Everyone is rightly excited about the latest gravitational-wave discovery. The LIGO observatory, recently joined by its European partner VIRGO, had previously seen gravitational waves from coalescing black holes. Which is super-awesome, but also a bit lonely — black holes are black, so we detect the gravitational waves and little else. Since our current gravitational-wave observatories aren’t very good at pinpointing source locations on the sky, we’ve been completely unable to say which galaxy, for example, the events originated in.
This has changed now, as we’ve launched the era of “multi-messenger astronomy,” detecting both gravitational and electromagnetic radiation from a single source. The event was the merger of two neutron stars, rather than black holes, and all that matter coming together in a giant conflagration lit up the sky in a large number of wavelengths simultaneously.
A lot of cutting-edge science will come out of this, see e.g. this main science paper. Apparently some folks are very excited by the fact that the event produced an amount of gold equal to several times the mass of the Earth. But it’s my blog, so let me highlight the aspect of personal relevance to me: using “standard sirens” to measure the expansion of the universe.
We’re already pretty good at measuring the expansion of the universe, using something called the cosmic distance ladder. You build up distance measures step by step, determining the distance to nearby stars, then to more distant clusters, and so forth. Works well, but of course is subject to accumulated errors along the way. This new kind of gravitational-wave observation is something else entirely, allowing us to completely jump over the distance ladder and obtain an independent measurement of the distance to cosmological objects. See this LIGO explainer.
The simultaneous observation of gravitational and electromagnetic waves is crucial to this idea. You’re trying to compare two things: the distance to an object, and the apparent velocity with which it is moving away from us. Usually velocity is the easy part: you measure the redshift of light, which is easy to do when you have an electromagnetic spectrum of an object. But with gravitational waves alone, you can’t do it — there isn’t enough structure in the spectrum to measure a redshift. That’s why the exploding neutron stars were so crucial; in this event, GW170817, we can for the first time determine the precise redshift of a distant gravitational-wave source.
Measuring the distance is the tricky part, and this is where gravitational waves offer a new technique. The favorite conventional strategy is to identify “standard candles” — objects for which you have a reason to believe you know their intrinsic brightness, so that by comparing to the brightness you actually observe you can figure out the distance. To discover the acceleration of the universe, for example, astronomers used Type Ia supernovae as standard candles.
Gravitational waves don’t quite give you standard candles; every one will generally have a different intrinsic gravitational “luminosity” (the amount of energy emitted). But by looking at the precise way in which the source evolves — the characteristic “chirp” waveform in gravitational waves as the two objects rapidly spiral together — we can work out precisely what that total luminosity actually is. Here’s the chirp for GW170817, compared to the other sources we’ve discovered — much more data, almost a full minute!
So we have both distance and redshift, without using the conventional distance ladder at all! This is important for all sorts of reasons. An independent way of getting at cosmic distances will allow us to measure properties of the dark energy, for example. You might also have heard that there is a discrepancy between different ways of measuring the Hubble constant, which either means someone is making a tiny mistake or there is something dramatically wrong with the way we think about the universe. Having an independent check will be crucial in sorting this out. Just from this one event, we are able to say that the Hubble constant is 70 kilometers per second per megaparsec, albeit with large error bars (+12, -8 km/s/Mpc). That will get much better as we collect more events.
So here is my (infinitesimally tiny) role in this exciting story. The idea of using gravitational-wave sources as standard sirens was put forward by Bernard Schutz all the way back in 1986. But it’s been developed substantially since then, especially by my friends Daniel Holz and Scott Hughes. Years ago Daniel told me about the idea, as he and Scott were writing one of the early papers. My immediate response was “Well, you have to call these things `standard sirens.'” And so a useful label was born.
Sadly for my share of the glory, my Caltech colleague Sterl Phinney also suggested the name simultaneously, as the acknowledgments to the paper testify. That’s okay; when one’s contribution is this extremely small, sharing it doesn’t seem so bad.
By contrast, the glory attaching to the physicists and astronomers who pulled off this observation, and the many others who have contributed to the theoretical understanding behind it, is substantial indeed. Congratulations to all of the hard-working people who have truly opened a new window on how we look at our universe.