Tag Archives: astrophysics

Adversarial Collaborations for Physics

Sometimes physics debates get ugly. For the scientists reading this, imagine your worst opponents. Think of the people who always misinterpret your work while using shoddy arguments to prop up their own, where every question at a talk becomes a screaming match until you just stop going to the same conferences at all.

Now, imagine writing a paper with those people.

Adversarial collaborations, subject of a recent a contest on the blog Slate Star Codex, are a proposed method for resolving scientific debates. Two scientists on opposite sides of an argument commit to writing a paper together, describing the overall state of knowledge on the topic. For the paper to get published, both sides have to sign off on it: they both have to agree that everything in the paper is true. This prevents either side from cheating, or from coming back later with made-up objections: if a point in the paper is wrong, one side or the other is bound to catch it.

This won’t work for the most vicious debates, when one (or both) sides isn’t interested in common ground. But for some ongoing debates in physics, I think this approach could actually help.

One advantage of adversarial collaborations is in preventing accusations of bias. The debate between dark matter and MOND-like proposals is filled with these kinds of accusations: claims that one group or another is ignoring important data, being dishonest about the parameters they need to fit, or applying standards of proof they would never require of their own pet theory. Adversarial collaboration prevents these kinds of accusations: whatever comes out of an adversarial collaboration, both sides would make sure the other side didn’t bias it.

Another advantage of adversarial collaborations is that they make it much harder for one side to move the goalposts, or to accuse the other side of moving the goalposts. From the sidelines, one thing that frustrates me watching string theorists debate whether the theory can describe de Sitter space is that they rarely articulate what it would take to decisively show that a particular model gives rise to de Sitter. Any conclusion of an adversarial collaboration between de Sitter skeptics and optimists would at least guarantee that both parties agreed on the criteria. Similarly, I get the impression that many debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics are bogged down by one side claiming they’ve closed off a loophole with a new experiment, only for the other to claim it wasn’t the loophole they were actually using, something that could be avoided if both sides were involved in the experiment from the beginning.

It’s possible, even likely, that no-one will try adversarial collaboration for these debates. Even if they did, it’s quite possible the collaborations wouldn’t be able to agree on anything! Still, I have to hope that someone takes the plunge and tries writing a paper with their enemies. At minimum, it’ll be an interesting read!


The Physics Isn’t New, We Are

Last week, I mentioned the announcement from the IceCube, Fermi-LAT, and MAGIC collaborations of high-energy neutrinos and gamma rays detected from the same source, the blazar TXS 0506+056. Blazars are sources of gamma rays, thought to be enormous spinning black holes that act like particle colliders vastly more powerful than the LHC. This one, near Orion’s elbow, is “aimed” roughly at Earth, allowing us to detect the light and particles it emits. On September 22, a neutrino with energy around 300 TeV was detected by IceCube (a kilometer-wide block of Antarctic ice stuffed with detectors), coming from the direction of TXS 0506+056. Soon after, the satellite Fermi-LAT and ground-based telescope MAGIC were able to confirm that the blazar TXS 0506+056 was flaring at the time. The IceCube team then looked back, and found more neutrinos coming from the same source in earlier years. There are still lingering questions (Why didn’t they see this kind of behavior from other, closer blazars?) but it’s still a nice development in the emerging field of “multi-messenger” astronomy.

It also got me thinking about a conversation I had a while back, before one of Perimeter’s Public Lectures. An elderly fellow was worried about the LHC. He wondered if putting all of that energy in the same place, again and again, might do something unprecedented: weaken the fabric of space and time, perhaps, until it breaks? He acknowledged this didn’t make physical sense, but what if we’re wrong about the physics? Do we really want to take that risk?

At the time, I made the same point that gets made to counter fears of the LHC creating a black hole: that the energy of the LHC is less than the energy of cosmic rays, particles from space that collide with our atmosphere on a regular basis. If there was any danger, it would have already happened. Now, knowing about blazars, I can make a similar point: there are “galactic colliders” with energies so much higher than any machine we can build that there’s no chance we could screw things up on that kind of scale: if we could, they already would have.

This connects to a broader point, about how to frame particle physics. Each time we build an experiment, we’re replicating something that’s happened before. Our technology simply isn’t powerful enough to do something truly unprecedented in the universe: we’re not even close! Instead, the point of an experiment is to reproduce something where we can see it. It’s not the physics itself, but our involvement in it, our understanding of it, that’s genuinely new.

The IceCube experiment itself is a great example of this: throughout Antarctica, neutrinos collide with ice. The only difference is that in IceCube’s ice, we can see them do it. More broadly, I have to wonder how much this is behind the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”: if mathematics is just the most precise way humans have to communicate with each other, then of course it will be effective in physics, since the goal of physics is to communicate the nature of the world to humans!

There may well come a day when we’re really able to do something truly unprecedented, that has never been done before in the history of the universe. Until then, we’re playing catch-up, taking laws the universe has tested extensively and making them legible, getting humanity that much closer to understanding physics that, somewhere out there, already exists.

A LIGO in the Darkness

For the few of you who haven’t yet heard: LIGO has detected gravitational waves from a pair of colliding neutron stars, and that detection has been confirmed by observations of the light from those stars.


They also provide a handy fact sheet.

This is a big deal! On a basic level, it means that we now have confirmation from other instruments and sources that LIGO is really detecting gravitational waves.

The implications go quite a bit further than that, though. You wouldn’t think that just one observation could tell you very much, but this is an observation of an entirely new type, the first time an event has been seen in both gravitational waves and light.

That, it turns out, means that this one observation clears up a whole pile of mysteries in one blow. It shows that at least some gamma ray bursts are caused by colliding neutron stars, that neutron star collisions can give rise to the high-power “kilonovas” capable of forming heavy elements like gold…well, I’m not going to be able to give justice to the full implications in this post. Matt Strassler has a pair of quite detailed posts on the subject, and Quanta magazine’s article has a really great account of the effort that went into the detection, including coordinating the network of telescopes that made it possible.

I’ll focus here on a few aspects that stood out to me.

One fun part of the story behind this detection was how helpful “failed” observations were. VIRGO (the European gravitational wave experiment) was running alongside LIGO at the time, but VIRGO didn’t see the event (or saw it so faintly it couldn’t be sure it saw it). This was actually useful, because VIRGO has a blind spot, and VIRGO’s non-observation told them the event had to have happened in that blind spot. That narrowed things down considerably, and allowed telescopes to close in on the actual merger. IceCube, the neutrino observatory that is literally a cubic kilometer chunk of Antarctica filled with sensors, also failed to detect the event, and this was also useful: along with evidence from other telescopes, it suggests that the “jet” of particles emitted by the merged neutron stars is tilted away from us.

One thing brought up at LIGO’s announcement was that seeing gravitational waves and electromagnetic light at roughly the same time puts limits on any difference between the speed of light and the speed of gravity. At the time I wondered if this was just a throwaway line, but it turns out a variety of proposed modifications of gravity predict that gravitational waves will travel slower than light. This event rules out many of those models, and tightly constrains others.

The announcement from LIGO was screened at NBI, but they didn’t show the full press release. Instead, they cut to a discussion for local news featuring NBI researchers from the various telescope collaborations that observed the event. Some of this discussion was in Danish, so it was only later that I heard about the possibility of using the simultaneous measurement of gravitational waves and light to measure the expansion of the universe. While this event by itself didn’t result in a very precise measurement, as more collisions are observed the statistics will get better, which will hopefully clear up a discrepancy between two previous measures of the expansion rate.

A few news sources made it sound like observing the light from the kilonova has let scientists see directly which heavy elements were produced by the event. That isn’t quite true, as stressed by some of the folks I talked to at NBI. What is true is that the light was consistent with patterns observed in past kilonovas, which are estimated to be powerful enough to produce these heavy elements. However, actually pointing out the lines corresponding to these elements in the spectrum of the event hasn’t been done yet, though it may be possible with further analysis.

A few posts back, I mentioned a group at NBI who had been critical of LIGO’s data analysis and raised doubts of whether they detected gravitational waves at all. There’s not much I can say about this until they’ve commented publicly, but do keep an eye on the arXiv in the next week or two. Despite the optimistic stance I take in the rest of this post, the impression I get from folks here is that things are far from fully resolved.

Congratulations to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne!

The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this week, awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for their work on LIGO, the gravitational wave detector.


Many expected the Nobel to go to LIGO last year, but the Nobel committee waited. At the time, it was expected the prize would be awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever, the three founders of the LIGO project, but there were advocates for Barry Barish was well. Traditionally, the Nobel is awarded to at most three people, so the argument got fairly heated, with opponents arguing Barish was “just an administrator” and advocates pointing out that he was “just the administrator without whom the project would have been cancelled in the 90’s”.

All of this ended up being irrelevant when Drever died last March. The Nobel isn’t awarded posthumously, so the list of obvious candidates (or at least obvious candidates who worked on LIGO) was down to three, which simplified thing considerably for the committee.

LIGO’s work is impressive and clearly Nobel-worthy, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is some controversy around it. In June, several of my current colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute uploaded a paper arguing that if you subtract the gravitational wave signal that LIGO claims to have found then the remaining data, the “noise”, is still correlated between LIGO’s two detectors, which it shouldn’t be if it were actually just noise. LIGO hasn’t released an official response yet, but a LIGO postdoc responded with a guest post on Sean Carroll’s blog, and the team at NBI had responses of their own.

I’d usually be fairly skeptical of this kind of argument: it’s easy for an outsider looking at the data from a big experiment like this to miss important technical details that make the collaboration’s analysis work. That said, having seen some conversations between these folks, I’m a bit more sympathetic. LIGO hadn’t been communicating very clearly initially, and it led to a lot of unnecessary confusion on both sides.

One thing that I don’t think has been emphasized enough is that there are two claims LIGO is making: that they detected gravitational waves, and that they detected gravitational waves from black holes of specific masses at a specific distance. The former claim could be supported by the existence of correlated events between the detectors, without many assumptions as to what the signals should look like. The team at NBI seem to have found a correlation of that sort, but I don’t know if they still think the argument in that paper holds given what they’ve said elsewhere.

The second claim, that the waves were from a collision of black holes with specific masses, requires more work. LIGO compares the signal to various models, or “templates”, of black hole events, trying to find one that matches well. This is what the group at NBI subtracts to get the noise contribution. There’s a lot of potential for error in this sort of template-matching. If two templates are quite similar, it may be that the experiment can’t tell the difference between them. At the same time, the individual template predictions have their own sources of uncertainty, coming from numerical simulations and “loops” in particle physics-style calculations. I haven’t yet found a clear explanation from LIGO of how they take these various sources of error into account. It could well be that even if they definitely saw gravitational waves, they don’t actually have clear evidence for the specific black hole masses they claim to have seen.

I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the coming months, as both groups continue to talk through their disagreement. Hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture of what’s going on. In the meantime, though, Weiss, Barish, and Thorne have accomplished something impressive regardless, and should enjoy their Nobel.

Simple Rules Don’t Mean a Simple Universe

It’s always fun when nature surprises you.

This week, the Perimeter Colloquium was given by Laura Nuttall, a member of the LIGO collaboration.

In a physics department, the colloquium is a regularly scheduled talk that’s supposed to be of interest to the entire department. Some are better at this than others, but this one was pretty fun. The talk explored the sorts of questions gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO can answer about the world.

At one point during the talk, Nuttall showed a plot of what happens when a star collapses into a supernova. For a range of masses, the supernova leaves behind a neutron star (shown on the plot in purple). For heavier stars, it instead results in a black hole, a big black region of the plot.

What surprised me was that inside the black region, there was an unexpected blob: a band of white in the middle of the black holes. Heavier than that band, the star forms a black hole. Lighter, it also forms a black hole. But inside?

Nothing. The star leaves nothing behind. It just explodes.

The physical laws that govern collapsing stars might not be simple, but at least they sound straightforward. Stars are constantly collapsing under their own weight, held up only by the raging heat of nuclear fire. If that heat isn’t strong enough, the star collapses, and other forces take over, so the star becomes a white dwarf, or a neutron star. And if none of those forces is strong enough, the star collapses completely, forming a black hole.

Too small, neutron star. Big enough, black hole. It seems obvious. But reality makes things more complicated.

It turns out, if a star is both massive and has comparatively little metal in it, the core of the star can get very very hot. That heat powers an explosion more powerful than a typical star, one that tears the star apart completely, leaving nothing behind that could form a black hole. Lighter stars don’t get as hot, so they can still form black holes, and heavier stars are so heavy they form black holes anyway. But for those specific stars, in the middle, nothing gets left behind.

This isn’t due to mysterious unknown physics. It’s actually been understood for quite some time. It’s a consequence of those seemingly straightforward laws, one that isn’t at all obvious until you do the work and run the simulations and observe the universe and figure it out.

Just because our world is governed by simple laws, doesn’t mean the universe itself is simple. Give it a little room (and several stars’ worth of hydrogen) and it can still surprise you.

What Space Can Tell Us about Fundamental Physics

Back when LIGO announced its detection of gravitational waves, there was one question people kept asking me: “what does this say about quantum gravity?”

The answer, each time, was “nothing”. LIGO’s success told us nothing about quantum gravity, and very likely LIGO will never tell us anything about quantum gravity.

The sheer volume of questions made me think, though. Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology fascinate people. They capture the public’s imagination in a way that makes them expect breakthroughs about fundamental questions. Especially now, with the LHC so far seeing nothing new since the Higgs, people are turning to space for answers.

Is that a fair expectation? Well, yes and no.

Most astrophysicists aren’t concerned with finding new fundamental laws of nature. They’re interested in big systems like stars and galaxies, where we know most of the basic rules but can’t possibly calculate all their consequences. Like most physicists, they’re doing the vital work of “physics of decimals”.

At the same time, there’s a decent chunk of astrophysics and cosmology that does matter for fundamental physics. Just not all of it. Here are some of the key areas where space has something important to say about the fundamental rules that govern our world:


1. Dark Matter:

Galaxies rotate at different speeds than their stars would alone. Clusters of galaxies bend light that passes by, and do so more than their visible mass would suggest. And when scientists try to model the evolution of the universe, from early images to its current form, the models require an additional piece: extra matter that cannot interact with light. All of this suggests that there is some extra “dark” matter in the universe, not described by our standard model of particle physics.

If we want to understand this dark matter, we need to know more about its properties, and much of that can be learned from astronomy. If it turns out dark matter isn’t really matter after all, if it can be explained by a modification of gravity or better calculations of gravity’s effects, then it still will have important implications for fundamental physics, and astronomical evidence will still be key to finding those implications.

2. Dark Energy (/Cosmological Constant/Inflation/…):

The universe is expanding, and its expansion appears to be accelerating. It also seems more smooth and uniform than expected, suggesting that it had a period of much greater acceleration early on. Both of these suggest some extra quantity: a changing acceleration, a “dark energy”, the sort of thing that can often be explained by a new scalar field like the Higgs.

Again, the specifics: how (and perhaps if) the universe is expanding now, what kinds of early expansion (if any) the shape of the universe suggests, these will almost certainly have implications for fundamental physics.

3. Limits on stable stuff:

Let’s say you have a new proposal for particle physics. You’ve predicted a new particle, but it can’t interact with anything else, or interacts so weakly we’d never detect it. If your new particle is stable, then you can still say something about it, because its mass would have an effect on the early universe. Too many such particles and they would throw off cosmologists’ models, ruling them out.

Alternatively, you might predict something that could be detected, but hasn’t, like a magnetic monopole. Then cosmologists can tell you how many such particles would have been produced in the early universe, and thus how likely we would be to detect them today. If you predict too many particles and we don’t see them, then that becomes evidence against your proposal.

4. “Cosmological Collider Physics”:

A few years back, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena suggested that the early universe could be viewed as an extremely high energy particle collider. While this collider performed only one experiment, the results from that experiment are spread across the sky, and observed patterns in the early universe should tell us something about the particles produced by the cosmic collider.

People are still teasing out the implications of this idea, but it looks promising, and could mean we have a lot more to learn from examining the structure of the universe.

5. Big Weird Space Stuff:

If you suspect we live in a multiverse, you might want to look for signs of other universes brushing up against our own. If your model of the early universe predicts vast cosmic strings, maybe a gravitational wave detector like LIGO will be able to see them.

6. Unexpected weirdness:

In all likelihood, nothing visibly “quantum” happens at the event horizons of astrophysical black holes. If you think there’s something to see though, the Event Horizon Telescope might be able to see it. There’s a grab bag of other predictions like this: situations where we probably won’t see anything, but where at least one person thinks there’s a question worth asking.


I’ve probably left something out here, but this should give you a general idea. There is a lot that fundamental physics can learn from astronomy, from the overall structure and origins of the universe to unexplained phenomena like dark matter. But not everything in astronomy has these sorts of implications: for the most part, astronomy is interesting not because it tells us something about the fundamental laws of nature, but because it tells us how the vast space above us actually happens to work.

Things You Don’t Know about the Power of the Dark Side

Last Wednesday, Katherine Freese gave a Public Lecture at Perimeter on the topic of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. The talk should be on Perimeter’s YouTube page by the time this post is up.

Answering twitter questions during the talk made me realize that there’s a lot the average person finds confusing about Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Freese addressed much of this pretty well in her talk, but I felt like there was room for improvement. Rather than try to tackle it myself, I decided to interview an expert on the Dark Side of the universe.


Twitter doesn’t know the power of the dark side!

Lord Vader, some people have a hard time distinguishing Dark Matter and Dark Energy. What do you have to say to them?

Fools! Light side astronomers call “dark” that which they cannot observe and cannot understand. “Fear” and “anger” are different heights of emotion, but to the Jedi they are only the path to the Dark Side. Dark Energy and Dark Matter are much the same: both distinct, both essential to the universe, and both “dark” to the telescopes of the light.

Let’s start with Dark Matter. Is it really matter?

You ask an empty question. “Matter” has been defined in many ways. When we on the Dark Side refer to Dark Matter, we merely mean to state that it behaves much like the matter you know: it is drawn to and fro by gravity, sloshing about.

It is distinct from your ordinary matter in that two of the forces of nature, the strong nuclear force and electromagnetism, do not concern it. Ordinary matter is bound together in the nuclei of atoms by the strong force, or woven into atoms and molecules by electromagnetism. This makes it subject to all manner of messy collisions.

Dark Matter, in contrast, is pure, partaking neither of nuclear nor chemical reactions. It passes through each of us with no notice. Only the weak nuclear force and gravity affect it. The latter has brought it slowly into clumps and threads through the universe, each one a vast nest for groupings of stars. Truly, Dark Matter surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.

Could Dark Matter be something we’re more familiar with, like neutrinos or black holes? What about a modification of gravity?

Many wondered as much, when the study of the Dark Side was young. They were wrong.

The matter you are accustomed to composes merely a twentieth of the universe, while Dark Matter is more than a quarter. There is simply not enough of these minor contributions, neutrinos and black holes, to account for the vast darkness that surrounds the galaxy, and with each astronomer’s investigation we grow more assured.

As for modifying gravity, do you seek to modify a fundamental Force?

If so, you should be wary. Forces, by their nature, are accompanied by particles, and gravity is no exception. Take care that your tinkering does not result in a new sort of particle. If so, you may be unknowingly walking the path of the Dark Side, for your modification may be just another form of Dark Matter.

What sort of things could Dark Matter be? Can Dark Matter decay into ordinary matter? Could there be anti-Dark Matter?

As of yet, your scientists are still baffled by the nature of Dark Matter. Still, there are limits. Since only rare events could produce it from ordinary matter, the universe’s supply of Dark Matter must be ancient, dating back to the dawn of the cosmos. In that case, it must decay only slowly, if at all. Similarly, if Dark Matter had antimatter forms then its interactions must be so weak that it has not simply annihilated with its antimatter half across the universe. So while either is possible, it may be simpler for your theorists if Dark Matter did not decay, and was its own antimatter counterpart. On the other hand, if Dark Matter did undergo such reactions, your kind may one day be able to detect it.

Of course, as a master of the Dark Side I know the true nature of Dark Matter. However, I could only impart it to a loyal apprentice…

Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that. They say you can only get a job in academia when someone dies, but unlike the Sith they don’t mean it literally.

Let’s move on to Dark Energy. What can you tell us about it?

Dark “Energy”, like Dark Matter, is named for what people on your Earth cannot comprehend. Nothing, not even Dark Energy, is “made of energy”. Dark Energy is “energy” merely because it behaves unlike matter.

Matter, even Dark Matter, is drawn together by the force of gravity. Under its yoke, the universe would slow down in its expansion and eventually collapse into a crunch, like the throat of an incompetent officer.

However, the universe is not collapsing, but accelerating, galaxies torn away from each other by a force that must compose more than two thirds of the universe. It is rather like the Yuuzhan Vong, a mysterious force from outside the galaxy that scouts persistently under- or over-estimate.

Umm, I’m pretty sure the Yuuzhan Vong don’t exist anymore, since Disney got rid of the Expanded Universe.

That perfidious Mouse!

Well folks, Vader is now on a rampage of revenge in the Disney offices, so I guess we’ll have to end the interview. Tune in next week, and until then, may the Force be with you!