The discovery of gravitational waves
On 14 September 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two gravitational wave detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)—one at Hanford, Washington and the other at Livingston, Louisiana—simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal. The signal exhibited the classic waveform predicted by Einstein’s general relativity theory for a binary black hole merger, sweeping up in frequency from 35 to 250 Hz, and exhibited a peak gravitational-wave strain of 1.0 × 10−21 at the detectors.1
The two detectors recorded the same signal, which matched the predicted waveform for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. The signal was observed with a matched-filter signal-to-noise ratio of 24 and a false alarm rate estimated to be less than 1 event per 203,000 years, equivalent to a statistical significance greater than 5.1σ (where 1σ represents 1 standard deviation).2 In other words, the detection is highly likely to be real.
The source lies at a luminosity distance of about 1.3 billion light-years corresponding to a redshift z ≈ 0.09.3 The two initial black hole masses were 36 M⊙ and 29 M⊙,4,5 and the final black hole mass is 62 M⊙, with the equivalent of 3 M⊙ radiated as gravitational waves. The observations demonstrate for the first time the existence of a binary stellar-mass black hole system but, more importantly, the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.
- Gravitational waves as predicted by Einstein were observed by the LIGO observatories for the first time on September 14, 2015.
- The detection strongly supports Einstein’s general theory of relativity published in 1916 where Einstein predicted such a phenomenon. No evidence for violation of general relativity was observed.
- A binary pair of black holes were observed to coalesce—the first time their existence confirmed.
- Their distance, determined from luminosity, is about 1.3 billion light-years.
- The black holes had masses of 36 M⊙ (mass of Sun) and 29 M⊙ before coalescence and 62 M⊙ after they combined. An equivalent of 3 M⊙ was radiated away as gravitational waves.
- There is very high confidence that the event seen at two widely separated sites must be real. The quality of the detected signals are high and were the same at each site.
- This is, in principle, repeatable (with other binary sources) and therefore is operational science. No fudge factors were invoked.
- The laws of physics used are the created laws of our God.
- The detection provides strong confirmation that the current value of the speed of light has not changed since creation. Therefore the idea of c-decay is ruled out.
- There are other more plausible solutions to the biblical creationist starlight-travel-time problem.
- Big bang cosmology is not operational science. This observation in no way strengthens claims that the alleged big bang happened. The big bang necessarily still needs many unverifiable fudge factors. It is still unreasonable.
The results were published6 in Physical Review Letters (PRL) on 11 February 2016 with a fanfare of public announcements. Interestingly some of my colleagues at the university where I work, which has researchers involved in this discovery, asked why not publish in one of the more prestigious journals Science or Nature? Possibly PRL was a faster option to publish knowing that over one thousand people had to keep silent prior to publication, and Science and Nature have a much longer lead time to publication. Nevertheless it didn’t work, as atheopath Lawrence Krauss tweeted more than a month ago that a detection was confirmed and from that time rumours spread.
The observations are shown in Fig. 1. There is illustrated the waveforms detected by both LIGO detectors, which are located on opposite sides of continental USA, and separated by a distance that takes light about 10 ms to traverse.7 The gravitational-wave event, labelled GW150914,8 was first observed at the Livingston site (L1) and about 7 ms later observed at the Hanford site (H1). The waveforms were extracted by applying a template matched-filter, derived from a general relativistic calculation. The results from the two sites overlap extremely well and have a very high signal-to-noise ratio.
Unlike the BICEP2 South Pole Telescope fiasco in 2014,9 with a claimed detection of primordial gravitational waves from the supposed big bang inflation epoch, which was subsequently retracted in 2015,10 this detection seems to be very robust. And though the laser interferometers do have a very small likelihood of a false positive, produced by random noise with the same type of waveform, getting that result in two locations, separated by approximately the light travel time between the two sites, is extremely improbable.
Figure 2 illustrates the scenario of a black hole binary inspiral merger. The unfiltered waveform is shown in the frame below the pictures. This unfiltered waveform shows the expected disturbance to spacetime as a function of time as the black holes spiral together. The bottom frame plots the separation between the two black holes as a function of time as well as their relative velocity as a fraction of the speed of light.
One significant feature of this inspiral, as expected from modelling with general relativity, is the final phase of ringing during the ringdown. This shows a classic loss (dissipation) of energy from the system that is well understood in laboratory physics. This feature was predicted a few decades ago and is the expected classic signature of such a merger. So when I saw this, with such a high signal-to-noise ratio, I was immediately convinced that this was indeed a real detection.
On a personal note, the detection of gravitational waves means that a prediction I made in 2006 was wrong. Hulse and Taylor received the physics Nobel Prize in 1993 for their discovery, in 1974, that the neutron star binary PSR B1913+16—where one is also a pulsar emitting a radio signal—showed a loss of energy as gravitational radiation, as the two stars slowly moved towards each while spiraling around their common centre. This was recorded for several decades, exquisitely confirming what Einstein predicted. But no gravity waves were detected from that source, and that led to my prediction, based on the cosmology of Carmeli, where I reasoned that gravitational waves did not travel as waves through vacuum, though gravitational energy from the binary PSR B1913+16 was indeed lost to space as heat.11 But, alas, I now admit I was wrong.
This discovery is consistent with Einstein’s idea that spacetime can be thought of as a fabric that ‘waves’. In this case metrical distortions of spacetime can propagate through it, travelling at the speed of light (c). This is further support to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which already has been very successfully tested in the local lab and in our solar system. Time keeping with GPS clocks is one very important example. The clocks on the GPS satellites at an altitude of about 20,200 km need corrections for both special and general relativistic effects, which amount to about 38 millionths of a second per day. It’s not much, yet it is a real measurable effect that would result in huge errors in GPS results if not corrected for. As a result we would classify this as operational science. And so is gravitational wave detection from coalescing binary black holes, or any other very dense objects that might be detected in the future.
Even though this type of measurement cannot be observed within our solar system, where humans may be able to directly go, these observations are, in principle, repeatable—not with that particular binary pair, but others like it. Such repeatable observations are one aspect of what we call operational science, even though we cannot directly interact with the black holes under investigation.12 This is similar to the observed energy loss from the neutron star binary pair for which Hulse and Taylor received their Nobel Prize. It is repeatable and consistent with robust physics testable on earth, though in a different area of application.
Creation or big bang science?
Big bang cosmology is not operational science. The assumed big bang origin of the universe from a universal singularity13 (not a black hole), which is a fancy term for nothing,14 is not repeatable science. Nor are there other universes that we can observe to test how a typical universe began in a big bang or otherwise.
The failed BICEP2 claim of detection of primordial gravitational waves and the ‘smoking gun’ evidence of the inflation epoch,9,10 illustrates the problem. The claim at the time was that it was ‘smoking gun’ evidence. That is an explicit admission that the event itself was not observed, but unobserved forensic or potentially circumstantial evidence after the fact.
Then there is the problem of degeneracy.15 In astrophysics and cosmology this means that there are a plethora of possible theories to explain the same cosmological observations. Just detecting Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, which was a big bang prediction of George Gamow in 1948, is not sufficient reason (evidence) to conclude that the big bang happened (at some moment in the unobserved past). You would have to show that all other possible causes for the CMB radiation are ruled out. Besides there is contradictory evidence that supports the idea that the CMB radiation is not even from the background16 and thus it can’t be leftover radiation from the big bang fireball, as is believed.
If contrary evidence was found that ruled out this gravitational wave detection then that should be seriously considered. But I think that that is unlikely. Ruling out the very unlikely possibility of gross fraud, by a lot of scientists involved in the discovery, it is hard to see that this could be anything else other than a genuine detection, since it has all the hallmarks of the laws of physics that we do understand. No unknown unknowns were invoked to get the observations to fit the theory. No evidence for violation of general relativity was observed.
Now, these laws of physics, are exquisitely designed laws from the hand of the Creator of this universe. The fact that the black hole system is so far away (admittedly there are some assumptions to derive that fact) and the same laws we have discovered on earth apply out there tells us of the consistency of those laws. They are the creation of an Intelligence, a Creator, and we are just discovering how wonderfully He made this universe.
I suspect that there will be a host of claims on the internet and in other news media that this discovery somehow validates the big bang origin of the universe. But, it doesn’t!
The standard big bang cosmology is based on the solution of Einstein’s field equations found by Friedmann and Lemaître, in the 1920s. Those same field equations were linearized in what is called the post-Newtonian approximation, and from that Einstein developed the theory for gravity waves propagating through spacetime. But there are many possible mathematical solutions of Einstein’s field equations for the whole universe, many of which have already been discarded, as not fitting what we observe. The existence of a solution does not mean it has any physical significance. Einstein himself obtained the Einstein static universe solution, which he later discarded. Because he had included the cosmological constant (Λ) to maintain a static universe, when he heard of Hubble’s 1929 discovery of an expanding universe he exclaimed that its inclusion was the biggest mistake of his career.
Every solution requires a set of assumptions, which are called boundary conditions. These are assumptions about the initial conditions, and in the case of the Friedmann-Lemaître solution it requires the cosmological principle, which is an assumption that states that the universe is isotropic and homogeneous, or uniform. That means that the matter density in the universe, on the large scale, is the same everywhere, and that there is no unique centre nor any boundary or edge to the universe. It also assumes the laws of physics are the same everywhere and at every epoch.
Biblical creationists would agree that the laws are the same at every place in the universe, but not necessarily at every epoch, because there was a very special Creation epoch—Creation week. Big bang cosmology also has an exception, at the big bang itself, which is effectively a miracle without any sufficient cause (or explanation).
Besides the issue of the topology of the universe—whether it has a unique centre and an edge—the cosmological principle has a few big problems. One of them is the ‘Axis of Evil’.17,18 This is the determination of a peculiar alignment of the temperature fluctuations found in the CMB radiation, from both the WMAP and the Planck satellites. Those data independently determined the same anomalous axis in the universe, aligned with the plane of our solar system, in the particular direction determined by the two points where the sun’s path crosses the earth’s equator each year.19 But such an extraordinary axis in space should not exist. The local physics of our solar system and that of the big bang fireball should have no connection. This refutes the homogeneity and isotropy requirements of the cosmological principle, and because it does so much damage to their theory, the big bang cosmologists have called it the ‘Axis of Evil’.
Another big problem that has developed as a consequence of acceptance of the standard ΛCDM big bang cosmology20 for the universe is the belief in dark energy and dark matter. Because the observations on the large-scale measurements in the universe21 do not fit the modern form of the Friedmann-Lemaître model, dark energy and dark matter22 were invoked to get agreement. Dark energy, a sort of anti-gravity, was put in via the cosmological constant (Λ) but dark matter was necessary to bolster the total amount of matter since the small amount of normal observed matter was insufficient to get the theory to agree with the observations. Dark energy and dark matter are unknowns to science and hence I call them fudge factors,23 unknown unknowns, or ‘gods of the gaps’24 for modern cosmology.
Interestingly, the calculation used to determine the masses of the merging black holes in the analysis of this week’s discovery employed the standard canonical speed of light, c.25 That is, it used the same constant value that we measure today. Does that tell us something? I think it does.
Some biblical creationists favour a much higher value for the speed of light in the past, from a time soon after creation of the universe, after which it decreased or decayed down to its current value (the concept is known as cdk, from c-decay). They use this supposed much higher value of c in the past as a solution of the biblical creationist light-travel time problem.26,27 But now this new discovery shows that, at a time in the past representative of a distance in the cosmos of 1.3 billion light-years, the value of the speed of light (c) was identical to today’s current value. Regardless of which creationist cosmology you like, the gravity waves observed in September 2015 must have left their source very soon after Creation week. Thus the cdk idea is thoroughly rejected.
What do we conclude? Einstein’s general relativity is further strengthened as good operational science with no fudge factors. Any change in the speed of light is rejected. Nevertheless there exist other much more plausible solutions to the biblical creationist starlight-travel-time problem.26–29 With a constant speed of light, general relativity theory gives us the needed clue that time is not an absolute in the universe, which means that much more time could have been available for light to travel to earth from the most distant sources, even within the 6,000 years since creation. There are no other implications that impact on biblical creationist explanations for the origin of the universe.
Update added March 4, 2016
In regards to some claims that the detection was faked Science News reported this:30
For 5 months, LIGO physicists struggled to keep a lid on their pupating discovery. Ordinarily, most team members would not have known whether the signal was real. LIGO regularly salts its data readings with secret false signals called “blind injections” to test the equipment and keep researchers on their toes. But on 14 September 2015, that blind injection system was not running. Physicists had only recently completed a 5-year, $205 million upgrade of the machines, and several systems—including the injection system—were still offline as the team wound up a preliminary “engineering run.” As a result, the whole collaboration knew that the observation was likely real. “I was convinced that day,” González says.
Still, LIGO physicists had to rule out every alternative, including the possibility that the reading was a malicious hoax. “We spent about a month looking at the ways that somebody could spoof a signal,” Reitze says, before deciding it was impossible. For González, making the checks “was a heavy responsibility,” she says. “This was the first detection of gravitational waves, so there was no room for a mistake.” (emphasis added)
One of the researchers who works on the LIGO instruments is a personal friend of mine. Today he told me that the simulated false signals that they do inject for calibration purposes are not powerful enough to create the detected signal. He said that they just could not do it.
References and Notes
- The laser interferometers used to detect these signals are about 4 km long. The strain sensitivity refers to the detection sensitivity in terms of the fractional change in length of the arms (ΔL1-ΔL2)/L. So any putative signal can be detected that results in an absolute change in the arm length of as little as a few parts in 10-19 m. That is about a ten thousandth of the diameter of a hydrogen nucleus, i.e. of a proton.
- Any detection with a statistical significance greater than 5 standard deviations is considered real. In this case the result is shown to be far above the background noise in the detection histogram. See Fig. 4 in Ref. 6.
- The luminosity of the source and its redshift were determined from the brightness of the source signal where standard big bang cosmology was applied. Nevertheless that choice of cosmology has little impact on the veracity of the detection.
- These are their masses in their own rest frames.
- M⊙ represents the mass of our sun, a solar mass unit.
- Abbott, B. P., et al., Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger, Phys. Rev. Lett. 116(6), 2016 | doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102.
- 1 ms = 1 millisecond.
- GW means gravity wave and the date of the detection is included in the nomenclature.
- Hartnett, J.G., Has the ‘smoking gun’ of the ‘big bang’ been found?, March 2014; creation.com/bbgun.
- Hartnett, J.G., New study confirms BICEP2 detection of cosmic inflation wrong, February 2015; creation.com/inflation-wrong.
- Hartnett, J.G., and Tobar, M.E., Properties of gravitational waves in Cosmological General Relativity, Int. J. Theor. Phys. 45 (11):2213–2222, 2006.
- Even though I am calling this operational science, such science done in the cosmos, where the researchers have no local laboratory wherein they can interact with their experiments, is a weaker form of the science. Therefore a higher standard of evidence should be required before conclusions may be drawn. And even then the tentative nature of the science needs to be properly understood.
- Hartnett, J.G., The singularity—a ‘Dark’ beginning, creation.com, July 2014.
- Hartnett, J.G., An eternal quantum potential or an eternal Creator God, biblescienceforum.com, January 2016.
- Degeneracy in this context means there are multiple solutions that cannot be distinguished from observation.
- Hartnett, J.G., ‘Light from the big bang’ casts no shadows, Creation 37(1):50–51, 2015; see also biblescienceforum.com.
- Hartnett, J.G., CMB Conundrums, J. Creation 20(2):10–11, August 2006.
- Hartnett, J.G., Development of an ‘old’ universe in science, biblescienceforum.com , July 2015.
- This is when the sun is seen exactly overhead at the equator. It occurs only twice a year due to the tilt of the earth’s axis. As the earth travels around the sun, the sun is seen overhead at lower or higher latitudes. Twice a year at the summer and winter equinox, Earth’s equatorial plane passes through the centre of the sun. Those two points on the opposite sides of Earth’s orbit, in the plane of the orbits of the planets, describes a unique direction in space.
- CDM refers to cold dark matter.
- Type Ia supernova measurements, for example.
- Dark matter historically was invoked before this. It was found that is needed in spiral galaxies to get the dynamics of the rotation of the galaxies to fit standard theory. This then spread to galaxy clusters and super-clusters also.
- Hartnett, J.G., Big bang fudge factors, biblescienceforum.com, December 2014.
- Hartnett, J.G., Is dark matter the unknown god?, Creation 37(2):22–24, 2015, biblescienceforum.com.
- Canonical speed of light is defined as c = 299,792,458 m/s.
- Hartnett, J.G., Starlight and time: Is it a brick wall for biblical creation?, biblescienceforum.com, July 2015.
- Hartnett, J.G., The Lecture: Starlight and time—Is it a brick wall for biblical creation?, biblescienceforum.com, July 2015.
- Hartnett, J.G., Solutions to the biblical creationist starlight-travel-time problem, biblescienceforum.com, November 2014.
- Batten, D., (Ed.), et al., How can we see distant stars in a young universe?, The Creation Answers book, ch. 5, Creation Book Publishers, Queensland, Australia, 2006.
- Cho, A., Gravitational waves, Einstein’s ripples in spacetime, spotted for first time, Science News, February 11, 2016.
Video explanation of the discovery