I’m still at the conference in Natal this week, so I don’t have time for a long post. The big news this week was the Event Horizon Telescope’s close-up of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87. If you’re hungry for coverage of that, Matt Strassler has some of his trademark exceptionally clear posts on the topic, while Katie Mack has a nice twitter thread.
One of string theory’s early pioneers, Michael Green, is currently visiting the Niels Bohr Institute as part of a program by the Simons Foundation. The program includes a series of conferences. This week we are having the first such conference, on Hadronic Strings and Large-N Field Theory.
The bulk of the conference focused on new progress on an old subject, using string theory to model the behavior of quarks and gluons. There were a variety of approaches on offer, some focused on particular approximations and others attempting to construct broader, “phenomenological” models.
The other talks came from a variety of subjects, loosely tied together by the topic of “large N field theories”. “N” here is the number of colors: while the real world has three “colors” of quarks, you can imagine a world with more. This leads to simpler calculations, and often to connections with string theory. Some talks deal with attempts to “solve” certain large-N theories exactly. Others ranged farther afield, even to discussions of colliding black holes.
Last week, I mentioned the announcement from the IceCube, Fermi-LAT, and MAGIC collaborations of high-energy neutrinos and gamma rays detected from the same source, the blazar TXS 0506+056. Blazars are sources of gamma rays, thought to be enormous spinning black holes that act like particle colliders vastly more powerful than the LHC. This one, near Orion’s elbow, is “aimed” roughly at Earth, allowing us to detect the light and particles it emits. On September 22, a neutrino with energy around 300 TeV was detected by IceCube (a kilometer-wide block of Antarctic ice stuffed with detectors), coming from the direction of TXS 0506+056. Soon after, the satellite Fermi-LAT and ground-based telescope MAGIC were able to confirm that the blazar TXS 0506+056 was flaring at the time. The IceCube team then looked back, and found more neutrinos coming from the same source in earlier years. There are still lingering questions (Why didn’t they see this kind of behavior from other, closer blazars?) but it’s still a nice development in the emerging field of “multi-messenger” astronomy.
It also got me thinking about a conversation I had a while back, before one of Perimeter’s Public Lectures. An elderly fellow was worried about the LHC. He wondered if putting all of that energy in the same place, again and again, might do something unprecedented: weaken the fabric of space and time, perhaps, until it breaks? He acknowledged this didn’t make physical sense, but what if we’re wrong about the physics? Do we really want to take that risk?
At the time, I made the same point that gets made to counter fears of the LHC creating a black hole: that the energy of the LHC is less than the energy of cosmic rays, particles from space that collide with our atmosphere on a regular basis. If there was any danger, it would have already happened. Now, knowing about blazars, I can make a similar point: there are “galactic colliders” with energies so much higher than any machine we can build that there’s no chance we could screw things up on that kind of scale: if we could, they already would have.
This connects to a broader point, about how to frame particle physics. Each time we build an experiment, we’re replicating something that’s happened before. Our technology simply isn’t powerful enough to do something truly unprecedented in the universe: we’re not even close! Instead, the point of an experiment is to reproduce something where we can see it. It’s not the physics itself, but our involvement in it, our understanding of it, that’s genuinely new.
The IceCube experiment itself is a great example of this: throughout Antarctica, neutrinos collide with ice. The only difference is that in IceCube’s ice, we can see them do it. More broadly, I have to wonder how much this is behind the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”: if mathematics is just the most precise way humans have to communicate with each other, then of course it will be effective in physics, since the goal of physics is to communicate the nature of the world to humans!
There may well come a day when we’re really able to do something truly unprecedented, that has never been done before in the history of the universe. Until then, we’re playing catch-up, taking laws the universe has tested extensively and making them legible, getting humanity that much closer to understanding physics that, somewhere out there, already exists.
For the few of you who haven’t yet heard: LIGO has detected gravitational waves from a pair of colliding neutron stars, and that detection has been confirmed by observations of the light from those stars.
This is a big deal! On a basic level, it means that we now have confirmation from other instruments and sources that LIGO is really detecting gravitational waves.
The implications go quite a bit further than that, though. You wouldn’t think that just one observation could tell you very much, but this is an observation of an entirely new type, the first time an event has been seen in both gravitational waves and light.
That, it turns out, means that this one observation clears up a whole pile of mysteries in one blow. It shows that at least some gamma ray bursts are caused by colliding neutron stars, that neutron star collisions can give rise to the high-power “kilonovas” capable of forming heavy elements like gold…well, I’m not going to be able to give justice to the full implications in this post. Matt Strassler has a pair of quite detailed posts on the subject, and Quanta magazine’s article has a really great account of the effort that went into the detection, including coordinating the network of telescopes that made it possible.
I’ll focus here on a few aspects that stood out to me.
One fun part of the story behind this detection was how helpful “failed” observations were. VIRGO (the European gravitational wave experiment) was running alongside LIGO at the time, but VIRGO didn’t see the event (or saw it so faintly it couldn’t be sure it saw it). This was actually useful, because VIRGO has a blind spot, and VIRGO’s non-observation told them the event had to have happened in that blind spot. That narrowed things down considerably, and allowed telescopes to close in on the actual merger. IceCube, the neutrino observatory that is literally a cubic kilometer chunk of Antarctica filled with sensors, also failed to detect the event, and this was also useful: along with evidence from other telescopes, it suggests that the “jet” of particles emitted by the merged neutron stars is tilted away from us.
One thing brought up at LIGO’s announcement was that seeing gravitational waves and electromagnetic light at roughly the same time puts limits on any difference between the speed of light and the speed of gravity. At the time I wondered if this was just a throwaway line, but it turns out a variety of proposed modifications of gravity predict that gravitational waves will travel slower than light. This event rules out many of those models, and tightly constrains others.
The announcement from LIGO was screened at NBI, but they didn’t show the full press release. Instead, they cut to a discussion for local news featuring NBI researchers from the various telescope collaborations that observed the event. Some of this discussion was in Danish, so it was only later that I heard about the possibility of using the simultaneous measurement of gravitational waves and light to measure the expansion of the universe. While this event by itself didn’t result in a very precise measurement, as more collisions are observed the statistics will get better, which will hopefully clear up a discrepancy between two previous measures of the expansion rate.
A few news sources made it sound like observing the light from the kilonova has let scientists see directly which heavy elements were produced by the event. That isn’t quite true, as stressed by some of the folks I talked to at NBI. What is true is that the light was consistent with patterns observed in past kilonovas, which are estimated to be powerful enough to produce these heavy elements. However, actually pointing out the lines corresponding to these elements in the spectrum of the event hasn’t been done yet, though it may be possible with further analysis.
A few posts back, I mentioned a group at NBI who had been critical of LIGO’s data analysis and raised doubts of whether they detected gravitational waves at all. There’s not much I can say about this until they’ve commented publicly, but do keep an eye on the arXiv in the next week or two. Despite the optimistic stance I take in the rest of this post, the impression I get from folks here is that things are far from fully resolved.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this week, awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for their work on LIGO, the gravitational wave detector.
Many expected the Nobel to go to LIGO last year, but the Nobel committee waited. At the time, it was expected the prize would be awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever, the three founders of the LIGO project, but there were advocates for Barry Barish was well. Traditionally, the Nobel is awarded to at most three people, so the argument got fairly heated, with opponents arguing Barish was “just an administrator” and advocates pointing out that he was “just the administrator without whom the project would have been cancelled in the 90’s”.
All of this ended up being irrelevant when Drever died last March. The Nobel isn’t awarded posthumously, so the list of obvious candidates (or at least obvious candidates who worked on LIGO) was down to three, which simplified thing considerably for the committee.
LIGO’s work is impressive and clearly Nobel-worthy, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is some controversy around it. In June, several of my current colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute uploaded a paper arguing that if you subtract the gravitational wave signal that LIGO claims to have found then the remaining data, the “noise”, is still correlated between LIGO’s two detectors, which it shouldn’t be if it were actually just noise. LIGO hasn’t released an official response yet, but a LIGO postdoc responded with a guest post on Sean Carroll’s blog, and the team at NBI had responses of their own.
I’d usually be fairly skeptical of this kind of argument: it’s easy for an outsider looking at the data from a big experiment like this to miss important technical details that make the collaboration’s analysis work. That said, having seen some conversations between these folks, I’m a bit more sympathetic. LIGO hadn’t been communicating very clearly initially, and it led to a lot of unnecessary confusion on both sides.
One thing that I don’t think has been emphasized enough is that there are two claims LIGO is making: that they detected gravitational waves, and that they detected gravitational waves from black holes of specific masses at a specific distance. The former claim could be supported by the existence of correlated events between the detectors, without many assumptions as to what the signals should look like. The team at NBI seem to have found a correlation of that sort, but I don’t know if they still think the argument in that paper holds given what they’ve said elsewhere.
The second claim, that the waves were from a collision of black holes with specific masses, requires more work. LIGO compares the signal to various models, or “templates”, of black hole events, trying to find one that matches well. This is what the group at NBI subtracts to get the noise contribution. There’s a lot of potential for error in this sort of template-matching. If two templates are quite similar, it may be that the experiment can’t tell the difference between them. At the same time, the individual template predictions have their own sources of uncertainty, coming from numerical simulations and “loops” in particle physics-style calculations. I haven’t yet found a clear explanation from LIGO of how they take these various sources of error into account. It could well be that even if they definitely saw gravitational waves, they don’t actually have clear evidence for the specific black hole masses they claim to have seen.
I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the coming months, as both groups continue to talk through their disagreement. Hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture of what’s going on. In the meantime, though, Weiss, Barish, and Thorne have accomplished something impressive regardless, and should enjoy their Nobel.
I’ve been in Uppsala this week, visiting Henrik Johansson‘s group.
As such, I haven’t had time to write a long post about the recent announcement by the LIGO and VIRGO collaborations. Luckily, Matt Strassler has written one of his currently all-too-rare posts on the subject, so if you’re curious you should check out what he has to say.
Looking at the map of black hole collisions in that post, I’m struck by how quickly things have improved. The four old detections are broad slashes across the sky, the newest is a small patch. Now that there are enough detectors to triangulate, all detections will be located that precisely, or better. A future map might be dotted with precise locations of black hole collisions, but it would still be marred by those four slashes: relics of the brief time when only two machines in the world could detect gravitational waves.
I’m bringing a box of textbooks with me to Denmark. Most of them are for work: a few Quantum Field Theory texts I might use, a Complex Analysis book for when I inevitably forget how to do contour integration.
One of the books, though, is just for fun.
Exploring Black Holes is an introduction to general relativity for undergraduates. The book came out of a collaboration between Edwin F. Taylor, known for his contributions to physics teaching, and John Archibald Wheeler, who among a long list of achievements was responsible for popularizing the term “black hole”. The result is something quite unique: a general relativity course that requires no math more advanced than calculus, and no physics more advanced than special relativity.
It does this by starting, not with the full tensor-riddled glory of Einstein’s equations, but with specialized solutions to those equations, mostly the Schwarzschild solution that describes space around spherical objects (including planets, stars, and black holes). From there, it manages to introduce curved space in a way that is both intuitive and naturally grows out of what students learn about special relativity. It really is the kind of course a student can take right after their first physics course, and indeed as an undergrad that’s exactly what I did.
With just the Schwarzchild solution and its close relatives, you can already answer most of the questions young students have about general relativity. In a series of “projects”, the book explores the corrections GR demands of GPS satellites, the process of falling into a black hole, the famous measurement of the advance of the perihelion of mercury, the behavior of light in a strong gravitational field, and even a bit of cosmology. In the end the students won’t know the full power of the theory, but they’ll get a taste while building valuable physical intuition.
Still, I wouldn’t bring this book with me if it was just an excellent undergraduate textbook. Exploring Black Holes is a great introduction to general relativity, but it also has a hilarious not-so-hidden agenda: inspiring future astronauts to jump into black holes.
“Nowhere could life be simpler or more relaxed than in a free-float frame, such as an unpowered spaceship falling toward a black hole.” – pg. 2-31
The book is full of quotes like this. One of the book’s “projects” involves computing what happens to an astronaut who falls into a black hole. The book takes special care to have students calculate that “spaghettification”, the process by which the tidal forces of a black hole stretch infalling observers into spaghetti, is surprisingly completely painless: the amount of time you experience it is always less than the amount of time it takes light (and thus also pain) to go from your feet to your head, for any (sufficiently calm) black hole.
Why might Taylor and Wheeler want people of the future to jump into black holes? As the discussion on page B-3 of the book describes, the reason is on one level an epistemic one. As theorists, we’d like to reason about what lies inside the event horizon of black holes, but we face a problem: any direct test would be trapped inside, and we would never know the result, which some would argue makes such speculation unscientific. What Taylor and Wheeler point out is that it’s not quite true that no-one would know the results of such a test: if someone jumped into a black hole, they would be able to test our reasoning. If a whole scientific community jumped in, then the question of what is inside a black hole is from their perspective completely scientific.
Of course, I don’t think Taylor and Wheeler seriously thought their book would convince its readers to jump into black holes. For one, it’s unlikely anyone reading the book will get a chance. Still, I suspect that the idea that future generations might explore black holes gave Taylor and Wheeler some satisfaction, and a nice clean refutation of those who think physics inside the horizon is unscientific. Seeing as the result was an excellent textbook full of hilarious prose, I can’t complain.