Probing the existence of ultralight bosons with a single gravitational-wave measurement


Light bosons, proposed as a possible solution to various problems in fundamental physics and cosmology1,2,3, include a broad class of candidates for physics beyond the standard model, such as dilatons and moduli4, wave dark matter5 and axion-like particles6. If light bosons exist in nature, they will spontaneously form ‘clouds’ by extracting rotational energy from rotating massive black holes through superradiance, a classical wave amplification process that has been studied for decades7,8. The superradiant growth of the cloud sets the geometry of the final black hole, and the black hole geometry determines the shape of the cloud9,10,11. Hence, both the black hole geometry and the cloud encode information about the light boson. For this reason, measurements of the gravitational field of the black hole/cloud system (as encoded in gravitational waves) are over-determined. We show that a single gravitational-wave measurement can be used to verify the existence of light bosons by model selection, rule out alternative explanations for the signal, and measure the boson mass. Such measurements can be done generically for bosons in the mass range [10−16.5, 10−14] eV using observations of extreme mass-ratio inspirals (EMRIs) by the forthcoming Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA).

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Fig. 1: Three independent posterior distribution measurements of ultralight boson particle masses \(\mu _{\mathrm{s}}^{(1,2,3)}\) from a single gravitational-wave observation with LISA.
Fig. 2: Median error of the measurements \(\mu _{\mathrm{s}}^{(1,2,3)}\) as a function of the SNR, ultralight boson mass μs and mean host black hole mass Mmean.

Data availability

The data that supports the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank C. Macedo, J. L. Rosa and G. Raposo for discussions on cloud depletion. O.A.H. is supported by the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme (HKPFS) issued by the Research Grants Council (RGC) of Hong Kong. E.B. and K.W.K.W. are supported by NSF grant no. PHY-1841464, NSF grant no. AST-1841358, NSF-XSEDE grant no. PHY-090003 and NASA ATP grant no. 17-ATP17-0225. R.B. acknowledges financial support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 792862. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 690904. T.G.F.L. was partially supported by grants from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (project no. CUHK14310816 and CUHK24304317) and the Direct Grant for Research from the Research Committee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The authors acknowledge networking support by the GWverse COST Action CA16104, ‘Black holes, gravitational waves and fundamental physics’.

Author information

O.A.H. conceived the idea of probing the existence of ultralight bosons, performed the full analysis, led the project and wrote the initial manuscript. K.W.K.W. surveyed the full LISA parameter space for the measurement and performed key analysis for the second figure. T.G.F.L. closely supervised all parts of the project, including its implementation and writing of the manuscript, and played an instrumental role in the development of the idea. E.B. made major revisions and contributions to the manuscript and provided theoretical input on superradiance and the overall study. R.B. provided detailed theoretical insight on superradiance and its coupling to gravitational waves, pointed out an error in the initial study that contributed to the final results and contributed significantly to the manuscript. All authors commented on the manuscript and wrote parts of it.

Correspondence to Otto A. Hannuksela.

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Hannuksela, O.A., Wong, K.W.K., Brito, R. et al. Probing the existence of ultralight bosons with a single gravitational-wave measurement. Nat Astron 3, 447–451 (2019).

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