Steven S. Gubser: Thunder and Lightning from Neutron Star mergers

As of late 2015, we have a new way of probing the cosmos: gravitational radiation. Thanks to LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and its new sibling Virgo (a similar interferometer in Italy), we can now “hear” the thumps and chirps of colliding massive objects in the universe. Not for nothing has this soundtrack been described by LIGO scientists as “the music of the cosmos.” This music is at a frequency easily discerned by human hearing, from somewhat under a hundred hertz to several hundred hertz. Moreover, gravitational radiation, like sound, is wholly different from light. It is possible for heavy dark objects like black holes to produce mighty gravitational thumps without at the same time emitting any significant amount of light. Indeed, the first observations of gravitational waves came from black hole merger events whose total power briefly exceeded the light from all stars in the known universe. But we didn’t observe any light from these events at all, because almost all their power went into gravitational radiation.

In August 2017, LIGO and Virgo observed a collision of neutron stars which did produce observable light, notably in the form of gamma rays. Think of it as cosmic thunder and lightning, where the thunder is the gravitational waves and the lightning is the gamma rays. When we see a flash of ordinary lightning, we can count a few seconds until we hear the thunder. Knowing that sound travels one mile in about five seconds, we can reckon how distant the event is. The reason this method works is that light travels much faster than sound, so we can think of the transmission of light as instantaneous for purposes of our estimate.

Things are very different for the neutron star collision, in that the event took place about 130 million light years away, but the thunder and lightning arrived on earth pretty much simultaneously. To be precise, the thunder was first: LIGO and Virgo heard a basso rumble rising to a characteristic “whoop,” and just 1.7 seconds later, the Fermi and INTEGRAL experiments observed gamma ray bursts from a source whose location was consistent with the LIGO and Virgo observations. The production of gamma rays from merging neutron stars is not a simple process, so it’s not clear to me whether we can pin that 1.7 seconds down as a delay precisely due to the astrophysical production mechanisms; but at least we can say with some confidence that the propagation time of light and gravity waves are the same to within a few seconds over 130 million light years. From a certain point of view, that amounts to one of the most precise measurements in physics: the ratio of the speed of light to the speed of gravity equals 1, correct to about 14 decimal places or better.

The whole story adds up much more easily when we remember that gravitational waves are not sound at all. In fact, they’re nothing like ordinary sound, which is a longitudinal wave in air, where individual air molecules are swept forward and backward just a little as the sound waves pass them by. Gravitational waves instead involve transverse disturbances of spacetime, where space is stretched in one direction and squeezed in another—but both of those stretch-squeeze directions are at right angles to the direction of the wave. Light has a similar transverse quality: It is made up of electric and magnetic fields, again in directions that are at right angles to the direction in which the light travels. It turns out that a deep principle underlying both Maxwell’s electromagnetism and Einstein’s general relativity forces light and gravitational waves to be transverse. This principle is called gauge symmetry, and it also guarantees that photons and gravitons are massless, which implies in turn that they travel at the same speed regardless of wavelength.

It’s possible to have transverse sound waves: For instance, shearing waves in crystals are a form of sound. They typically travel at a different speed from longitudinal sound waves. No principle of gauge symmetry forbids longitudinal sound waves, and indeed they can be directly observed, along with their transverse cousins, in ordinary materials like metals. The gauge symmetries that forbid longitudinal light waves and longitudinal gravity waves are abstract, but a useful first cut at the idea is that there is extra information in electromagnetism and in gravity, kind of like an error-correcting code. A much more modest form of symmetry is enough to characterize the behavior of ordinary sound waves: It suffices to note that air (at macroscopic scales) is a uniform medium, so that nothing changes in a volume of air if we displace all of it by a constant distance.

In short, Maxwell’s and Einstein’s theories have a feeling of being overbuilt to guarantee a constant speed of propagation. And they cannot coexist peacefully as theories unless these speeds are identical. As we continue Einstein’s hunt for a unified theory combining electromagnetism and gravity, this highly symmetrical, overbuilt quality is one of our biggest clues.

The transverse nature of gravitational waves is immediately relevant to the latest LIGO / Virgo detection. It is responsible for the existence of blind spots in each of the three detectors (LIGO Hanford, LIGO Livingston, and Virgo). It seems like blind spots would be bad, but they actually turned out to be pretty convenient: The signal at Virgo was relatively weak, indicating that the direction of the source was close to one of its blind spots. This helped localize the event, and localizing the event helped astronomers home in on it with telescopes. Gamma rays were just the first non-gravitational signal observed: the subsequent light-show from the death throes of the merging neutron stars promises to challenge and improve our understanding of the complex astrophysical processes involved. And the combination of gravitational and electromagnetic observations will surely be a driver of new discoveries in years and decades to come.


BlackSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String TheoryFrans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton. They both live in Princeton, New Jersey. They are the authors of The Little Book of Black Holes.