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Gravitationalwaves:Amonumentaldiscovery

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ByAbhasMitra
Themaidendirectdetectionofgravitationalwaves(GW160914),announcedonFebruary11,theculminationofintense
worldwidescientificeffortsspanningalmostfourdecades,isoneofthegreatestscientificdiscoveriesofalltimes.Inparticular,
kudostotheLaserInterferometerGravitationalWaveObservatory(LIGO)teamforbeingsuccessfulinoneofthegreatest
experimentalphysicsfeatswhichwasoriginallyconceivedwaybackin2002.Nowwehaveanewwindowtounravelthemost
violentphenomenonofthecosmos.
ItisveryhearteningforIndianscientists,whohaveplayedaverysignificantrolecarryingforwardfrontlineresearchon
variousaspectsofgravitationalwaveastronomy.Infact,twoofthepioneershereareProf.BalaIyeratRamanResearch
Institute,Bengaluru,andProf.(emeritus)SanjeevDhurandharattheInteruniversityCentreforAstronomyandAstrophysics
(IUCAA)inPune.ThegravitationalastronomygroupatIUCAAandsomeotherIndiancentershavecontributedtovarious
relevantresearchaspartoftheglobalLIGOteam.
OnemaybetemptedtofancythatthisdiscoveryhassuddenlyelevatedEinsteinsGeneralTheoryofRelativity(GTR)from
thestatusofbeingamereelectrostaticeffecttothatofdynamicelectromagnetismwheretheeffectpropagateslikea
wavewithafinitespeed(oflight).However,itshouldbeborneinmindthatunliketheelectromagneticcase,onecannot
obtainanyrealisticanalyticalderivationforsuchwaves.ThesolutionEinsteinobtained100yearsagoisonlyahighly
approximatesolutioninvolvingonlyweakgravity.
ThishastodowithcomplexnonlinearnatureofGTRvisvissimplelinearnatureofelectromagnetism.Anddespite
dramaticimprovementsintheprowessofnumericalrelativity,inordermakepredictionabouttheexpectedpatternof
gravitationalwavesresultingfrom,saythemergeroftwocompactobjectsorbitingoneanother.Oneneedstomakevarious
tacitassumptionsorsimplifications.Suchcomputations,inasense,becomeeasiestwhenthemergingcompactobjectsare
blackholes.ThisissobecausetheyarethesimplestobjectsintheUniverse:ablackholeisjustasinglepointmasswithan
imaginarysphericalboundarycalledtheeventhorizon.Thus,whenoneconsidersablackholeblackholecollision,one
essentiallyconsidersgravitationalinteractionoftwopointmassesdressedbytheirhorizon.Incontrast,acompactobjectsuch
asaneutronstarhasadenseextendedbodywithcomplexstructureaboutwhichwehavelittleidea.Hence,thestudyofthe
mergeroftwoneutronstarsisfarmorecomplicatedthanthecorrespondingblackholecase.
ThepresenteventGW160914hasbeeninterpretedtohaveresultedfromtwocompactobjectshavingmasses36(+5/4)
and29(+4/4)solarmassesrespectively.Theseobjectshavebeeninterpretedtobeblackholesbecausetheoriginal
separationofthemwasonlyaround350km.Oncethetwoblackholesmerge,adynamicsingleholeblackholeissupposed
tobeborn.Thisdynamicblackholeisexpectedtogothroughastagecalledringdown,whereanydistortionintheshapeis
dissipatedasmoregravitationalwaves.Themassofthefinalblackholehasbeenestimatedtobeabout624solarmasses.
Andthemissing3.00.5solarmassesofenergywaspresumablyradiatedawayintheformofgravitationalwaves,in
accordancewithmassenergyequivalence.
Butonemayponderandintrospectwhetherthe0.02seconddurationburstofgravitationalwaveshasconfirmedthatthose
massivecompactobjectsinvolvedhereindeedpossessedeventhorizonsfromwhichnothing,notevenlight,canescape.If
anenergyequivalenttothreesolarmasseshavebeenradiatedout,asignificantportionofitmusthavecomefromthemass
energiesofthetwoprogenitorblackholes.Thesiteofmassenergyinablackholeisthecentralsingularity.Howcanso
muchenergybeextractedfromasingularitiesandinafractionofasecond?Alsoduringtheringdownstage,canany
energycomeoutofthetremblinghorizonofthedynamicblackhole?
Forabroaderscientificperspective,onemaynoteherethat,inthepast15years,manyauthorshavepointedsevere
conceptualdifficultiesassociatedwiththeblackholeparadigm,andhavearguedthatsocalledblackholesareonlyquasi
blackholes.Someoftheblackholealternativeswhichhaveinvokedsomequantumgravityideasaregravastars,dark
energystars,blackstarsandfuzzball.Ontheotherhand,themaidensuggestionforaquasiblackholeiscalledeternally
collapsingobjectthatisanultrahotballofplasma.
Allsuchblackholealternativesarepracticallyascompactastrueblackholesandcanverywellbeaccommodatedina350
kmorbit.Butthereisanimportantdifference:Unliketrueblackholes,thesearedenseextendedobjectswithoutanyevent
horizon.Hence,theradiationofmassenergyofaroundthreeSunsmaybebetterunderstoodinscenarioswherethe
compactobjectsinvolvedforsuchmindbogglingluminositiesarequasiblackholeshavingnohorizons.Ofcourse,asofnow,
nobodyhasstudiedtheexpectedpatternofgravitationalwavesresultingfromthecoalescenceofquasiblackholes.Ifthese
resultsarecorrect,theywouldimplythatsocalledmassiveblackholesareonlyquasiblackholes.ItwouldmeanGW150914
resultedfromthemergeroftwoquasiblackholesandhencesomuchenergycouldberadiatedoutfromtheevent.
Coalescenceoftwoneutronstarsareexpectedtogeneratenotonlyburstsofgravitationalwavesbutalsoburstsofgamma
rays.Similarly,iftheprogenitorsofpowerfulgravitationalwaveburstsaresayballsofplasma,sucheventsshouldbefollowed
byburstsofgammaraysorxrays.Incontrast,thecoalescenceoftruesingularblackholesneednotgiverisetostrong
electromagneticcounterparts.Thus,onewishes,infutureonewouldplanformultispectralobservationsinthecoincidenceof
gravitationalburstobservations.Thismayhelpunraveltruephysicalnatureoftheprogenitorsofgravitationalwaves.
Suchquestionsapart,itsamomentforcelebrationforastronomyandinparticularforEinsteinstheoryofgeneralrelativity
whichjustcompleteditscentennial.Allofusarefortunatethatthisgreatdevelopmentofnaturalscienceshappenedinour
lifetimeandmanyofuscouldwitnesstheLIGOpressconferenceonthenightofFebruary11,2016.IfSeptember11,2001,
wasoneoftheworstmemoriesformodernhistory,February11,2016turnedouttobeoneofthebestnightsofhuman
intellectualhistory.
(AbhasMitraistheformerheadoftheTheoreticalAstrophysicsSection,BhabhaAtomicResearchCentre,andcurrently
adjunctprofessorattheHomiBhabhaNationalInstitute,Mumbai.Theviewsexpressedarepersonal.Hecanbecontactedat
abhasmitra@gmail.com)