The Sound of Exotic Astrophysical “Instruments”

by Sebastian Völkel and Kostas Kokkotas

Could you distinguish the sound of a wormhole from an ultra compact star or black hole?

Such an exotic, though quite fundamental question, could be asked to any physicist after the groundbreaking and Nobel Prize winning discoveries of gravitational waves from merging black holes and neutron stars. Gravitational waves provide mankind with a novel sense, the ability to hear the universe. This analogy, between sound waves and gravitational waves, will bring to the minds of many physicists Mark Kac’s famous  question: “Can One hear the Shape of a Drum?” [1], and not just to the drummers amongst us. The possibility of this analogy is one of the ways in which gravitational waves are very distinct from the usual tool of astronomy, light.

To answer the question for our exotic instruments, we will rephrase it in a more technical form. In the simplest version one can describe linear perturbations of spherically symmetric and non-rotating models of wormholes and ultra compact stars. It is well known that the perturbation equations for these cases can simplify to the study of the one-dimensional wave equation with an effective potential. The solutions, which are usually given as a set of modes, represent the characteristic sound of the object. The so-called quasi-normal mode (QNM) spectrum is the starting point for our discussion.


FIG. 1. Sebastian Völkel (right) is a PhD student in the Theoretical Astrophysics group of Professor Kostas Kokkotas at the University of Tübingen, located in the south of Germany. Among his research interests is the study of compact objects along with the associated gravitational wave emissions. More information about his research can be found here.
Professor Kostas Kokkotas (left) is leading the group of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Tübingen. The focus of his research is on the dynamics of compact objects (neutron stars & black-holes) as sources of gravitational waves in general relativity and in alternative theories of gravity. More information about the group can be found here.
Photo by Severin Frank.

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