Theoretical physics implications of the binary black-hole mergers GW150914 and GW151226

Nicolás Yunes, Kent Yagi, Frans Pretorius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The gravitational wave observations GW150914 and GW151226 by Advanced LIGO provide the first opportunity to learn about physics in the extreme gravity environment of coalescing binary black holes. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration have verified that this observation is consistent with Einstein's theory of general relativity, constraining the presence of certain parametric anomalies in the signal. This paper expands their analysis to a larger class of anomalies, highlighting the inferences that can be drawn on nonstandard theoretical physics mechanisms that could otherwise have affected the observed signals. We find that these gravitational wave events constrain a plethora of mechanisms associated with the generation and propagation of gravitational waves, including the activation of scalar fields, gravitational leakage into large extra dimensions, the variability of Newton's constant, the speed of gravity, a modified dispersion relation, gravitational Lorentz violation and the strong equivalence principle. Though other observations limit many of these mechanisms already, GW150914 and GW151226 are unique in that they are direct probes of dynamical strong-field gravity and of gravitational wave propagation. We also show that GW150914 constrains inferred properties of exotic compact object alternatives to Kerr black holes. We argue, however, that the true potential for GW150914 to both rule out exotic objects and constrain physics beyond general relativity is severely limited by the lack of understanding of the coalescence regime in almost all relevant modified gravity theories. This event thus significantly raises the bar that these theories have to pass, both in terms of having a sound theoretical underpinning and reaching the minimal level of being able to solve the equations of motion for binary merger events. We conclude with a discussion of the additional inferences that can be drawn if the lower-confidence observation of an electromagnetic counterpart to GW150914 holds true, or such a coincidence is observed with future events; this would provide dramatic constraints on the speed of gravity and gravitational Lorentz violation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number084002
JournalPhysical Review D
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 4 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)


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