Gravity 11: Ripples in Spacetime

by Shane L. Larson

We have travelled far in our journey to explore gravity, far from home and into the deep reaches of the Cosmos. But all that we know, all that we have learned, has been discovered from our home here, on the shores of the Cosmic Ocean. Today, let us return home.  In the words of the space poet Rhysling,

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.

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Imagine yourself in a soft green meadow, far from the hub-bub of everyday life. What do you hear? What do you see? The gentle rustle of the trees, and the whisper of the long grass. The tall flowers of spring rocking gently back and forth, and the dark shadows of a bird of prey soaring effortlessly against the blue sky. All these sights and sounds are the signature of something unseen — the atmosphere of the Earth, the blanket of air that protects us and supports all the life around us.

How do we know the air is there? We can’t see it. All of these observations, infer the existence of the air by recognizing its influence on other things. If we want to measure the air directly, to detect it, then we need to construct controlled experiments where we understand the physical effect of the air and how it interacts with the experiment we design to elucidate its presence. Consider a simple experiment you can do right at home.

An experiment to convince yourself air exists. (TopL) If you just dip a straw directly in water and lift it out, then (TopR) all the water runs out.  (LowerL) If instead you put your finger over the straw before dipping it, then (LowerR) no water gets in the straw. Something invisible got in the way -- air!

An experiment to convince yourself air exists. (TopL) If you just dip a straw directly in water and lift it out, then (TopR) all the water runs out. (LowerL) If instead you put your finger over the straw before dipping it, then (LowerR) no water gets in the straw. Something invisible got in the way — air!

Take a drinking straw and a glass of water.  Dip the straw in the water, then place your thumb over the top of the straw, and remove it from the water.  If you take your thumb off the straw, you find that you had trapped some water in the straw.  Now do a slightly different experiment. Put your thumb over the end of the straw first, then put it in the water. If you take the straw out of the water and remove your thumb, you find that there is no water in the straw!  Why didn’t water go in the straw? There must have been something in the way, something invisible you couldn’t see. It is, of course, the air. This seems completely obvious to us now, thinking about it with 21st century brains, but two millenia ago, when we were just beginning to speculate on the nature of the world, this was a remarkable and marvelous observation of the world.

Today, astronomers find themselves in a similar brain loop with respect to gravity. One can “measure the force of gravity” through experiment. But when Einstein developed general relativity, he did away with gravitational forces in favor of motion on the curvature of spacetime. We can use this idea to describe everything we see in Newtonian gravity — objects freely falling to the ground, orbits of astrophysical bodies, and the weightlessness of astronauts in space. There have been exquisite tests of general relativity confirming its unique predictions beyond Newtonian gravity, and we rely on it every single day.

But is there a way to directly measure spacetime? Can we confirm that gravity is no more than the curvature of spacetime itself?  This is a question that has occupied the minds of gravitational physicists for a century now, and many ideas have been proposed and successfully carried out.

The most ambitious idea to directly measure spacetime curvature was first proposed by Einstein himself, and has taken a century to come to fruition. One of the motivations to develop general relativity was famously to incorporate into gravitational theory the fact that there is an ultimate speed limit in the Cosmos. If the gravitational field changes (for instance, due to the dynamical motion of large, massive objects like stars), that information must propagate to distant observers at the speed of light or less. If gravity is no more than the curvature of spacetime, then changes in the gravitational field must must be encoded in changing spacetime curvature that propagates from one place to another. We call such changes gravitational waves.

The opening pages of Einstein's first two papers on gravitational waves in 1916 (L) and 1918 (R).

The opening pages of Einstein’s first two papers on gravitational waves in 1916 (L) and 1918 (R).

If you want to build an experiment to detect an effect in Nature, you need a way to interact with the phenomenon that you can unambiguously associate with the effect. For the first 40 years after Einstein proposed the idea of gravitational waves, physicists were vexed by the detection question because they were confused as to whether the phenomenon existed at all!  The problem, we now know, was our inexperience with thinking about spacetime.

The International Prototype Kilogram (IPK).

The International Prototype Kilogram (IPK).

Scientists spend their lives quantifying the world, describing it precisely and carefully without ambiguity, as much as is possible. To this end, we use numbers, and so need a way of agreeing on what certain numbers mean. For example, we measure mass using “kilograms.” What’s a kilogram? It is the mass of a reference body, made of iridium (10%) and platinum (90%), called the “International Prototype Kilogram” (IPK). The IPK, and six sister copies, are stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, France. Scientists around the world agree that the IPK is the kilogram, and can base numbers off of it. Nature doesn’t care what the IPK is; the Sun certainly has a mass, expressible in kilograms, but it doesn’t care one whit what the IPK is. The kilogram is something humans invented to quantify and express their knowledge of the Cosmos in a way other humans could understand.

Example coordinates that can be used to describe the screen or paper you are reading this on. They are all different because humans invented them, not Nature. They are not intrinsic to the surface they are describing, though they are often chosen to reflect underlying shapes of the surface.

Example coordinates that can be used to describe the screen or paper you are reading this on. They are all different because humans invented them, not Nature. They are not intrinsic to the surface they are describing, though they are often chosen to reflect underlying shapes of the surface.

In a similar way, when spacetime physicists describe spacetime, we have to have a way of identifying locations in spacetime, so we make up coordinates. Like the kilogram, coordinates are something we humans create to enable us to talk with each other; Nature cares nothing, Nature knows nothing about coordinates. But sometimes we get so used to think about Nature in terms of coordinates, that we begin to ascribe physical importance to them! This was the case during the early decades of thinking about gravitational waves. Physicists were confused about whether or not the coordinates were waving back and forth, or if spacetime itself was waving back and forth.  Arthur Eddington, who had led the 1919 Eclipse Expedition to measure general relativity’s prediction of the deflection of starlight, famously had convinced himself that the waves were not real, but only an artifact of the coordinates.

At the poles of the globe, all the lines of longitude come together, and there is no well defined value. There is nothing wrong with the sphere; the coordinates that humans invented are not well suited there!

At the poles of the globe, all the lines of longitude come together, and there is no well defined value. There is nothing wrong with the sphere; the coordinates that humans invented are not well suited there!

Sometimes coordinates behave badly, giving results that might seem wrong or unphysical. For instance, you can see one example of badly behaving coordinates at the top of a sphere — if you are standing on the North Pole of the Earth, what is your longitude? You can’t tell! Longitude is a badly behaving coordinate there! There is nothing wrong with the sphere, only our coordinates.

And so it was with spacetime. In the early 1930s, Einstein and a collaborator, Nathan Rosen, had discovered a gravitational wave solution that appeared unphysical and claimed this as a proof that gravitational waves did not exist. Their result was later shown to be coordinates behaving badly, and Einstein pivoted away from denying gravitational waves exist, though Rosen never did.

The argument of the reality of the waves persisted for decades; in the end, the questions were resolved by a brilliant deduction about how to measure gravitational waves. As with all things in science, the road to understanding is a slow and steady plod, ultimately culminating in a moment of  understanding. In the early 1950s, our thinking was progressing rapidly (or so we know now, with 20/20 hindsight). The watershed came in January of 1957 at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at a now famous conference known as “The Role of Gravitation in Physics.” There were 44 attendees who had gathered to discuss and ponder the state of gravitational physics. It was barely 19 months after Einstein’s death, and the question of the existence of gravitational waves had not yet been resolved.

The community had slowly been converging on an important and central issue in experimental physics: if you want to detect something in Nature, then you have to know what the phenomenon does to the world around it. You then need to design an experiment that focuses on that effect, isolating it in some unambiguous way. At the Chapel Hill Conference, the realization of what to do was finally put forward by Felix Pirani. Pirani had settled on the notion that an observable effect of a passing gravitational wave is the undulating separation between two test masses in space (something gravitational physicists called “geodesic deviation” or “tidal deviation”). This idea hearkens back to the idea that the trajectories of particles is a way to measure the underlying shape of gravity, which was one of the original notions we had about thinking of gravity in the context of curvature.

The Sticky Bead argument was a thought experiment that convinced physicists that gravitational waves were real and could carry energy. (TOP) Imagine two beads on a smooth rod. There is a small amount of friction that keeps the beads from sliding freely. (BOTTOM) When a gravitational wave passes by, it pushes the beads apart. The friction stops the motion of the beads, heating the rod up. Measuring the heat in the rod constitutes a detection of the gravitational waves, since they were the source of the energy.

The Sticky Bead argument was a thought experiment that convinced physicists gravitational waves were real and could carry energy. (TOP) Imagine two beads on a smooth rod. A small amount of friction keeps the beads from sliding freely. (BOTTOM) When a gravitational wave passes by, it pushes the beads apart. The friction stops the motion of the beads, heating the rod up. Measuring the heat in the rod constitutes a detection of the gravitational waves, since they were the source of the energy.

Also present at the conference was Richard Feynman, by then a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman took Pirani’s notion and extended it into what we now call “the sticky bead argument.” He imagined a smooth rod with two beads on it. The beads were a little bit sticky, unable to slide along the rod without being pushed. When the motion of the beads was analyzed under the influence of gravitational waves, they moved back and forth, but their motion was arrested by the friction between the beads and the rod. Friction is a dissipative force, and causes the rod to heat up, just like your hands do if you rub them together. In the sticky bead case, what is the origin of the heat? The heat energy originated from the gravitational waves and was deposited in the system by the motion of the beads.

This idea was picked up by Herman Bondi, who expanded the idea, fleshing it out and publishing it in one of the leading scientific journals of the day. As a result, Bondi is generally credited with this argument.

(L) Richard Feynman (C) Hermann Bondi (R) Joseph Weber

(L) Richard Feynman (C) Hermann Bondi (R) Joseph Weber

Confirming that the beads move validated the idea that gravitational waves not only carry energy, but can deposit it in systems they interact with. This was the genesis of the notion that an observational programme to detect them could be mounted.  That challenge would be taken up by another person present at the Chapel Hill conference, named Joseph Weber. Weber had spent the previous academic year on sabbatical, studying gravitational waves at Princeton, and left Chapel Hill inspired to begin a serious search. Weber’s entrance to gravitational wave astronomy happened in the early 1960s with the introduction of the first gravitational wave bar detector.  This was the foundation that led to the great experimental gravitational wave experiments of today; we will start our story there in our next chat.

I am indebted to my colleague Peter Saulson (Syracuse) who first made me aware of Pirani’s talk at the 1957 Chapel Hill Conference. That Conference is part of the folklore if our discipline, though details are often glossed over usually going directly to the Bondi Bead story. I am also indebted to Carl Sagan, who introduced me to the idea that one can detect the air with water experiments (in “The Backbone of Night,” episode 7 of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage).

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This post is part of an ongoing series written for the General Relativity Centennial, celebrating 100 years of gravity (1915-2015).  You can find the first post in the series, with links to the successive posts in this series here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-ru.

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