Colleagues and Students Gather for Astrophysics Symposium

by Roopesh Ojha (PhD ’98)

Radio Galaxy NGC 4261. (credit: Teddy Cheung)

From June 28th through 30th, about fifty former and current students, colleagues and friends of Brandeis astrophysics Professors John Wardle and David Roberts gathered in the Physics building for a symposium titled “When Brandeis met Jansky: astrophysics and beyond.” This event was organized to celebrate their achievements in astrophysics and their impact on generations of students. Their work has established Brandeis as a major player in radio astronomy.

The symposium title refers to Karl Jansky who is credited with starting an entirely new means of studying the cosmos using radio waves. Radio astronomy arrived at Brandeis with Professor Wardle in 1972. He was joined in 1980 by Professor Roberts and together they pioneered a very powerful observational technique called Very Long Baseline Polarimetry. This involves the use of telescopes separated by thousands of kilometers to produce the sharpest images available to astronomers. Their methods allow astronomers to map the magnetic fields in and near celestial objects. With their students and colleagues, John and Dave have exploited this technique to study the magnetic fields in quasars and active galaxies, and near super massive black holes far outside our Milky Way galaxy as well as black holes closer to home.

Physics Conference Group

Professors John Wardle and David Roberts (front right) with former students and colleagues on the steps of the Abelson physics building (photo: Mike Lovett)

The reach of John and Dave’s work was reflected in the content of the presentations and the composition of the attendees, some of whom had traveled from as far afield as South Korea, India, and Europe. All major centers of radio astronomy were represented. At the conference dinner, several former students expressed their appreciation for the roles Dave and John have played as their mentors.

In their presentations, Dave and John described their current projects and highlighted the work of their undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who have all gone on to successful careers in academia and industry.

The nineteen PhD theses produced by the Brandeis Radio Astronomy group

Professor Roberts has decided to retire at the end of August, though his retirement plans include a huge program of continuing research into unusual-shaped radio galaxies. These may represent galaxy mergers and the possible merger of their central black holes, and is being carried out with colleagues in India. Professor Wardle has no intention of retiring and is expanding his horizons so to speak — he is part of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, an international team of astronomers that is attempting to make the first image of the ‘event horizon’* of a black hole!

The symposium was organized by Teddy Cheung (PhD ’05, now at the Naval Research Laboratory) and Roopesh Ojha (PhD ’98, now at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center), with generous help and support from the Physics Department.

* The boundary around a black hole beyond which nothing can escape.

Resolving the magnetic field around the galaxy’s central black hole

Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

On December 4, the journal Science (Vol. 350 no. 6265 p 1242) published a paper titled, “Resolved magnetic-field structure and variability near the event horizon of Sagittarius A*” (abstract). The paper reports that the Event Horizon Telescope has detected strong magnetic fields around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. John Wardle, Professor of Astrophysics at Brandeis, is one of the lead authors. A co-author is Michael Kosowsky ’14, who worked on the project as a summer research project at the MIT-Haystack observatory as a junior physics major, and is now an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Harvard.

Near a black hole, differential rotation of a magnetized accretion disk is thought to produce an instability that amplifies weak magnetic fields, driving accretion and outflow. These magnetic fields would naturally give rise to the observed synchrotron emission in galaxy cores and to the formation of relativistic jets, but no observations to date have been able to resolve the expected horizon-scale magnetic-field structure. The paper reports interferometric observations (made with antennas in Hawaii, California and Arizona) at 1.3-millimeter wavelength that spatially resolve the linearly polarized emission from the Galactic Center supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. We have found evidence for partially ordered magnetic fields near the event horizon, on scales of ~6 Schwarzschild radii, and we have detected and localized the intra-hour variability associated with these fields.

The above image is an artist’s impression. With the planned addition of antennas in Mexico, Chile, Europe and the South Pole, the Event Horizon Telescope will be able to make true images with angular resolution of a few tens of microarcseconds.

Pairs of Supermassive Black Holes May Be Rarer Than Earlier Thought

Image by David Roberts

Image by David Roberts

Recent research by David H. Roberts, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Astrophysics at Brandeis, has shown that pairs of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies are less common than previously thought. This suggests that the level of gravitational radiation from such systems is lower than earlier predicted. This work was in collaboration with Lakshmi Saripalli and Ravi Subrahmanyan of the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore, and much of the work was done by Brandeis undergraduate students Jake Cohen and Jing Liu. It has recently been published in a pair of papers in the Astrophysical Journal Supplements and Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein’s 1915 General Theory of Relativity. Propagating at the speed of light, they are produced in astrophysical events such as supernovae and close binary stars.

No direct experimental evidence of the existence of gravitational waves has been found to date. We know that they exist because they sap energy from the orbits of binary systems, and using ultra-precise radio astronomy it has been shown that the changes in binary orbits of pairs of pulsars (magnetized neutron stars) are precisely as predicted by General Relativity. Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to this work.

The largest source of gravitational waves is expected to be the coalescence of pairs of supermassive black holes in the centers of large galaxies. We know today that galaxies grow by mergers, and that every galaxy harbors a massive black hole at its center, with mass roughly proportional to the galaxy’s mass. When two massive galaxies merge to form a larger galaxy, it will contain a pair of black holes instead of a single one. Through a process involving the gravitational scattering of ordinary stars the two black holes migrate toward each other and eventually coalesce into a single even more massive black hole. The process of coalescence involves “strong gravity,” that is, it occurs when the separation of the two merging black holes becomes comparable to their Schwarzschild radii. Recent developments in numerical relativity have made it possible to study the coalescence process in the computer, and predictions may be made about the details of the gravitational waves that emerge. Thus direct detection of gravitational waves will enable tests of General Relativity not achievable any other way.

In order to predict the amount of gravitational radiation present in the Universe it is necessary to estimate by other methods the rate at which massive galaxies are colliding and their black holes coalescing. One way to do this is to examine the small number of radio galaxies that have unusual morphologies that suggest that they were created by the process of a spin-flip of a supermassive black hole due to its interaction with a second supermassive black hole. These are the so-called “X-shaped radio galaxies” (“XRGs”), and a naive counting of their numbers suggests that they are about 6% of all radio galaxies. Using this and knowing the lifetime of such an odd radio structure it is possible to determine the rate at which massive galaxies are merging and their black holes coalescing.

Roberts et al. re-examined this idea, and made a critical assessment of the mechanism of formation of XRGs. It turns out that other mechanisms can easily create such odd structures, and according to their work the large majority of XRGs are not the result of black hole-black hole mergers at all. They suggest as a result that the rate of supermassive black hole mergers may have been overestimated by a factor of three to five, with the consequence that the Universe contains that much less gravitational radiation than previously believed. In fact, recent results from searches for such gravitational waves have set upper limits below previous predictions, as might expect from this work.

For more information:

 

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)