Image: Ryan F. Mandelbaum

The past few years have been incredible for physics discoveries. Scientists spotted the Higgs boson, a particle they’d been hunting for almost 50 years, in 2012, and gravitational waves, which were theorized 100 years ago, in 2016. This year, they’re slated to take a picture of a black hole. So, thought some theorists, why not combine all of the craziest physics ideas into one, a physics turducken? What if we, say, try to spot the dark matter radiating off of black holes through their gravitational waves?

It’s really not that strange of an idea. Now that scientists have detected gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime spawned by the most violent physical events, they want to use their discovery to make real physics observations. They think they have a way to spot all-new particles that might make up dark matter, an unknown substance that accounts for over 80 percent of all of the gravity in the universe.

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“The basic idea is that we’re trying to use black holes... the densest, most compact objects in the universe, to search for new kinds of particles,” Masha Baryakhtar, postdoctoral researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, told Gizmodo. Especially one particle: “The axion. People have been looking for it for 40 years.”

Black holes are the universe’s sinkholes, so strong that light can’t escape their pull once it’s entered. They’ve got such powerful gravitational fields that they produce gravitational waves when they collide with each other. Dark matter might not be made from particles (specks of mass and energy), but if it was, we might observe it as axions, particles around one quintillion (a billion billion) times lighter than an electron, hanging around black holes. Now that you understand all the terms, here’s how the theory works.

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Baryakhtar and her teammates think that black holes are more than just bear traps for light, but nuclei at the center of a sort of gravitational atom. The axions would be the electrons, so to speak. If you already know about black holes, you know they have incredibly hot, high-energy discs of gas orbiting them, produced by the friction between particles accelerated by the black hole’s gravity. This theory ignores that stuff, since axions wouldn’t interact via friction.

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Keeping with the atom analogy, the axions can jump around the black hole, gaining and losing energy the same way that electrons do. But electrons interact via electromagnetism, so they let out electromagnetic waves, or light waves. Axions interact via gravity, so they let out gravitational waves. But like I said earlier, axions are tiny. Unlike a tiny atom, the black hole in these “gravity atoms” rotates, supercharging the space around it and coaxing it into producing more axions. Despite the axion’s tiny mass, this so-called superradiance process could generate 10^80 axions, the same number of atoms in the entire universe, around a single black hole. Are you still with me? Crazy spinning blob makes lots of crazy stuff.

Craziest of all, we should be able to hear a gravitational wave hum from these axions moving around and releasing gravitational waves in our detectors, similar to the way you see spectral lines coming off of electrons in atoms in chemistry class. “You’d see this at a particular frequency which would be roughly twice the axion mass,” said Baryakhtar.

There are giant gravitational wave detectors scattered around the world; presently there’s one called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) in Washington State, another LIGO in Louisiana, and one called Virgo in Italy that are sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves, and with upgrades, to detect axions and prove their theory right. Scientists would essentially need to record data, play it back, and tune their analysis like a radio to pick up the signal at just the right frequency.

There are other ways the team thinks it could spot this superradiance effect, by measuring the spins in sets of colliding black holes. If black holes really do produce axions, scientists would see very few quickly-spinning black holes in collisions, since the superradiance effects would slow down some of the colliding black holes and create a visible effect in the data, according to the research published this month in the journal Physical Review D. The black hole spins would have a specific pattern which we should be able to spot in the gravitational wave detector data.

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Other scientists were immediately excited about this paper. “I’m always super excited about new ways to detect my favorite pet particle, the axion! Also, SUPERRADIANCE!” Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, the University of Washington axion wrangler, told Gizmodo in an email. “It’s so cool, and I haven’t read a paper that talked about [superradiance] in years. So it was really fun to see superradiance and axions in one paper.”

There are a few drawbacks, as there are with any theory. These theorized black hole atoms would have to produce axions of a certain mass, but that mass isn’t an ideal one for the axion to be a dark matter particle, said Prescod-Weinstein. Plus, the second detection idea, the one that looks at the spin rate of colliding black holes, might not work. “They say [in the paper] that they don’t take into account the potential influence of another black hole” in the colliding pair, Dr. Lionel London, a research associate at Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy specializing in gravitational wave modeling, told Gizmodo. “If this does turn out to be a significant effect and they’re not including it, this could cast doubt on their results.” But there’s hope. “There’s good reason to believe the effect of a companion [black hole] won’t be large.”

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When would we spot these kinds of events? As of now, the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors probably aren’t ready. “With the current sensitivity we’re on the edge” of detecting axions, said Baryakhtar. “But LIGO will continue improving their instruments and at design sensitivity we might be able to see as many as 1000s of these axion signals coming in,” she said. Thousands of hums from these black hole-atoms.

So, if you’ve gotten all the way to this point of the story and still don’t understand what’s going on, a recap: We’ve got these gravitational wave detectors that cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, that are good at spotting really crazy things going on in the universe. Theorists have come up with an interesting way to use them to solve one of the most important interstellar mysteries: What the heck is dark matter? As with most new ideas in theoretical physics, this is something cool to think about and isn’t ready for the big time... yet.

“I think that timescale is always a concern, but we’re just getting started with LIGO discoveries,” said Prescod-Weinstein. “So who knows what’s around the corner over the next 10 years.”

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[Phys. Rev. D]