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Starts With A Bang

LIGO’s Lasers Can See Gravitational Waves, Even Though The Waves Stretch The Light Itself

Aerial view of the Virgo gravitational-wave detector, situated at Cascina, near Pisa (Italy). Virgo is a giant Michelson laser interferometer with arms that are 3 km long, and complements the twin 4 km LIGO detectors. These detectors are sensitive to tiny changes in distance, which are a function of gravitational wave amplitude across a specific frequency range. (NICOLA BALDOCCHI / VIRGO COLLABORATION)

If you think about the way a gravitational wave detector works, you might encounter a paradox. Here’s the solution.


One of the greatest scientific achievements in all of human history was at last achieved just a few years ago: the direct detection of gravitational waves. Although they were an early prediction teased out of Einstein’s General Relativity put out all the way back in 1915 it took a full century for them to be directly discovered.

The way we accomplished this dream is through a remarkable design shared by the LIGO, Virgo, and KAGRA detectors:

  • splitting light so that it travels down two mututally perpendicular laser-arms,
  • reflecting that light back-and-forth multiple times in rapid succession,
  • and then recombining the beams to see an interference pattern.

When a sufficiently strong gravitational wave passes through with the right frequency to be detected, the arms alternately expand and contract, altering the interference pattern. But won’t the light expand and contract, too? The surprising answer is “no,” and this is the reason why.

If the arm lengths are the same and the speed along both arms is the same, then anything traveling in both of the perpendicular directions will arrive at the same time. But if there’s an effective headwind/tailwind in one direction over the other, or the arm lengths change relative to one another, there will be a lag in the arrival times. (LIGO SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION)

The above diagram shows off what a Michelson interferometer is: a very old device that was designed for an entirely different purpose. In 1881, Albert Michelson sought to detect the aether, which was hypothesized to be the medium that light waves traveled through. Before Special Relativity arrived, all waves were assumed to need a medium to travel through, like water waves or sound waves.

Michelson built such an interferometer using the reasoning that the Earth was traveling through space — around the Sun — at about 30 km/s. Since the speed of light was 300,000 km/s, he estimated that he’d see the interference pattern produced by the interferometer that depended on what angle the apparatus was aligned at with respect to the Earth’s motion.

If you split light into two perpendicular components and bring them back together, they will produce an interference pattern. If there’s a medium that light is traveling through, the interference pattern should depend on how your apparatus is oriented relative to that motion. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER STIGMATELLA AURANTIACA)

By 1887, he had performed the experiment to much better precision than the expected magnitude of the effect: about 40 times better. Yet he only ever achieved a null result, which demonstrated that the aether didn’t exist, not at least the way physicists were thinking about it. Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907, arguably the only time that the prize was given for an experimental “null result.”

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This provided evidence that the speed of light is the same for all observers, independent of any other motion along, opposed to, perpendicular to, or at any arbitrary angle relative to the direction the light propagates in. As long as the interference pattern is created in one particular orientation, it should be unchanged regardless of how you orient your detector.

The Michelson interferometer (top) showed a negligible shift in light patterns (bottom, solid) as compared with what was expected if Galilean relativity were true (bottom, dotted). The speed of light was the same no matter which direction the interferometer was oriented, including with, perpendicular to, or against the Earth’s motion through space. (ALBERT A. MICHELSON (1881); A. A. MICHELSON AND E. MORLEY (1887))

However, lengthening or shortening one arm, relative to the other, will change the path length, and will therefore change the interference pattern that we see. If one were to move the mirror on the far end either closer to or farther away from the near end, there will be a slight change in the peak-trough-peak-trough pattern that the wave makes. But if you keep your apparatus stable, with constant arm lengths, that pattern should not change at all.

In order to set up a gravitational wave experiment in the first place, these are the conditions you need to meet. You must configure and calibrate your detector properly, account for noise from all sources, and bring your sensitivity level down to a point where it could conceivably detect the tiny arm-length changes that a gravitational wave would induce. After decades of effort, the LIGO collaboration was the first gravitational wave detector to reach a noise threshold that could lead to a physical, observable effect.

LIGO’s sensitivity as a function of time, compared with design sensitivity and the design of Advanced LIGO. The “spikes” are from various sources of noise. As LIGO’s sensitivity becomes better and better, and as more detectors come online, our capabilities allow us to detect more of these waves, and the cataclysmic events that generate them, across the Universe. (AMBER STUVER OF LIVING LIGO)

You might have heard that light is a wave: an electromagnetic wave. Light consists of in-phase, oscillating, mutually perpendicular electric and magnetic fields, and those fields interact with any matter that couples to electromagnetism in its vicinity.

Similarly, there’s a gravitational analogue: gravitational waves. These ripples move through space at the same speed as light, c, but don’t produce detectable signatures that arise from an interaction with particles. Instead, they alternately stretch-and-compress the space they pass through in mutually perpendicular directions. As a gravitational wave passes through a region of space, any volume of space experiences an expansion in one dimensions accompanied by a rarefaction (or compression) in the perpendicular direction. The wave then oscillates with a frequency and amplitude, like any other wave.

Gravitational waves propagate in one direction, alternately expanding and compressing space in mutually perpendicular directions, defined by the gravitational wave’s polarization. Gravitational waves themselves, in a quantum theory of gravity, should be made of individual quanta of the gravitational field: gravitons. While gravitational waves might spread out evenly over space, the amplitude (which goes as 1/r) is the key quantity for detectors, not the energy (which goes as 1/r²). (M. PÖSSEL/EINSTEIN ONLINE)

This is the reason why our gravitational wave detectors have been constructed with perpendicular arms: so that when a wave passes through them, the two different arms will experience different effects. When a gravitational wave passes through, one arm compresses while the other expands, and then vice versa.

Accounting for the curvature of the Earth, LIGO, Virgo, and KAGRA detectors are all at angles to one another. With all of them operational at once, no matter what the incoming wave’s orientation is, multiple detectors will be sensitive to the gravitational wave signal. As long as the wave itself passes through the detector — and there is no known way to shield yourself from a gravitational wave — it should affect the path length of the arms in a detectable fashion.

But this is where the puzzle comes in: if space itself is what’s expanding or compressing, then shouldn’t the light moving through the detectors be expanding or compressing too? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t the light travel the same number of wavelengths through the detector as it would have if the gravitational wave had never existed?

This seems like a real problem. Light is a wave, and what defines any individual photon is its frequency, which in turn defines both its wavelength (in a vacuum) and its energy. Light redshifts or blueshifts as the space it’s occupying stretches (for red) or contracts (for blue), but once the wave has finished passing through, the light returns to the same wavelength it was back when space was restored to its original state.

It seems as though light should produce the same interference pattern, regardless of gravitational waves.

LIGO and Virgo have discovered a new population of black holes with masses that are larger than what had been seen before with X-ray studies alone (purple). This plot shows the masses of all ten confident binary black hole mergers detected by LIGO/Virgo (blue) as of the end of Run II, along with the one neutron star-neutron star merger seen (orange) from that time. (LIGO/VIRGO/NORTHWESTERN UNIV./FRANK ELAVSKY)

And yet, the gravitational wave detectors really work! Not only do they work, but they’ve identified the explicit signatures of black hole-black hole mergers, allowing us to reconstruct their masses pre-merger and post-merger, their distances, their locations in the sky, and to many other properties.

The key to understanding this is to forget about wavelength and to focus on time. Yes, wavelength really is dependent on how space changes as a gravitational wave passes through; those redshifts and blueshifts are real. But what doesn’t change is the speed of light in a vacuum, which is always 299,792,458 m/s. (And the laser cavities for these gravitational wave machines offers the best human-created vacuum of all-time.) If you compress one of your arms, the light-travel time shortens; if you expand it, the light-travel time lengthens.

And, as the relative arrival times change, we can see an oscillatory pattern emerge in how the (reconstructed) interference pattern shifts over time during a real gravitational wave event.

A still image of a visualization of the merging black holes that LIGO and Virgo have observed as of the end of Run II. As the horizons of the black holes spiral together and merge, the emitted gravitational waves become louder (larger amplitude) and higher pitched (higher in frequency). The black holes that merge range from 7.6 solar masses up to 50.6 solar masses, with about 5% of the total mass lost during each merger. The frequency of the wave is affected by the expansion of the Universe. (TERESITA RAMIREZ/GEOFFREY LOVELACE/SXS COLLABORATION/LIGO-VIRGO COLLABORATION)

When the two perpendicular beams, which were separated at the start of each laser pulse, reunite in the detector, they create the critical interference pattern we observe. If there’s a difference in arm length at any point, then there will be a difference in the amount of time these beams have been traveling, and hence the interference pattern will shift.

This is why we use beams rather than individual photons. If a pair of photons are emitted simultaneously and travel down the perpendicular arms, the one that sees the shortest cumulative path-length will arrive first: before its partner photon, which will see a longer cumulative path length.

But waves are continuous sources of light. Even though the arrival time differs by just ~10^-27 seconds, that’s enough to cause the two waves, initially tuned to cause the interference pattern to disappear, to appear in a spectacularly oscillating mismatch, producing the critical signal.

When the two arms are of exactly equal length and there is no gravitational wave passing through, the signal is null and the interference pattern is constant. As the arm lengths change, the signal is real and oscillatory, and the interference pattern changes with time in a predictable fashion. (NASA’S SPACE PLACE)

You might still be worried about the redshift and blueshift effects of the light, but they can be ignored for two reasons.

  1. Even though the light’s wavelength changes during its journey, all light of all wavelengths, at least in a vacuum, travel at the same speed.
  2. Even though the light’s wavelength changes from point-to-point, those changes are transient; when they arrive at the detector, at the same point in space, they’re going to be the same wavelength once again.

This is the key, important point in all of this: red light (of long wavelengths) and blue light (of short wavelengths) both take the same amount of time to traverse the same distance.

The longer a photon’s wavelength is, the lower in energy it is. But all photons, regardless of wavelength/energy, move at the same speed: the speed of light. The number of wavelengths required to cover a certain, specified distance may change, but the light-travel-time is the same for both. (NASA/SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY/AURORE SIMONNET)

The fact is that when a gravitational wave passes through a detector, it changes the relative path-length of the two mutually perpendicular arms. The change in path length changes the required light-travel-time of each quantum of light, which results in different arrival times and causes a shifting in the interference pattern that results. As both arm lengths change together, in phase, we can use that information to reconstruct properties of the gravitational waves generated at the distant source.

The critical component to understanding how it works is that one beam of light spends slightly longer in the apparatus, and so when it arrives at the detector, it’s slightly out-of-phase with its counterpart. That tiny time shift, arising from the fact that LIGO’s (and Virgo’s, and KAGRA’s) arms compress by about 0.01% the width of a proton, is presently being used to find dozens of new merger events during the current Run III. Gravitational wave is now a robust, observational science, and now you know how its detectors actually work!


Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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