The Ligo measurement is the greatest thing to happen in Physics and Astronomy for decades. Amazing work. It was about 50 years ago that the first gravitational wave detector was built by Weber. It took 50 years of refinement, many PhDs postdocs and full careers, but the LIGO team did. it.
I will assume that you have already read the paper and other popular sources on this observation, so I will jump into what excites me about this observation:
The enormous gravitational wave energy emitted.
How much energy? Three solar masses worth of gravitational waves were emitted over just a few tenths of a second. The paper reports a peak gravitational energy emission of 200 solar masses per second! See the paper for errors on this estimate but its accurate to within 20%. The really amazing thing though is that this emission took place from a region only about 200 km across. The frequency of the waves at peak emission is (from the paper fig 1 – bottom row) 120 Hz or so.
Lets look at that amount of energy in terms of another form of energy that we are more comfortable with – electromagnetic waves – light. I want to compare this to the “Schwinger limit” – which is the maximum electromagnetic field that can occur before quantum pair creation effects take over. The Schwinger limit controls the maximum power that a region of space can transmit through itself (via opposing overlapping lasers say).
Say we had standing radio waves at 120Hz in a 200km on a side box, how much power could such an area radiate if it were only limited by the Schwinger limit? (i.e. ignore the mechanism by which such spectacular amounts of energy could be turned into radio waves).
The formula for energy density given an electric wave is quite simple: See for instance this hyper physics page:
Total Energy density = ε*E2 So at the Schwinger limit of 1.3×1018 V/m and with the constant ε being 8.854187817620… × 10-12 Farads/m, we get 1.5×1025 kg/m/s2. We have 200,000 metres per side, so there are 1.2×1041 J (joules) in a 200km on a side box at the Schwinger limit.
How many joules of gravitational wave energy were held in a 200km box around GW150914? Well at 200 solar masses per second emitted, we need to take the size of the box and use light travel time to determine the amount of energy in the box at any one time: So 200 solar masses per second. Light travel time is 200km/(3e8m/s) = 6.7×10-4 seconds. So if that volume emits 200 solar masses of energy per second, then that is 0.13 solar masses worth of energy at any one time in that volume, or 2.3×1046 Joules! This is some 5 orders of magnitude above what can be emitted by this same region using electromagnetic means!
The mechanism by which one arrives at the Schwinger limit is conceptually simple – ‘QED non linear photon – photon scattering’ involving electron – positron pair creation. (See the wikipedia article for a start).
Is there a corresponding quantum ‘Schwinger limit’ for gravitational waves (gravitons)? Well there is of course a limit in place due to classical general relativity, which is well known. In this case we are close (gravitational h is about 0.001 or so?) of the classical limit, which is basically that you can’t pile anything up so that the density would cause a black hole to form. But is there a feynman diagram for graviton – graviton scattering – well of course there is – it should behave like real classical gravity! I guess what I am wondering – is there another pathway where graviton scattering would take place and according to QM make the GW150914 ‘impossible’?
Does the observation of gravitational waves 5 orders of magnitude stronger than the strongest possible electromagnetic wave mean that we can finally stop calling gravity the weakest force? Yes to that!
My take as anyone who reads any of this site will know is that electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and the nuclear forces are all emergent phenomena from classical general relativity (see my poster). To me this observation is another hint at what general relativity can do.
As a further note, this corresponds to 0.018 watts per square metre at the 1.3 billion LY distance of the earth! That means that the earth had 2.3 Terawatts of gravitational energy passing through it on Sept 14 2015, just from this one event. Yet this massive amount of power is barely within observational limits of LIGO. LIGO sees only nice correlated bumps (with only 2 detectors its not really built to look at the background of gravitational wave energy), so we could easily have this much energy passing through the earth in the form of these stochastic low frequency gravitational waves all the time, and LIGO would not be able to detect it.
Gravitational waves make the perfect sub-quantum excitation – they can carry very large amounts of energy without anything but a carefully designed detector being able to pick them up.
What would be an ideal detector for LIGO frequency waves?
Other than the actual LIGO observatory of course (which I argue below may not be the ideal gravitational wave detector).
A nice isolated black hole maximally spinning at near a = 1, and of the same approximate mass as the GW150914 emitter would exchange a substantial amount of the incoming wave energy into motion – and it would pick up something like 0.2 GW of power for a fraction of a second, which would likely be observable since this hypothetical black hole is sitting so nice and quiet, a GJ of energy exchange would cause small (since the thing is so heavy) but measurable effects.
Say we don’t have a nearby system (we would need varying sizes to couple to the frequencies we wish to monitor) of quiet black holes to listen to. What else could we build? The ideas opens up if one assumes that matter and light are both gravitational phenomena. What would be ideal is something that mimics a tuned superradiant like interaction with gravitational waves, but it trillions of times lighter and made of ‘ordinary matter’. What makes super radiance work?
“What happened is that because this Rydberg atom stayed very high excited, but up there the energy levels are very-very close together. What does that mean? The transitions have very long wavelengths. So basically every sample that you can have is very small compared to these long wavelengths. And so superradiance is actually quite likely in these cases. And this is actually exactly what happened. As I said, it was an accident, I don’t think it could have been done such an ideal experiment on purpose in this case.”