When physicists announced in February that they had detected gravitational waves firsthand, the foundations of physics scarcely rattled. The signal exactly matched the expectations physicists had arrived at after a century of tinkering with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. “There is a question: Can you do fundamental physics with it? Can you do things beyond the standard model with it?” said Savas Dimopoulos, a theoretical physicist at Stanford University. “And most people think the answer to that is no.”
Asimina Arvanitaki is not one of those people. A theoretical physicist at Ontario’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, Arvanitaki has been dreaming up ways to use black holes to explore nature’s fundamental particles and forces since 2010, when she published a paper with Dimopoulos, her mentor from graduate school, and others. Together, they sketched out a “string axiverse,” a pantheon of as yet undiscovered, weakly interacting particles. Axions such as these have long been a favored candidate to explain dark matter and other mysteries.
In the intervening years, Arvanitaki and her colleagues have developed the idea through successive papers. But February’s announcement marked a turning point, where it all started to seem possible to test these ideas. Studying gravitational waves from the newfound population of merging black holes would allow physicists to search for those axions, since the axions would bind to black holes in what Arvanitaki describes as a “black hole atom.”
“When it came up, we were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to do it now, we’re going to look for this,'” she said. “It’s a whole different ball game if you actually have data.”
That’s Arvanitaki’s knack: matching what she calls “well-motivated,” field-hopping theoretical ideas with the precise experiment that could probe them. “By thinking away from what people are used to thinking about, you see that there is low-hanging fruit that lie in the interfaces,” she said. At the end of April, she was named the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s Aristarchus Chair at the Perimeter Institute, the first woman to hold a research chair there.
It’s a long way to come for someone raised in the small Grecian village of Koklas, where the graduating class at her high school–at which both of her parents taught–consisted of nine students. Quanta Magazine spoke with Arvanitaki about her plan to use black holes as particle detectors. An edited and condensed version of those discussions follows.
QUANTA MAGAZINE: When did you start to think that black holes might be good places to look for axions?
ASIMINA ARVANITAKI: When we were writing the axiverse paper, Nemanja Kaloper, a physicist who is very good in general relativity, came and told us, “Hey, did you know there is this effect in general relativity called superradiance?” And we’re like, “No, this cannot be, I don’t think this happens. This cannot happen for a realistic system. You must be wrong.” And then he eventually convinced us that this could be possible, and then we spent like a year figuring out the dynamics.
What is superradiance, and how does it work?
An astrophysical black hole can rotate. There is a region around it called the “ergo region” where even light has to rotate. Imagine I take a piece of matter and throw it in a trajectory that goes through the ergo region. Now imagine you have some explosives in the matter, and it breaks apart into pieces. Part of it falls into the black hole and part escapes into infinity. The piece that is coming out has more total energy than the piece that went in the black hole.
You can perform the same experiment by scattering radiation from a black hole. Take an electromagnetic wave pulse, scatter it from the black hole, and you see that the pulse you got back has a higher amplitude.
So you can send a pulse of light near a black hole in such a way that it would take some energy and angular momentum from the black hole’s spin?
This is old news, by the way, this is very old news. In ’72 Press and Teukolsky wrote a Nature paper that suggested the following cute thing. Let’s imagine you performed the same experiment as the light, but now imagine that you have the black hole surrounded by a giant mirror. What will happen in that case is the light will bounce on the mirror many times, the amplitude [of the light] grows exponentially, and the mirror eventually explodes due to radiation pressure. They called it the black hole bomb.
The property that allows light to do this is that light is made of photons, and photons are bosons–particles that can sit in the same space at the same time with the same wave function. Now imagine that you have another boson that has a mass. It can [orbit] the black hole. The particle’s mass acts like a mirror, because it confines the particle in the vicinity of the black hole.
In this way, axions might get stuck around a black hole?
This process requires that the size of the particle is comparable to the black hole size. Turns out that [axion] mass can be anywhere from Hubble scale–with a quantum wavelength as big as the universe–or you could have a particle that’s tiny in size.
So if they exist, axions can bind to black holes with a similar size and mass. What’s next?
What happens is the number of particles in this bound orbit starts growing exponentially. At the same time the black hole spins down. If you solve for the wave functions of the bound orbits, what you find is that they look like hydrogen wave functions. Instead of electromagnetism binding your atom, what’s binding it is gravity. There are three quantum numbers you can describe, just the same. You can use the exact terminology that you can use in the hydrogen atom.
How could we check to see if any of the black holes LIGO finds have axion clouds orbiting around black hole nuclei?
This is a process that extracts energy and angular momentum from the black hole. If you were to measure spin versus mass of black holes, you should see that in a certain mass range for black holes you see no quickly rotating black holes.
This is where Advanced LIGO comes in. You saw the event they saw. [Their measurements] allowed them to measure the masses of the merging objects, the mass of the final object, the spin of the final object, and to have some information about the spins of the initial objects.
If I were to take the spins of the black holes before they merged, they could have been affected by superradiance. Now imagine a graph of black hole spin versus mass. Advanced LIGO could maybe get, if the things that we hear are correct, a thousand events per year. Now you have a thousand data points on this plot. So you may trace out the region that is affected by this particle just by those measurements.
That would be supercool.
That’s of course indirect. So the other cool thing is that it turns out there are signatures that have to do with the cloud of particles themselves. And essentially what they do is turn the black hole into a gravitational wave laser.
Awesome. OK, what does that mean?
Yeah, what that means is important. Just like you have transitions of electrons in an excited atom, you can have transitions of particles in the gravitational wave atom. The rate of emission of gravitational waves from these transitions is enhanced by the 1080 particles that you have. It would look like a very monochromatic line. It wouldn’t look like a transient. Imagine something now that emits a signal at a very fixed frequency.
Where could LIGO expect to see signals like this?
In Advanced LIGO, you actually see the birth of a black hole. You know when and where a black hole was born with a certain mass and a certain spin. So if you know the particle masses that you’re looking for, you can predict when the black hole will start growing the [axion] cloud around it. It could be that you see a merger in that day, and one or 10 years down the line, they go back to the same position and they see this laser turning on, they see this monochromatic line coming out from the cloud.
You can also do a blind search. Because you have black holes that are roaming the universe by themselves, and they could still have some leftover cloud around them, you can do a blind search for monochromatic gravitational waves.
Were you surprised to find out that axions and black holes could combine to produce such a dramatic effect?
Oh my god yes. What are you talking about? We had panic attacks. You know how many panic attacks we had saying that this effect, no, this cannot be true, this is too good to be true? So yes, it was a surprise.
The experiments you suggest draw from a lot of different theoretical ideas–like how we could look for high-frequency gravitational waves with tabletop sensors, or test whether dark matter oscillates using atomic clocks. When you’re thinking about making risky bets on physics beyond the standard model, what sorts of theories seem worth the effort?
What is well motivated? Things that are not: “What if you had this?” People imagine: “What if dark matter was this thing? What if dark matter was the other thing?” For example, supersymmetry makes predictions about what types of dark matter should be there. String theory makes predictions about what types of particles you should have. There is always an underlying reason why these particles are there; it’s not just the endless theoretical possibilities that we have.
And axions fit that definition?
This is a particle that was proposed 30 years ago to explain the smallness of the observed electric dipole moment of the neutron. There are several experiments around the world looking for it already, at different wavelengths. So this particle, we’ve been looking for it for 30 years. This can be the dark matter. That particle solves an outstanding problem of the standard model, so that makes it a good particle to look for.
Now, whether or not the particle is there I cannot answer for nature. Nature will have to answer.
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.