Mining Black Hole Collisions for New Physics
Joshua Sokol reports in Quanta:
en 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 MAGZINE: 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? . . .