If Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity holds true, then a black hole, born from the cosmically quaking collisions of two massive black holes, should itself "ring" in the aftermath, producing gravitational waves much like a struck bell reverberates sound waves. Einstein predicted that the particular pitch and decay of these gravitational waves should be a direct signature of the newly formed black hole's mass and spin.
Now, physicists from MIT and elsewhere have "heard" the ringing of an infant black hole for the first time, and they have found that the pattern of this ringing predicts the black hole's mass and spin – more evidence that Einstein was right all along.
The findings also favor the idea that black holes lack any sort of "hair" – a metaphor referring to the idea that black holes, according to Einstein's theory, should exhibit just three observable properties: mass, spin, and electric charge. All other characteristics, which the physicist John Wheeler termed "hair," should be swallowed up by the black hole itself and would, therefore, be unobservable.
The team's findings support the idea that black holes are, in fact, hairless. The researchers were able to identify the pattern of a black hole's ringing and, using Einstein's equations, calculated the mass and spin that the black hole should have, given its ringing pattern. These calculations matched measurements of the black hole's mass and spin made previously by others.
If the team's calculations deviated significantly from the measurements, it would have suggested that the black hole's ringing encodes properties other than mass, spin, and electric charge – tantalizing evidence of physics beyond what Einstein's theory can explain. But as it turns out, the black hole's ringing pattern is a direct signature of its mass and spin, giving support to the notion that black holes are bald-faced giants, lacking any extraneous, hair-like properties.
"We all expect general relativity to be correct, but this is the first time we have confirmed it in this way," says Maximiliano Isi, a NASA Einstein Fellow in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. "This is the first experimental measurement that succeeds in directly testing the no-hair theorem. It doesn't mean black holes couldn't have hair. It means the picture of black holes with no hair lives for one more day."