Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Kip Thorne

And what Gravitational Waves means, again?

More than a billion years ago, two black holes in a distant galaxy locked into a spiral, falling inexorably toward each other, and collided.

All that energy was pumped into the fabric of time and space itself,” says theoretical physicist Allan Adams, “making the universe explode in roiling waves of gravity.”

About 25 years ago, a group of scientists built a giant laser detector called LIGO to search for these kinds of waves, which had been predicted but never observed.

In this mind-bending talk, Adams breaks down what happened when, in September 2015, LIGO detected an unthinkably small anomaly, leading to one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of physics.

Patsy Z shared this link TED. February 18, 2016
In September 2015, LIGO detected an unthinkably small anomaly, leading to one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of physics.|By Allan Adams

1.3 billion years ago, in a distant, distant galaxy, two black holes locked into a spiral, falling inexorably towards each other and collided, converting three Suns’ worth of stuff into pure energy in a tenth of a second. (It is these tenths of a second and even much shorter that riles me. A white lie of lasting a minute would comfort me greatly)

For that brief moment in time, the glow was brighter than all the stars in all the galaxies in all of the known Universe. It was a very big bang. (Qualitative description don’t hurt in this matter)

00:49 But they didn’t release their energy in light: they’re black holes. All that energy was pumped into the fabric of space and time itself, making the Universe explode in gravitational waves. (And how would you describe these waves?)

Let me give you a sense of the timescale at work here. 1.3 billion years ago, Earth had just managed to evolve multicellular life.

Since then, Earth has made and evolved corals, fish, plants, dinosaurs, people and even — God save us — the Internet.

And about 25 years ago, a particularly audacious set of people — Rai Weiss at MIT, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever at Caltech — decided that it would be really neat to build a giant laser detector with which to search for the gravitational waves from things like colliding black holes.

Now, most people thought they were nuts. But enough people realized that they were brilliant nuts that the US National Science Foundation decided to fund their crazy idea. So after decades of development, construction and imagination and a breathtaking amount of hard work, they built their detector, called LIGO: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

02:15 For the last several years, LIGO’s been undergoing a huge expansion in its accuracy, a tremendous improvement in its detection ability. It’s now called Advanced LIGO as a result.

In early September of 2015, LIGO turned on for a final test run while they sorted out a few lingering details.

And on September 14 of 2015, just days after the detector had gone live, the gravitational waves from those colliding black holes passed through the Earth. And they passed through you and me. And they passed through the detector.  (Any harm to the living and plants?)

(Audio) Scott Hughes: There’s two moments in my life more emotionally intense than that. One is the birth of my daughter. The other is when I had to say goodbye to my father when he was terminally ill. You know, it was the payoff of my career, basically. Everything I’d been working on — it’s no longer science fiction! (Laughs)

Allan Adams: So that’s my very good friend and collaborator, Scott Hughes, a theoretical physicist at MIT, who has been studying gravitational waves from black holes and the signals that they could impart on observatories like LIGO, for the past 23 years.

03:35 So let me take a moment to tell you what I mean by a gravitational wave.

A gravitational wave is a ripple in the shape of space and time. As the wave passes by, it stretches space and everything in it in one direction, and compresses it in the other (what other?). This has led to countless instructors of general relativity doing a really silly dance to demonstrate in their classes on general relativity. It stretches and expands, it stretches and expands.”

So the trouble with gravitational waves is that they’re very weak; they’re preposterously weak. For example, the waves that hit us on September 14 — and yes, every single one of you stretched and compressed under the action of that wave — when the waves hit, they stretched the average person by one part in 10 to the 21. That’s a decimal place, 20 zeroes, and a one. That’s why everyone thought the LIGO people were nuts. Even with a laser detector five kilometers long — and that’s already crazy — they would have to measure the length of those detectors to less than one thousandth of the radius of the nucleus of an atom. And that’s preposterous.

 So towards the end of his classic text on gravity, LIGO co-founder Kip Thorne described the hunt for gravitational waves as follows: He said, “The technical difficulties to be surmounted in constructing such detectors are enormous. But physicists are ingenious, and with the support of a broad lay public, all obstacles will surely be overcome.” Thorne published that in 1973, 42 years before he succeeded.

Now, coming back to LIGO, Scott likes to say that LIGO acts like an ear more than it does like an eye. I want to explain what that means. Visible light has a wavelength, a size, that’s much smaller than the things around you, the features on people’s faces, the size of your cell phone. And that’s really useful, because it lets you make an image or a map of the things around you, by looking at the light coming from different spots in the scene about you.

06:00 Sound is different. Audible sound has a wavelength that can be up to 50 feet long. And that makes it really difficult — in fact, in practical purposes, impossible — to make an image of something you really care about. Your child’s face. Instead, we use sound to listen for features like pitch and tone and rhythm and volume to infer a story behind the sounds. That’s Alice talking. That’s Bob interrupting. Silly Bob.

So, the same is true of gravitational waves. We can’t use them to make simple images of things out in the Universe. But by listening to changes in the amplitude and frequency of those waves, we can hear the story that those waves are telling.

And at least for LIGO, the frequencies that it can hear are in the audio band. So if we convert the wave patterns into pressure waves and air, into sound, we can literally hear the Universe speaking to us. For example, listening to gravity, just in this way, can tell us a lot about the collision of two black holes, something my colleague Scott has spent an awful lot of time thinking about.

 (Audio) SH: If the two black holes are non-spinning, you get a very simple chirp: whoop! If the two bodies are spinning very rapidly, I have that same chirp, but with a modulation on top of it, so it kind of goes: whir, whir, whir! It’s sort of the vocabulary of spin imprinted on this waveform.

AA: So on September 14, 2015, a date that’s definitely going to live in my memory, LIGO heard this:

07:42 [Whirring sound]

07:45 So if you know how to listen, that is the sound of —

(Audio) SH: … two black holes, each of about 30 solar masses, that were whirling around at a rate comparable to what goes on in your blender.

AA: It’s worth pausing here to think about what that means. Two black holes, the densest thing in the Universe, one with a mass of 29 Suns and one with a mass of 36 Suns, whirling around each other 100 times per second before they collide. Just imagine the power of that. It’s fantastic. And we know it because we heard it.

That’s the lasting importance of LIGO. It’s an entirely new way to observe the Universe that we’ve never had before. It’s a way that lets us hear the Universe and hear the invisible.

And there’s a lot out there that we can’t see — in practice or even in principle. So supernova, for example: I would love to know why very massive stars explode in supernovae. They’re very useful; we’ve learned a lot about the Universe from them.

The problem is, all the interesting physics happens in the core, and the core is hidden behind thousands of kilometers of iron and carbon and silicon. We’ll never see through it, it’s opaque to light.

Gravitational waves go through iron as if it were glass — totally transparent.

The Big Bang: I would love to be able to explore the first few moments of the Universe, but we’ll never see them, because the Big Bang itself is obscured by its own afterglow. With gravitational waves, we should be able to see all the way back to the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, I’m positive that there are things out there that we’ve never seen that we may never be able to see and that we haven’t even imagined — things that we’ll only discover by listening.

And in fact, even in that very first event, LIGO found things that we didn’t expect. Here’s my colleague and one of the key members of the LIGO collaboration, Matt Evans, my colleague at MIT, addressing exactly that:

 (Audio) Matt Evans: The kinds of stars which produce the black holes that we observed here are the dinosaurs of the Universe. They’re these massive things that are old, from prehistoric times, and the black holes are kind of like the dinosaur bones with which we do this archeology. So it lets us really get a whole another angle on what’s out there in the Universe and how the stars came to be, and in the end, of course, how we came to be out of this whole mess.

AA: Our challenge now is to be as audacious as possible. Thanks to LIGO, we know how to build exquisite detectors that can listen to the Universe, to the rustle and the chirp of the cosmos.

Our job is to dream up and build new observatories — a whole new generation of observatories — on the ground, in space. I mean, what could be more glorious than listening to the Big Bang itself?

Our job now is to dream big. Dream with us.

Allan Adams is a theoretical physicist working at the intersection of fluid dynamics, quantum field theory and string theory. Full bio
Question 1: Do these gravitational waves curve at the approach of a massive mass? The larger the mass the deeper the curve?
Question 2: Are these waves carrying electrically neutral matters, like bosons, and cut like butter through the mass without curving?

 Black Holes: Facts, Theory and Definition

So far, what physicists and astrophysics scientist claim is that:

1. Black holes are some of the strangest and most fascinating objects found in outer space.

2. They are objects of extreme density,

3. with such strong gravitational attraction that even light cannot escape from their grasp if it comes near enough.

Albert Einstein first predicted black holes in 1916 with his general theory of relativity.

The term “black hole” was coined in 1967 by American astronomer John Wheeler, and the first one was discovered in 1971.


Supermassive may be the result of hundreds or thousands of tiny black holes that merge together.

Large gas clouds could also be responsible, collapsing together and rapidly accreting mass.

A third option is the collapse of a stellar cluster, a group of stars all falling together.

Intermediate black holes – stuck in the middle

Scientists once thought black holes came in only small and large sizes, but recent research has revealed the possibility for the existence of midsize, or intermediate, black holes.

Such bodies could form when stars in a cluster collide in a chain reaction. Several of these forming in the same region could eventually fall together in the center of a galaxy and create a supermassive black hole.

Black hole theory — how they tick

Black holes are incredibly massive, but cover only a small region.

Because of the relationship between mass and gravity, this means they have an extremely powerful gravitational force. Virtually nothing can escape from them — under classical physics, even light is trapped by a black hole.

Such a strong pull creates an observational problem when it comes to black holes — scientists can’t “see” them the way they can see stars and other objects in space.

Instead, scientists must rely on the radiation that is emitted as dust and gas are drawn into the dense creatures. Supermassive black holes, lying in the center of a galaxy, may find themselves shrouded by the dust and gas thick around them, which can block the tell-tale emissions.

Sometimes as matter is drawn toward a black hole, it ricochets off of the event horizon and is hurled outward, rather than being tugged into the maw.

Bright jets of material traveling at near-relativistic speeds are created. Although the black hole itself remains unseen, these powerful jets can be viewed from great distances.

Black holes have three “layers” — the outer and inner event horizon and the singularity.

The event horizon of a black hole is the boundary around the mouth of the black hole where light loses its ability to escape. Once a particle crosses the event horizon, it cannot leave.

Gravity is constant across the event horizon.

The inner region of a black hole, where its mass lies, is known as its singularity, the single point in space-time where the mass of the black hole is concentrated.

Under the classical mechanics of physics, nothing can escape from a black hole.

However, things shift slightly when quantum mechanics are added to the equation. Under quantum mechanics, for every particle, there is an antiparticle, a particle with the same mass and opposite electric charge. When they meet, particle-antiparticle pairs can annihilate one another.

If a particle-antiparticle pair is created just beyond the reach of the event horizon of a black hole, it is possible to have one drawn into the black hole itself while the other is ejected. The result is that the event horizon of the black hole has been reduced and black holes can decay, a process that is rejected under classical mechanics.

Scientists are still working to understand the equations by which black holes function.

Interesting facts about black holes

  • If you fell into a black hole, gravity would stretch you out like spaghetti. Don’t worry; your death would come before you reached singularity.
  • Black holes do not “suck.” Suction is caused by pulling something into a vacuum, which the massive black hole definitely is not. Instead, objects fall into them.
  • The first object considered to be a black hole is Cygnus X-1. Rockets carrying Geiger counters discovered 8 new x-ray sources. In 1971, scientists detected radio emission coming from Cygnus X-1, and a massive hidden companion was found and identified as a black hole.
  • Cygnus X-1 was the subject of a 1974 friendly wager between Stephen Hawking and a fellow physicist Kip Thorne, with Hawking betting that the source was not a black hole. In 1990, he conceded defeat. [VIDEO: Final Nail in Stephen Hawking’s Cygnus X-1 Bet?]
  • Miniature black holes may have formed immediately after the Big Bang. Rapidly expanding space may have squeezed some regions into tiny, dense black holes less massive than the sun.
  • If a star passes too close to a black hole, it can be torn apart.
  • Astronomers estimate there are anywhere from 10 million to a billion stellar black holes, with masses roughly thrice that of the sun, in the Milky Way.
  • The interesting relationship between string theory and black holes gives rise to more types of massive giants than found under conventional classical mechanics.




Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction: Stop it!

If the pseudoscientific woo about love and time travel in Interstellar pissed you off, you aren’t alone.

Though Christopher Nolan’s gorgeous space opera isn’t the first science fiction film to descend into a morass of new age platitudes, here’s why it should be the last.

Spoilers for Interstellar ahead.

Do you know of any science fiction movies that “get it right” perfectly when it comes to physics and other areas of science.

Any story that involves interstellar travel is by definition based on speculation.

We have no idea how faster-than-light travel would work, so we rely on semi-scientific tropes, from wormhole travel and interdimensional jumps to hypersleep and brain uploading.

These tropes are all based on contemporary scientific understanding, but of course they are also wild extrapolations that may ultimately turn out to be complete bullshit.

But there’s a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a “fifth dimension” that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter.

This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he’s gone inside, he’s rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter’s room around him, each representing a slice of time.

So far, we’re on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science.

Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible.

Other physicists disagree with him, but that’s not the problem.

The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a “force” that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of “love” to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.

This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that’s what’s going on.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea.

The “fifth element” of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.

Again, the issue here isn’t with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.

This notion that love “transcends” space and time also makes an appearance in the otherwise rationality-centric movie Contact.

In that film, based on work by Carl Sagan, the main character takes a journey through space/time and communicates with aliens who take the form of her father. The idea is that they are so alien that they can only appear to her by taking on the form of a person she loves.

Ultimately, the suggestion in Contact — like in Interstellar — is that love is a force we can measure using physics.

Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction 

Expand. Illustration by Luke Toyer

We can probably trace a lot of these tropes back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written by Arthur C. Clarke back in the 1960s. In that film, we discover that humanity was uplifted by godlike aliens who have been observing us benevolently for hundreds of thousands of years.

Now that we are leaving Earth, they return to greet us — and that experience is represented as some kind of epiphany or spiritual rebirth. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Clarke’s work, which included (among other things) stints hosting the shows Mysterious World and World of Strange Powers, which were both about taking “unexplained phenomena” far more seriously than they should be.

Like Contact, 2001 offers totemic images an effort to represent something that is profoundly unrepresentable. Fair enough, but it leads to a lot of sloppy thinking about what is scientifically plausible. Which is pretty much unacceptable in movies like 2001, Contact, Interstellar and many others that want to lay claim to some kind of scientific validity.

These are films that aim to popularize science and our quest to colonize space, and yet they basically lie to audiences about how space works. Suggesting that love can bend time, or that space travel is a psychic journey, does not simplify these concepts in a way that makes them more understandable to people without formal science training.

It simply misrepresents them. Instead of making science more exciting and accessible, these movies make it more confusing.

It’s particularly disheartening to see these pseudoscientific tropes being reawakened at a time when politicians in the west are trying to cut funding for science. We’re facing a future where many people will learn about science for the first time from pop culture.

But all too much of that pop culture will teach them that science is actually no different from “beliefs,” as if the laws of gravity were as mutable as our emotional attachments.

I’m not saying that science fiction needs to adhere to a boring formula of only telling stories that hinge established scientific theories. But I worry when science is collapsed into spirit.

There are truths out there, discovered by science. And we shouldn’t forget them or the future is truly lost.

Note: All that we know and retained are in our belief system. Truth is a smokescreen, and does not withstand the chaos in one generation.




January 2021

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