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.

Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius: The Little Book of Black Holes

Black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago, have long intrigued scientists and the public with their bizarre and fantastical properties. Although Einstein understood that black holes were mathematical solutions to his equations, he never accepted their physical reality—a viewpoint many shared. This all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a deeper conceptual understanding of black holes developed just as new observations revealed the existence of quasars and X-ray binary star systems, whose mysterious properties could be explained by the presence of black holes. Black holes have since been the subject of intense research—and the physics governing how they behave and affect their surroundings is stranger and more mind-bending than any fiction. The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius takes readers deep into the mysterious heart of the subject, offering rare clarity of insight into the physics that makes black holes simple yet destructive manifestations of geometric destiny. Read on to learn a bit more about black holes and what inspired the authors to write this book.

Your book tells the story of black holes from a physics perspective. What are black holes, really? What’s inside?

Black holes are regions of spacetime from which nothing can escape, not even light. In our book, we try to live up to our title by getting quickly to the heart of the subject, explaining in non-technical terms what black holes are and how we use Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand them. What’s inside black holes is a great mystery. Taken at face value, general relativity says spacetime inside a black hole collapses in on itself, so violently that singularities form. We need something more than Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand what these singularities mean. Hawking showed that quantum effects cause black holes to radiate very faintly. That radiation is linked with quantum fluctuations inside the black hole. But it’s a matter of ongoing debate whether these fluctuations are a key to resolving the puzzle of the singularity, or whether some more drastic theory is needed.

How sure are we that black holes exist?

A lot more certain than we were a few years ago. In September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, each one about thirty times the mass of the sun. Everything about that detection fit our expectations based on Einstein’s theories, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there really are black holes out there. In fact, before the LIGO detection we were already pretty sure that black holes exist. Matter swirling around gigantic black holes at the core of distant galaxies form the brightest objects in the Universe. They’re called quasars, and the only reason they’re dim in our sight is that they’re so far away, literally across the Universe. Similar effects around smaller black holes generate X-rays that we can detect relatively nearby, mere thousands of light years away from us. And we have good evidence that there is a large black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Can you talk a bit about the formation of black holes?

Black holes with mass comparable to the sun can form when big stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves. Ordinarily, gravity is the weakest force, but when too much matter comes together, no force conceivable can hold it up against the pull of gravity. In a sense, even spacetime collapses when a black hole forms, and the result is a black hole geometry: an endless inward cascade of nothing into nothing. All the pyrotechnics that we see in distant quasars and some nearby X-ray sources comes from matter rubbing against itself as it follows this inward cascade.

How have black holes become so interesting to non-specialists? How have they been glorified in popular culture?

There’s so much poetry in black hole physics. Black hole horizons are where time stands still—literally! Black holes are the darkest things that exist in Nature, formed from the ultimate ashes of used-up stars. But they create brilliant light in the process of devouring yet more matter. The LIGO detection was based on a black hole collision that shook the Universe, with a peak power greater than all stars combined; yet we wouldn’t even have noticed it here on earth without the most exquisitely sensitive detector of spacetime distortions ever built. Strangest of all, when stripped of surrounding matter, black holes are nothing but empty space. Their emptiness is actually what makes them easy to understand mathematically. Only deep inside the horizon does the emptiness end in a terrible, singular core (we think). Horrendous as this sounds, black holes could also be doorways into wormholes connecting distant parts of the Universe. But before packing our bags for a trip from Deep Space Nine to the Gamma Quadrant, we’ve got to read the fine print: as far as we know, it’s impossible to make a traversable wormhole.

What inspired you to write this book? Was there a point in life where your interest in this topic was piqued?

We both feel extremely fortunate to have had great mentors, including Igor Klebanov, Curt Callan, Werner Israel, Matthew Choptuik, and Kip Thorne who gave us a lot of insight into black holes and general relativity. And we owe a big shout-out to our editor, Ingrid Gnerlich, who suggested that we write this book.

GubserSteven S. Gubser is professor of physics at Princeton University and the author of The Little Book of String Theory. Frans Pretorius is professor of physics at Princeton.

Read like a Nobel Prize-winning physicist

This morning Princeton University Press was thrilled to congratulate PUP author and celebrated physicist Kip Thorne on being a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2017. Dr. Thorne’s research has focused on Einstein’s general theory of relativity and astrophysics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes, and especially gravitational waves. The latter observation, made in September 2015, validated a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Princeton University Press is honored to be the publisher of Dr. Thorne’s Modern Classical Physics, co-authored with Roger Blandford, and the new hardback edition of the renowned classic, Gravitation, co-authored with Charles Misner and the late John Wheeler, forthcoming this fall.

Over the years, we’ve published several Nobel winners, including:

  • Einstein
  • Richard Feynman (QED)
  • P.W. Anderson (the classic and controversial Theory of Superconductivity in the High-Tc Cuprates)
  • Paul Dirac (General Theory of Relativity)
  • Werner Heisenberg (Encounters with Einstein)

Interested in learning more about physics yourself? We put together the ultimate Nobel reading list. Click the graphic for links to each book.