New 'fix' for cosmic clocks could help uncover ripples in space-time

June 24, 2010, University of British Columbia
An artist's impression of a pulsar with its surrounding magnetic fields (blue lines). Image credit - Russell Kightley

An international team of scientists including University of British Columbia astronomer Ingrid Stairs has discovered a promising way to fine-tune pulsars into the best precision time-pieces in the Universe.

The discovery could give astronomers a new tool to study the powerful gravitational forces that shaped the universe.

Pulsars--incredibly fast spinning collapsed stars--have been studied in great detail since their discovery in 1967. The extremely stable rotation of these 'cosmic clocks' has enabled astronomers to discover the first planets orbiting other stars and provided stringent tests for theories of the Universe.

However, until now, slight irregularities in their spin have puzzled scientists and significantly reduced their usefulness as precision tools.

Astronomers have observed that spin rates slow very gradually over time. The team, led by the University of Manchester's Professor Andrew Lyne, used decades-worth of observations to determine that pulsars actually exhibit two different rates of spin change, not one as previously thought, and switch between them abruptly. The team also discovered that these variations are associated with changes in the pulsar's appearance that can be used to 'correct' for the shifts.

"Humanity's best clocks all need corrections, perhaps for the effects of changing temperature, , humidity or local magnetic field," says Lyne. "Here, we have found a potential means of correcting an astrophysical clock."

The findings were reported today in .

The discovery makes pulsars better tools for detecting gravitational waves--mysterious, powerful ripples which have not yet been directly observed, although widely believed to exist. The direct discovery of , which cause the distortion of space, could allow scientists to study the Universe shortly after the Big Bang and other violent events such as the merging of super-massive .

"Many observatories around the world are attempting to use pulsars in order to detect the gravitational waves that are expected to be created by super-massive binary black holes in the Universe," says Stairs. "With our new technique we may be able to reveal the gravitational wave signals that are currently hidden because of the irregularities in the pulsar rotation."

"These changes are associated with a change in the shape of the pulse, or tick, emitted by the pulsar," says George Hobbs of the Australia Telescope National Facility. "Because of this, precision measurements of the pulse shape at any particular time indicate exactly what the slowdown rate is and allow the calculation of a 'correction'. This significantly improves their properties as clocks."

The scientists made their breakthrough using the 76-m Lovell radio telescope at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory. "These exciting results were only possible because of the quality and duration of the unique Lovell telescope pulsar timing database," says Ben Stappers of the University of Manchester.

As stated by Professor Michael Kramer of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and the University of Manchester: "These results give a completely new insight into the extreme conditions near neutron stars and also offer the potential for improving our already very precise experiments in gravitation."

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5 / 5 (3) Jun 24, 2010
I'm left wanting. Why didn't they explain what the change in the Pulsar "tick" rate is caused by or the reason for the irregularities?
3 / 5 (2) Jun 24, 2010
illicit: I completely agree. This could have been a great article but it turned out to just be a great article title with little meat in the text. Now I will go out and find the actual technical article. It is a potentially important finding.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2010
That's the reason. It's "journalism" and not science. Ya gotta buy the next episode to find out is Sweet Nell is freed from Snidely Whiplash's nefarious plot.
5 / 5 (3) Jun 24, 2010
A recent paper was posted on arXiv: "Pulsars as gravitational wave detectors"( ) as an overview of the technique. From the abstract:

"Here we describe the ongoing observing projects, the expected sources of gravitational waves, the processing of the data and the implications of current results." (Note: this is not the paper discussed above). This should provide some more meat :D
1 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2010
It would be more correct to mistrust the tool doing the measurement and not use that tool as the arbiter of reality.

It is commonplace for the monkey to trust the stabbing spear more than the object being speared, so it is no small wonder that the underlying egoic function of the monkey based physical creature who working the tool has a deep and near unstoppable belief of sorts that the tool is infallible and represents some sort of reality.

Logic function arises from the depths of the human unconscious mind and then forms into words and thoughts, which are controlled an arise from the hindbrain which is controlled by the body and the emotions.

All human rumination and all thought formation (inner voice) is tainted by the emotional formations of the body's deepest control functions.

In totality. Knowing that fundamental--is critical to forming actual logic. Live it-breathe it, then go clear.

Consider that the measurement, as a differential - is real...but the premise is wrong.
5 / 5 (4) Jun 25, 2010
KBK - As far as I can tell you simply repeat over and over again that everything measurable is an illusion, or corrupted by human fallibility. No one would argue that human being bring their own motives to the table, no matter what endeavor they engage in. No offense intended, but your not expressing anything very deep or philosophical by repeating this point ad nausium.

However... blanket rejection of all science using this argument is very simple minded. It may save you from any thought about the matter, but it doesn't get you or anyone else anywhere.

Getting back to the article itself... I am very impressed by these results. Turning neutron stars into gravitational wave observatories would be a HUGE advance.

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