Thursday, June 28, 2012

Q: What Do Gravitational Waves "Sound" Like?

Okay, this isn't a question that I usually get asked but the answer to this question is the basis of my answer to questions about how we can determine information about what produced a gravitational wave from the signals we detect.  So, how do we do that?

One convenient feature of LIGO is that it is most sensitive in the frequencies that the human ear could hear if gravitational waves made sound - but they don'tI can't stress this enough: gravitational waves do NOT make sounds since a sound waves are fundamentally different from gravitational waves.  But, if we take the data we gather from LIGO of a gravitational wave, we can put that signal through speakers and convert them into sound.  In this way, LIGO is very much like a gravitational-wave radio...


Radio stations broadcast radio waves at a specific frequency (this is the number that you tune your radio to) and music is encoded onto this wave.  Whereever you are right now, you are most likely surrounded by radio waves from numerous stations but you can't hear radio waves or the music that is encoded onto them.  To hear this music, you need to have an instrument that can detect the radio waves, decode the music from them, and turn this signal into sound using a speaker.  Now, you can hear the music.

LIGO is a completely passive detector (meaning we just wait for something to happen, we cause nothing that we can detect other than noise) just like your radio is passive (it can't create music).  We wait for a gravitational wave to pass by Earth, and if it is strong enough and in the frequency range that we are sensitive to, then LIGO will detect a signal.  From that signal, we can extract information about what made the gravitational wave, like a radio decodes the music from the broadcast radio waves.  Once we have detected the signal, we can put that signal through speakers to convert it into sound.  Just like a radio, it is the speakers that make the sound and not the detector.  Since LIGO is sensitive to frequencies that are in the same ranges of sounds we can hear, we can hear the gravitational-wave signals when put through a speaker.  Now we can extract information about what made the gravitational wave just like we can hear the different instruments and voices in music.


Initial LIGO's most sensitive range (as we were before we started our current upgrades) was between about 60 Hz to 800 Hz.  This corresponds to the lowest note on a cello (click here to hear what 65.41 Hz sounds like) to the lower notes on a piccolo (click here to hear what 523.25 Hz sounds like), respectively (according to Wikipedia).  Once Advanced LIGO is complete and operating at sensitivity, it will be more than 10x as sensitive as Initial LIGO and its most sensitive region will be between about 20 Hz to 2000 Hz (this is the range that produces at least 10x the sensitivity of the sensitive range noted for Initial LIGO).  This corresponds to the lowest frequencies humans can hear (like the lowest note on a tuba) which is usually felt more than heard to a little below the highest note on a flute (click hear to hear what 2093 Hz sounds like).  LIGO's sensitivity to different frequencies are shown graphically below:

LIGO sensitivity vs. frequency (see this post for a description of how to interpret this plot).
Click on the graph to see a larger image.

Recall from a previous post that it is because LIGO is most sensitive to the audible frequency range that we cannot detect gravitational waves from the Moon, Sun, and planets; they produce gravitational waves at much lower frequencies.


We can tell just from what a gravitational wave "sounds" like what category it is classified as; there are 4 major categories:

  1. Inspiral gravitational waves: two massive objects orbiting each other faster and faster as they get closer together and eventually merge into one.  Pairs of neutron stars, black holes, or the combination of the two are prime candidates for detection.
  2.      ⇒These waves are expected to sound like a "chirp" (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  3. Continuous gravitational waves: a distorted object rotating about its axis with a constant frequency (the Earth rotates with a very constant frequency of once per day).  A neutron star rotating rapidly with a "mountain" on it are prime candidates.  ("Mountain" is in quotation marks because it is a deformation as little as a few inches high on the nearly perfectly spherical neutron star.)
  4.      ⇒These waves are expected to sound like a single tone (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  5. Stochastic gravitational waves: many weak signals from different sources combining into one "jumble" of a signal.  Relic gravitational waves from the Big Bang are expected to be candidates for detection.
  6.       ⇒These waves are expected to sound like static noise (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

  7. Burst gravitational waves: these waves are short duration and from unanticipated sources or from known sources where we can't be sure what the gravitational waves will "sound" like.  I like to call these the gravitational waves that go 'bump' in the night.
  8.       ⇒These waves are expected to sound like 'snaps', 'crackles', and 'pops' (click here to hear the example in the plot below):

While is is great to see and hear the differences between the different kinds of gravitational waves, it is harder to see how we can glean more specific information about the thing(s) that made the gravitational wave.  The answer is that we can use general relativity to predict what kinds of signals ("sounds") a certain situation will create.  Below is a movie by Steve Drasco (Caltech/CalPoly) showing the sped up evolution of a body 270 times the mass of our Sun orbiting and finally merging with a supermassive black hole 3 million times the mass of our Sun.  The movie starts one year before the two objects merge and the bottom of the frame shows a graph of the gravitational waves while the majority of the frame shows the orbit of the system.  As you listen, you can hear how the tone changes into the chirp that is characteristic of this kind of system (the movie is ~13 MB so it may take a minute or two to load):


By studying the predictions of what different gravitational waves will "sound" like, we can translate a detected gravitational wave into information on the system that made it.


Yes and no...  The option to listen to the data as it is collected is available to scientists working in the LIGO control room.  I've done it but I don't make a habit out of it since almost all of what LIGO detects is small vibrations from our environment.  You can listen to real LIGO noise by clicking here (if you carefully listen all the way to the end, you can hear a fake inspiral chirp that has been added to the data - you may miss it).  Since what you predominantly hear sounds like static, it can lull you to sleep which isn't advisable when you are the responsible scientist on duty!  Also, almost all gravitational waves will be too weak to hear with our ears which is why we mainly analyze data using sophisticated data analysis techniques that have been specially designed to search for each of the four categories of gravitational waves.  (This is what I do for a living!)

I also wrote in March 2011 about a fake signal that was placed (injected) into the LIGO data to test if our data analysis techniques could really detect a gravitational wave if there was one.  This was a blind test (called the "Big Dog" due to its apparent location in the constellation Canis Major) meaning that only a few individuals knew about this fake signal and the rest of us were left to find it and interpret its results.  While we did not detect this signal by listening to it, it can be heard in both the LIGO detectors (about 17 seconds into the recording linked below).  This is real LIGO data and the sound may be VERY LOUD - so turn your volume down before you play it and then adjust it!
     ⇒Click here to hear the data around the blind injection for LIGO Hanford, WA.
     ⇒Click here to hear the data around the blind injection for LIGO Livingston, LA.*
          *Note that there is a audible instrumental "glitch" in the Livingston data about 8 seconds into the recording; this is unrelated to the injection.

While it is difficult to hear gravitational waves that will be buried in detector noise, there is no denying that the human brain is very effective at breaking sounds down into their individual components.  A recent Physics Today article titled "Shhhh.  Listen to the Data" discusses the advantages of humans listening to data and features a discussion of this application to LIGO.  Also, if you want to test your ear's talent at "hearing" gravitational waves, there is a fantastic website called Black Hole Hunter which places black hole gravitational wave "sounds" (like the system in the movie above) into simulated data and tests if you can discern the signal.  I've spent many an hour playing with this and even use some of the cell phone ringtones they've made (also available on the Black Hole Hunter site).

*** If you are interested in more gravity games, see my Gravity Games page (link here and under the blog banner)! ***


There are some great sites that feature the "sounds" of gravitational waves.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Q: What Would a Gravitational Wave Feel Like?

Several people who have found this blog were led here after searching for this question:

What would a gravitational wave feel like?

This is an excellent question so I decided to answer it directly in today's post...


First, let us review what a gravitational wave does to matter as it passes by.  Gravitational waves will expand space in one direction and compress it in the perpendicular direction.  This stretching and squishing happen in the plane that forms the cross-section of the wave; this is perpendicular to the direction the wave is traveling.  For a gravitational wave traveling into your computer screen, a circle of stuff will be affected like this:

Image from Wikipedia [gravitational waves]


Now let us consider what you are likely to feel here on Earth from what we here at LIGO consider to be "big" gravitational waves.  These waves are produced by some of the most violent, energetic things in the Universe like black holes colliding and stars exploding.  These sources are rare and there are none nearby us, say within a few light-years.  Since the strength of a gravitational wave decreases as the distance from its source increases, by the time these reach us here at Earth they are incredibly small.  A once every ten years gravitational wave will squish and stretch LIGO less than 1000x smaller than the diameter of a proton (< 1x10-18m).

Therefore, a person will not feel anything from even the strongest gravitational waves we expect to detect with LIGO.  


If we were near one of the huge, violent sources LIGO is sensitive to, the gravitational waves would be strong enough to rip us to pieces!  (So it is a very good thing that these sources are very far away!)  This is due to a phenomenon known as "spaghettification".  In a previous post, I described a gravitational wave as simply a change in the gravitational field moving out into the Universe like a ripple in a pond.  The gravitational field is a measure of how much a mass would feel at any given place.  So, if the gravitational wave is a changing gravitational field, then the force of gravity that a mass would feel as the gravitational wave passes should change too.  If the change is so large (due to a very large gravitational wave), then it is possible that your feet will feel a strong enough force, compared to your head, to rip your legs off your body!  And to make matters worse, the sides of your body would be compressed at the same time.

Below is a clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a humorous description of spaghettification.  His description focuses on what would happen to you if you fell into a black hole, but the concept is the same for super-strong gravitational waves:


Given where the Earth is in the Universe and how far away sources of strong gravitational waves are, any passing gravitational waves will be so small that we will never be able to feel them.  But if we were close to a strong source of gravitational waves, they could tear us apart!

So it is both a blessing and a curse that the strong sources of gravitational waves are far away:  a blessing because we will never be harmed by them and a curse because they are so small, that we need huge, extraordinarily sensitive detectors like LIGO to detect them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Null Result: NOT Finding What You Were Looking For

I've written many times on this blog about why we are looking for gravitational waves and what we hope to learn from them.  I also get to tell real people about this all the time with the work I do at the observatory.  As they get excited, they want to know how many gravitational waves we've detected.  My standard response (as of this date, of course) is, "None, and we didn't expect to either."  And I say this with a smile on my face.  Cue the confused and disappointed expressions...

With Initial LIGO, we were hoping to maybe see a gravitational wave from a pair of dense stars merging together about every ten years or so (based on astronomers' estimates on how many of these system there are out there and what fraction of them will be in this merger stage).  While LIGO has been taking data on and off (we take breaks to improve the detector) since 2002, we only have about 2 years of data when both LIGO detectors (in Louisiana and Washington state) were collecting data at the same time (things like earthquakes, weather, etc. can put one or both offline temporarily).  This gives us about a 20% chance of detecting a gravitational wave with LIGO - not the best odds but better than humans have ever done before!  When the Advanced LIGO upgrades are done and the detectors are running at their design sensitivity, we expect to find one of these "merger" gravitational waves about once a month!

An artist's impression of two stars orbiting each other and progressing (from left to right) to merger with resulting gravitational waves. [Image: NASA]

So, what have we been doing with all this data that has no gravitational waves in it?  Some may think it is worthless but that is far from the truth!  Most people think that when you do an experiment and don't find the thing you are looking for (a null result), the experiment was a failure.  While that can be true if your experiment is inherently flawed, it can also tell you valuable information about the world and Universe around you; now you know how something doesn't work or how rare something is.

Since we know that gravitational waves exist from the observations of the Taylor-Hulse pulsar (1993 Nobel Prize in Physics), we know gravitational waves are real.  So we are left with knowledge on how rare gravitational waves are.  We estimate this by carefully studying how sensitive our detectors are and how well our data analysis methods perform.  Once you know these things, you can combine that with how long you looked for gravitational waves (how much data was taken) and estimate the highest rates that the different kinds of detectable gravitational waves pass by Earth.


I am going to use the example of burst gravitational waves which are short duration gravitational waves from unanticipated sources or from known sources where we can't be sure what the gravitational waves will look like, e.g. supernovae, etc.  (The science summary for this work is here.)  I chose this example because this is the kind of gravitational waves I specialize in.

In order to determine the sensitivity of our data analysis method, we need to put fake signals into real data and measure how many of each kind and strength are found by our data analysis method.  This gives us our efficiency.  When combined with the amount of data collected (giving us a measure of how long we were sensitive to gravitational waves) we can estimate the maximum rate that we would expect a kind of gravitational wave to pass by Earth.  We used many different signals to test the data analysis method, but my favorite is called a sine-Gaussian and looks like this:

Sine-Gaussian signal: a sine-wave (trigonometry) multiplied by a bell-curve (Gaussian function).  The horizontal axis measures time in seconds and the vertical axis measures the strength of the signal.  The spacing between the waves provides a measure of frequency.

Using different strengths and frequencies of this signal, we were able to set an upper-limit on the rate of these kinds of gravitational-wave bursts:

Upper limits on the rate of gravitational wave bursts, determined using the LIGO and Virgo data. The different curves represent signals with different characteristic frequencies; the vertical position of each curve shows what rate should have given us at least one detectable burst with 90% probability, for different assumptions about the strength of the burst (horizontal axis). Since no signal was detected, higher rates are ruled out with good confidence.  [Source: S6 Burst Science Summary]

The current results for the burst upper-limits (from the plot above) are that we expect up to about 1.3 sine-Gaussian-like signals a year in LIGO's most sensitive frequency range (64-1600 Hz) with 90% confidence.  


Another thing you can do with data that doesn't contain gravitational waves is restrict the possibilities on how observed events happened.  In 2007, there was a strong gamma-ray burst (GRB) observed by the InterPlanetary Network (IPN).  The area that the source could have originated from also overlapped with an arm of the Andromeda Galaxy:

Bottom left corner box: possible area where GRB 070201 could have originated.  Remaining part of image: close-up of the part of the candidate source area that overlaps the Andromeda Galaxy.  An dwarf spheroidal galaxy, called M110, is also labeled.

This was very exciting to all of us at LIGO because one of the possible causes of gamma-ray bursts is the merger of two neutron stars (like in the first image in this post).  With the Andromeda Galaxy being only about 2.5 million light-years away (LIGO was sensitive to these merger gravitational waves all the way out to several hundred million light-years away), if it really was a merger that caused this GRB then we should have seen it!

After careful analysis of our data before, during, and after this GRB, we did not find any evidence of a gravitational wave.  While it would have been very exciting to see something, this null result tells us that:
  1. if the GRB was located in the Andromeda Galaxy, it was not caused by a neutron star pair merger, or
  2. if the GRB was created by a neutron star pair merger, it was located far behind the Andromeda Galaxy. 


As of today (14 June 2012), LIGO has submitted 64 papers for publication.  You can also read the public science summaries for the latest published papers here.  This a quite a lot of papers based on data without any gravitational waves!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Q: How Can Gravitational Waves Help Mankind, Part II: Spin-Off Technology

Previously, I have blogged about how gravitational waves can help mankind.  In that post, I noted that observing gravitational waves will allow us to perform unprecedented astronomy, investigate physics in extreme situations that cannot be replicated on Earth, and allow us to further test general relativity.  I also noted that there have been huge advances in technology developed by LIGO scientists and engineers just to make LIGO work.  LIGO has started to document these spin-off technologies on a new webpage: LIGO Technology Development and Migration.

The page describes many methods of how new technology and techniques move from the LIGO research environment to industry or other research applications.  These modes include patents to serendipity (among many others).  I found the descriptions here interesting myself; as a scientist in the thick of it, I am not always aware of how the things I and my colleagues are developing are affecting the world outside of my own little universe.  Also documented on the LIGO Technology Development and Migration page are descriptions of some of the spin-off technology LIGO has produced.

I want to take this opportunity to tell you about just few of the spin-offs that I am most familiar with: 


One of the new additions to Advanced LIGO will be that the mirrors used to measure gravitational waves will be suspended like pendula from glass wires (the pendulum suspension isn't new, it is the glass wire that is new).  It turns out that the metal wires we use like to vibrate right around our most sensitive region in LIGO (about 320 Hz).  This frequency is due to the fact the the wires are made of metal.  If we use wires made from the same material as our mirror is made of (fused silica) then the frequency that they like to vibrate at is outside of our "sweet spot" region (between 100-1000 Hz).  But, our new mirror will be about 40 kg (~88 lb).  It may be surprising, but the glass wires are strong enough to support this weight (which is also the weight of a small child).

Silica fibers bonded to "ears" that are attached to a glass mass

But how do you connect these delicate glass wires (they may be strong, but they are brittle)?  That is the work of Sheila Rowan, James Hough, and Eoin John Eliffe from the University of Glasgow and Stanford University.  They has developed and patented a new technology that not only bonds the wire to the mass, but also minimized contamination of the collected gravitational wave data from glass' thermal noise.  This technology has already been transferred to several optical industry vendors!

Read more about this here!


In LIGO, it is very important to keep the shape of our mirrors controlled so that we can keep the laser light bounding back and forth in an arm many times before it recombines with the light from the other arms (this makes the light think that our arms are 70-100 times larger than they are and that gives a gravitational wave more time to affect the light in the arm).  Even though our mirrors are nearly perfectly reflecting, a small amount of the light gets absorbed by the mirror and this causes it to heat up.  When the mirror heats up, it warps its shape and this distortion can make it VERY difficult to keep the light focused between two mirrors that are 4 km (~2.5 mi) apart.  What to do?

The solution to this is the heat the mirror in a controlled way so that you can cause your own distortions that compensate for the warping that the laser is causing.  LIGO has spent much effort perfecting techniques light this (I even have a friend who did his Ph.D. research on this).  This also has wider application in industrial and military environments since higher power lasers are being introduced all the time (such applications include welding and material cutting).  The ability to control the shape of the optics that control and direct a laser beam is becoming increasingly important.

Read more about this here!


This one is dear to my heart since I specialize in LIGO data analysis!  It is not just physical technology that can be reapplied for other purposes; techniques and software can as well.  Of the many different analysis methods that LIGO executes, the one used to search for continuous (long duration with consistent frequency) gravitational waves produced by things light neutron stars with a "mountain" on it (I put "mountain" in quotation marks because a neutron star is so perfectly spherical, that a deformation of less than an inch is considered a "mountain"!).  This is the analysis that is performed by Einstein@Home (which I blogged about previously here).  

Arecibo Radio Telescope (image from Wikipedia)

The data analysis challenge for these gravitational waves turns out to be similar to the challenge faced by astronomers looking for pulsars that emit either radio waves or gamma rays.  This data is collected by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico and the Fermi gamma-ray satellite, respectively.  Using Einstein@Home, the continuous gravitational wave data analysis techniques are applied to data from these two detectors to great effect!  The number of known gamma ray pulsars (that don't produce radio waves) has been increased by a third thanks to discoveries made using the same data analysis Einstein@Home uses.  Radio pulsars are also being discovered on a regular basis with Einstein@Home; since the beginning of 2012, 22 new radio pulsars have been discovered!

Read more about this here!