[Physics FAQ] - [Copyright]

Updated 1996 by PEG.
Updated 1992 by SIC.
Original by Scott I. Chase.

Gravitational Radiation

Gravitational Radiation is to gravity what light is to electromagnetism.  It is produced when massive bodies accelerate.  You can accelerate any body so as to produce such radiation, but due to the feeble strength of gravity, it is entirely undetectable except when produced by intense astrophysical sources such as supernovae, collisions of black holes, etc.  These are quite far from us, typically, but they are so intense that they dwarf all possible laboratory sources of such radiation.

Gravitational waves have a polarization pattern that causes objects to expand in one direction, while contracting in the perpendicular direction.  That is, they have spin two.  This is because gravity waves are fluctuations in the tensorial metric of space-time.

All oscillating radiation fields can be quantized, and in the case of gravity, the intermediate boson is called the "graviton" in analogy with the photon.  But quantum gravity is hard, for several reasons:

It is possible to quantize weak fluctuations in the gravitational field.  This gives rise to the spin-2 graviton.  But full quantum gravity has so far escaped formulation.  It is not likely to look much like the other quantum field theories.  In addition, there are models of gravity which include additional bosons with different spins.  Some are the consequence of non-Einsteinian models, such as Brans-Dicke which has a spin-0 component.  Others are included by hand, to give "fifth force" components to gravity.  For example, if you want to add a weak repulsive short range component, you will need a massive spin-1 boson.  (Even-spin bosons always attract.  Odd-spin bosons can attract or repel.)  If antigravity is real, then this has implications for the boson spectrum as well.

The spin-two polarization provides the method of detection.  Most experiments to date use a "Weber bar."  This is a cylindrical, very massive, bar suspended by fine wire, free to oscillate in response to a passing graviton.  A high-sensitivity, low noise, capacitive transducer can turn the oscillations of the bar into an electric signal for analysis.  So far such searches have failed.  But they are expected to be insufficiently sensitive for typical radiation intensity from known types of sources.

A more sensitive technique uses very long baseline laser interferometry.  This is the principle of LIGO (Laser Interferometric Gravity wave Observatory).  This is a two-armed detector, with perpendicular laser beams each travelling several km before meeting to produce an interference pattern which fluctuates if a gravity wave distorts the geometry of the detector.  To eliminate noise from seismic effects as well as human noise sources, two detectors separated by hundreds to thousands of miles are necessary.  A coincidence measurement then provides evidence of gravitational radiation.  In order to determine the source of the signal, a third detector, far from either of the first two, would be necessary.  Timing differences in the arrival of the signal to the three detectors would allow triangulation of the angular position in the sky of the signal.

The first stage of LIGO, a two detector set-up in the U.S., has been approved by Congress in 1992.  LIGO researchers have started designing a prototype detector, and are hoping to enrol another nation, probably in Europe, to fund and be host to the third detector.  [Update 1996: the LIGO projects are progressing and the first may go into operation around 1999.  There are now two major projects in Europe, VIRGO and GEO.  See foot for links.]

The speed of gravitational radiation (Cgw) depends upon the specific model of Gravitation that you use.  There are quite a few competing models (all consistent with all experiments to date) including of course Einstein's but also Brans-Dicke and several families of others.  All metric models can support gravity waves.  But not all predict radiation travelling at Cgw = Cem.  (Cem is the speed of electromagnetic waves.)

There is a class of theories with "prior geometry", in which, as I understand it, there is an additional metric which does not depend only on the local matter density.  In such theories, Cgw != Cem in general.

However, there is good evidence that Cgw is in fact at least almost Cem.  We observe high energy cosmic rays in the 1020 to 1021 eV region.  Such particles are travelling at up to (1−10−18)Cem.  If Cgw < Cem, then particles with Cgw < v < Cem will radiate Cherenkov gravitational radiation into the vacuum, and decelerate from the back reaction.  So evidence of these very fast cosmic rays is good evidence that Cgw >= (1−10−18)Cem, very close indeed to Cem.  Bottom line: in a purely Einsteinian universe, Cgw = Cem.  However, a class of models not yet ruled out experimentally does make other predictions.

A definitive test would be produced by LIGO in coincidence with optical measurements of some catastrophic event which generates enough gravitational radiation to be detected.  Then the "time of flight" of both gravitons and photons from the source to the Earth could be measured, and strict direct limits could be set on Cgw.

For more information, see Gravitational Radiation (NATO ASI - Les Houches 1982), specifically the introductory essay by Kip Thorne.

For progress updates on LIGO and other Gravitational observatories, consult their web pages: