|The first antenna of MeerKAT,|
a SKA precursor in South Africa.
It’s hard to see black holes – after all, their defining feature is that they swallow light. But it’s also hard to discourage scientists from trying to shed light on mysteries. In a recent paper, a group of researchers from Long Island University and Virginia Tech have proposed a new way to probe the near-horizon region of black holes and, potentially, quantum gravitational effects.
- Shining Light on Quantum Gravity with Pulsar-Black Hole Binaries
John Estes, Michael Kavic, Matthew Lippert, John H. Simonetti
The idea is simple and yet promising: Search for a binary system in which a pulsar and a black hole orbit around each other, then analyze the pulsar signal for unusual fluctuations.
A pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star that emits a focused beam of electromagnetic radiation. This beam goes into the direction of the poles of the magnetic field, and is normally not aligned with the neutron star’s axis of rotation. The beam therefore spins with a regular period like a lighthouse beacon. If Earth is located within the beam’s reach, our telescopes receive a pulse every time the beam points into our direction.
Pulsar timing can be extremely precise. We know some pulsars that have been flashing for decades every couple of milliseconds to a precision of a few microseconds. This high regularity allows astrophysicists to search for signals which might affect the timing. Fluctuations of space-time itself, for example, would increase the pulsar-timing uncertainty, a method that has been used to derive constraints on the stochastic gravitational wave background. And if a pulsar is in a binary system with a black hole, the pulsar’s signal might scrape by the black hole and thus encode information about the horizon which we can catch on Earth.
No such pulsar-black hole binaries are known to date. But upcoming experiments like eLISA and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will almost certainly detect new pulsars. In their paper, the authors estimate that SKA might observe up to 100 new pulsar-black hole binaries, and they put the probability that a newly discovered system would have a suitable orientation at roughly one in a hundred. If they are right, the SKA would have a good chance to find a promising binary.
Much of the paper is dedicated to arguing that the timing accuracy of such a binary pulsar could carry information about quantum gravitational effects. This is not impossible but speculative. Quantum gravitational effects are normally expect to be strong towards the black hole singularity, ie well inside the black hole and hidden from observation. Naïve dimensional estimates reveal that quantum gravity should be unobservably small in the horizon area.
However, this argument has recently been questioned in the aftermath of the firewall controversy surrounding black holes, because one solution to the black hole firewall paradox is that quantum gravitational effects can stretch over much longer distances than the dimensional estimates lead one to expect. Steve Giddings has long been a proponent of such long-distance fluctuations, and scenarios like black hole fuzzballs, or Dvali’s Bose-Einstein Computers also lead to horizon-scale deviations from general relativity. It is hence something that one should definitely look for.
Previous proposals to test the near-horizon geometry were based on measurements of gravitational waves from merger events or the black hole shadow, each of which could reveal deviations from general relativity. However, so far these were quite general ideas lacking quantitative estimates. To my knowledge, this paper is the first to demonstrate that it’s technologically feasible.
Michael Kavic, one of the authors of this paper, will attend our September conference on “Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity.” We’re still planning to life-streaming the talks, so stay tuned and you’ll get a chance to listen in.