Friday, January 18, 2013

Q: What's the Difference Between a "Gravitational Wave" and a "Gravity Wave"?

The things that LIGO looks for are called gravitational waves (which are discussed in depth here on my blog and on the LIGO website).  That can be a mouthful, especially when having a conversation about them.  People, including us professionals, realize this and often take the shortcut of calling them "gravity waves".  It sounds so similar that this must mean the same thing, right?  Well, no!


The proper technical use of gravity wave refers to waves on the interface of two fluids, which can be liquid and/or gas.  Where this boundary is disturbed, gravity will pull it down and buoyancy will push it up.  This combination of opposite push and pull creates a wave that moves out over the surface.  You can make your own interface of two fluids by filling a glass with some water and oil:

A glass containing oil and water.  Oil settles at the top because it is less dense (more buoyant).  [Source: Wikipedia]

Water and oil will separate if left alone.  This separation creates a boundary between the oil and water with the oil on top since it is less dense.  Now imagine gently tapping on the side of the glass.  The vibration from your tap will transfer into the separated oil and water which will produce a gravity wave on their boundary.  If you actually do this carefully enough, you can produce a gravity wave ONLY on the oil/water boundary and not on the surface of the oil (though a surface wave on the oil is technically a gravity wave too since that is a liquid/gas fluid boundary).

While the oil and water example technically illustrates a gravity wave, the term is usually applied to gravity waves that occur in nature.  Examples include:

  • The waves on water caused by wind from large ocean waves to ripples in a puddle; these are examples of gravity waves on an gas/liquid boundary.  
  • Waves of different density waters under the oceans' surface (like warm/cool water, or fresh/salt water); these are examples of a liquid/liquid boundary.
  • The rippling of clouds, like in the movie below; this is an example of a gravity wave on a gas/gas boundary.


We've now established that a gravity wave is very different from the gravitational waves that LIGO is looking for.  But can LIGO detect them anyway?  Indirectly, yes!  Almost three-quarters of the Earth is covered by oceans.  These oceans are roiling with gravity waves both within the water and on top of it.  When these waves encounter solid earth, much of the wave is reflected but some of the energy is absorbed.  This absorbed energy can then create surface waves on the remaining part of the Earth's surface that is solid.  These ground vibrations are called microseism.

Since LIGO lives on the Earth's surface (many people think that LIGO is underground but it really is built above ground), these vibrations shake the detector and contribute to the measured detector noise.  So much so that, compared to the gravitational waves we seek, we don't expect to be able to detect low frequency (less than about 10 Hz or so) gravitational waves.  And it doesn't matter that both LIGO detectors are near shores since the microseism shakes the entire Earth - we could have built LIGO in the middle of Nebraska and the microseism would still negatively affect us. 

In order to detect low frequency gravitational waves, we need to get away from the microseism.  The proposed gravitational wave detector that can do this is the space-based eLISA satellites.  (I've also discussed eLISA and associated drama on this blog previously.)  eLISA would be exclusively sensitive to low frequency gravitational wave and would compliment LIGO well: there are many young systems producing low frequency gravitational waves all the time while there are few producing the high frequency death throes that LIGO can detect.  Together, LIGO and eLISA will provide a more complete gravitational-wave picture of the life cycle of some of the most energetic, violent objects in the Universe.


"Gravitational waves" and "gravity waves" are very different entities.  However, you may hear us refer to a gravitational wave as a "gravity wave".  This is a personal pet peeve of mine (can't you tell?).  While I work hard to use the term "gravitational wave" correctly, I am often hesitant to say anything to colleagues I hear using "gravity wave" instead.  Watch the NSF documentary Einstein's Messengers (also on the "Viewing Fun" page on this blog) and you will see some highly respected LIGO scientists refer to "gravity waves"; it makes me cringe a little every time but I'm not one to gainsay my betters.  Now that you've read this, you'll know what we really mean ;)

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