-discovering his first love: astronomy. Eventually he found a position at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, specializing in the study of stellar structure. By 1914 he had moved up to become director of the Cambridge Observatory; a Royal Society fellowship and Royal Medal soon followed.

During Eddington’s tenure as secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, Willem de Sitter sent him letters and papers about Einstein’s new general theory of relativity. Eddington became Einstein’s biggest evangelist at a time when there was still considerable wartime hostility and mistrust toward any work by German physicists. He soon became involved in attempts to confirm one of the theory’s key predictions.

Since the masses of celestial bodies would cause spacetime to curve, Einstein predicted that light should follow those curves and bend ever so slightly. Isaac Newton had also predicted that light would bend in a gravitational field, although only half as much. Which prediction was more accurate? Scientists feared that measuring such a tiny curvature was simply beyond their experimental capabilities at the time.

It was Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank W. Dyson, who proposed an expedition to view the total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, in order to resolve the issue. Eddington was happy to lead the expedition, but initially the venture was delayed. World War I was raging, and the factories were too busy meeting the country’s military needs to make the required astronomical instruments. When the war ended in November 1918, scientists had just five months to pull together everything for the expedition.

Eddington took nighttime baseline measurements of the positions of the stars in the Hyades cluster in January and February of 1919. During the eclipse the Sun would cross that cluster, and the starlight would be visible. Comparison of the baseline measurements of a star’s position and the corresponding measurements made during the eclipse, when that star was just visible at the limb of the sun, would determine whether Einstein or Newton was right.

Then Eddington set sail for Principe, a remote island off the west coast of Africa, sending a second ship to Sobral, Brazil—just in case the weather didn’t cooperate and clouds obscured the view. It proved to be a smart decision. Eddington’s team was dismayed when heavy rains and clouds appeared on the day of the eclipse, although the skies cleared sufficiently by the time of the event to allow them to make their measurements. The Brazilian team had their own challenges: The tropical heat warped the metal in their large telescopes, forcing them to also use a smaller 10-centimeter instrument as backup.

Once the two teams had analyzed their results, they found their measurements were within two standard deviations of Einstein’s predictions, compared to twice that for Newton’s, thus supporting Einstein’s new theory. News of Eddington’s observations spread quickly and caused a media sensation, elevating Einstein to overnight global celebrity. (When his assistant asked how he would have felt had the expedition failed, Einstein is said to have quipped, “Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct anyway.”)

Not everyone immediately accepted the results. Some astronomers accused Eddington of manipulating his data because he threw out values obtained from the Brazilian team’s warped telescopes, which gave results closer to the Newtonian value. Others questioned whether his images were of sufficient quality to make a definitive conclusion. Astronomers at Lick Observatory in California repeated the measurement during the 1922 eclipse, and got similar results, as did the teams who made measurements during the solar eclipses of 1953 and 1973. Each new result was better than the last. By the 1960s, most physicists accepted that Einstein’s prediction of how much light would be deflected was the correct one.

Eddington succumbed to cancer in November 1944 after a long illustrious career. In addition to his many scientific contributions, he once penned a lyrical parody of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam about his famed 1919 expedition:

Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate
One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT,
One thing is certain, and the rest debate –
Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT.


Gravitational Waves

Gravitational Waves[1]

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, launched the era of gravitational wave astronomy in February 2016 with the announcement of a collision between two black holes observed in September 2015.

The scientific collaboration that operates the two LIGO detectors netted a second merger between slightly smaller black holes on December 26, 2015. (A third “trigger” showed up in LIGO data on October 12, 2015, but ultimately did not meet the stringent statistical significance standard that physicists generally insist on.)

Instead, scientists focused on sharpening theoretical estimates of how often various events occur. In particular, they are eager to see collisions involving neutron stars, which lack sufficient mass to collapse all the way to a black hole. Neutron star collisions are thought to be plentiful, but would emit weaker gravitational waves than do mergers of more massive black holes, so the volume of space the LIGO detectors can scan for such events is smaller.

LIGO scientists are also looking for signals from individual pulsars—rapidly rotating neutron stars that are observed on earth as pulses of radio waves. A bump on a pulsar’s surface should produce gravitational waves, but so far, no waves with the right shape have been picked up. This absence puts a limit on the size of any irregularities and on the emission power of gravitational waves from nearby pulsars such as the Crab and Vela pulsars, said Michael Landry, head of the Hanford LIGO observatory, and could soon start putting limits on more distant ones.

A few hints of possible excitement to come: LIGO data taken through the end of January, 2017 produced two short signals that were unusual enough to exceed the experiment’s “false alarm” threshold—signals with shapes and strengths expected to show up once a month or less by chance alone. Both LIGO collaboration members and astronomers at conventional telescopes are investigating the data to determine whether they represent real events.

LIGO is not the only means by which scientists are searching for gravitational waves. Some scientists are using powerful radio telescopes to track signals emanating from dozens of extremely fast-rotating pulsars. A specific pattern of correlations between tiny hiccups in the arrival times of these pulses would be a signature of long-wavelength gravitational waves expected from mergers of distant supermassive black holes.

[1] See Gabriel Popkin, “Gravitational Waves: Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid,” in APSNEWS (36, 3, March 2017, p. 1)