Thursday, February 11, 2016

The wait is over

Did you feel anything odd at around 09.50am GMT on 14th September 2015 (I'll let you do the time zone conversion)? Did you notice a disturbance in the force? Did you feel a tingle down your spine? Did you have butterflies in your stomach? Or, did you just feel a little bit wibbly?

No!? Well, at around that time a gravitational wave slammed into you at the speed of light, tried to rip your component atoms apart and then pull them together again1, and then passed out the other side of you. But you didn't even notice, did you! It's not particularly surprising you didn't feel anything as the disturbance the wave produced was spectacular mainly in its minuscule effect - the waves would have attempted1 to 'wibble' you from head-to-toe by only about 0.000000000000000000001 m (see Fig. 1 for an illustration of the effects of such a wave!).

Fig. 1. The effect of a passing gravitational wave on an alligator (as found around the LIGO Livingston observatory), a tumbleweed (as found in plentiful supply around the LIGO Hanford observatory) and myself (as found in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Glasgow). Note that there is no discernible effect on any of these, except maybe as slight noticeable increase in my happiness at the prospect of the last 13 years of my working life having not been futile!
However, we (humanity in general, but large teams of scientists - many within the LIGO Scientific Collaboration [LSC] and Virgo Collaboration, including me - more specifically) have managed to build instruments that did indeed feel something on this date and time - a signal which we've given the catchy name GW150914 (or "The Event" as it was known for a while within the collaboration). These instruments, in this case the two US-based LIGO observatories (now entering their advanced phase), one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana2, both felt the waves' passing and saw a very consistent signal (see Fig. 2) - other than it looking like exactly what we'd expect from a gravitational wave source, our confidence that this was a real signal came from empirically estimating how often such a consistent and strong signal would have be seen by chance (i.e., from random [generally non-Gaussian] noise fluctuations in the detectors), which we work out as being less than once per 200,000 years. So, we're pretty sure (greater than 5.1σ in annoyingly frequentist statistical terminology), i.e. certain, that the signal was real. And, what's more, we've been able to use the pattern of wibbles the instruments felt to work out that this gravitational wave was emitted by two black holes, both tens of times more massive than the Sun, whacking into each other at about half the speed of light, to form the largest small(!) (~solar mass) black hole we know of. The amount of energy this event emitted was a whopping 5×1047 Joules (quite possibly the most luminous event we've ever observed), equivalent to three times the mass of the Sun being converted directly to energy (remember E=mc2). Or, if you're into some "fun" energy conversions this is apparently equivalent to "the number of kilocalories in 2×1028 cubic kilometres of butter (that's the volume of 14 billion Suns of pure butter!)" or "3 quadrillion times the energy required to destroy the planet Earth"!

Fig. 2. The GW150914 gravitational wave signal observed in the two LIGO detectors (this is figure 1 from the discovery paper, Abbott et al., Phys. Rev. Lett., 116, 061102 (2016)) (Credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration)
This is the first ever detection3 we've had and it is quite a big deal, both scientifically (there's a whole load of awesome astrophysics that has been done using the signal, and it opens up a whole new area of astronomy) and personally. Some people have been in the gravitational wave detection game for almost five decades, but we've all had to wait patiently without seeing any definite sign of them in our detectors4 (this has occasionally been to the amusement of colleagues in other areas of physics and astronomy). As a member of the LSC myself since starting studying for my PhD at the University of Glasgow in the autumn of 2002 (when what is now known as the "initial" LIGO detectors had just started taking data) I've only been waiting 13 years, but that's still my entire working life. For some additional context here's what I wrote in my thesis acknowledgements section back in 2005:
I was attracted to the field of gravitational wave research due to the promise that we would be entering exciting times with several large scale projects bringing in unprecedented amounts of new data. Given this the discovery of gravitational waves would be just round the corner, opening up gravitational wave astronomy for real. Little did I know that this has been exactly what’s been said for around 30 years! Despite this I do actually believe that I’ve entered the field at a prime time and finding gravitational waves is just around, if not the first corner, then the next one.
So, ten years later, we have now turned that "next corner" and gravitational wave astronomy is finally with us! Many more detections should now be forthcoming in our future observation runs, hopefully including other exciting sources as well as more merging pairs of black holes.

Finally, the other rather cool, and timely, thing is that the signal arrived a century after Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity from which the prediction of gravitational waves arises. Einstein's prediction of gravitational waves and also Schwarzschild's solution to Einstein's equations from which predictions of black holes would arise, were both published a century ago in 1916.

The paper describing the detection and analysis of GW150914 has been peer reviewed and is now published (Abbott et al, Phys. Rev. Lett., 116, 061102, 2016) and further papers detailing the detectors, analyses and science results can be found here. Also, summaries (at a less detailed level) of the main science we've obtained from the signal can be found here. The data containing the signal and some example codes showing how to view, and hear(!), it are available here, so you should go ahead and take a look yourself.

More information, reactions and opinions about this amazing discovery (and the time-line of how the detection happened5) can be found in blog posts by several fellow collaboration members linked below and within a special edition of the LIGO Magazine:
Also, be sure follow @ligo and @ego_virgo on twitter along with the hastags #GravitationalWaves, #EinsteinWasRight, #BinaryBlackHole and #AdvancedLIGO.

P.S. If you want to know what I was doing when GW150914 passed by it probably involved nappies (diapers for those in the US), feeding a child/cleaning bottles, or doing laundry, as I was on the final day of paternity leave following the birth of my second child (here's my first child one simulating a gravitational wave chirp). I didn't see the growing emails about the signal until early that afternoon when I thought I should try clearing out my inbox before returning to work the following day. It definitely made going back to work that bit more exciting. However, all the work to get the analyses of this event checked has slightly eaten into my main job, which is to search for gravitational waves from pulsars.

1 Don't worry, gravity is very weak. The forces keeping your various constituent bits and bobs together are far more than enough to overcome any piddling gravitational wave that passes through you. Any displacement (stretching or squeezing) is only noticeable (if you have an exquisitely sensitive gravitational wave detector at least) between freely falling objects in the same local frame, i.e. if there are effectively no other external forces acting on the objects.
2 Note that another detector called Virgo is also due to start taking data later this year, but wasn't operational at the time, and that a smaller (and unfortunately less sensitive, but still important) detector called GEO600 was operational, but not observing when the event passed by.
3 Prior to this direct detection (some quibbles over the "directness" of detection can be found here) many gravitational waves have obviously continuously been impinging on the Earth and passing through us, but this is the first time we've had the technology to catch one in the act.
4 There are very good reasons why they've not been seen until now (basically boiling down to us not having been able to build sensitive enough detectors), but that hasn't made us any less impatient.
5 The signal was first "detected" about three minutes after it arrived by online analysis software that looked for generic transient (short-duration) coherent signals, i.e. blips in the data that appeared at the same time in both detectors and looked similar. The first reasonably detailed estimates of the source parameters (i.e. that is was two black holes merging) were with us within about a day. After a couple of days we release our estimate of the location of the source in the sky and released it to selected astronomy groups to point their telescopes at. Following that full and proper detailed studies of the signal, and very careful checks on the performance of the detectors, have taken many months of painstaking work and placed great strain6 on the collaboration. But, given the general inertia that you get within a large collaboration (which we've experienced releasing results that didn't contain any signals) we've actually turned around a finished detection paper (after 14 draft iterations), and twelve(!) companion papers in remarkably short time.
6 This is a hilarious gravitational wave pun.

Disclaimer: everything on this blog is my own personal opinion and any mistakes are my own.


  1. Agreed on the pun.

    I've been thinking about the time scales involved. I was just in time in the sense that my PhD is nearly finished. Daniel was just in time in the sense that he joined the LSC about an hour before the detection came in. But then again, those black holes collided ~a billion years ago. On that time scale, even Einstein was only just in time with his theory, right? I have to try to not think about astronomy like this too much because it makes my head feel wobbly.

  2. Anonymous2:22 am

    Thank you writer. I've just come across this interesting thoughtful view -an involving relating of this GW at that time. Just at this instant I wonder how many more have passed here at the "City that Care Forgot."
    Retired now but I was a vising teacher at Warren Easton New Orleans, 2 summers actually with Mark Coles as PI. Rai Weise and the many others are a very small number making this all happen. >Larry Blanchard, New Orleans, Louisiana []