Thursday, March 30, 2017

Building a dead star

I have written previously about how we investigate QCD to learn about neutron stars. Neutron stars are the extremely dense and small objects left over after a medium-sized star became a supernova.

For that, we have decided to take a detour. To do so, we have slightly modified the strong interactions. The reason for this modification was to do numerical simulations. In the original version of the theory, this is yet impossible. Mainly, because we have not yet been able to develop an algorithm, which is fast enough to get a result within our lifetime. With the small changes we did to our theory, this changes. And therefore, we have now a (rough) idea of how this theory behaves at densities relevant for neutron stars.

Now Ouraman Hajizadeh, a PhD student of mine, and I went all the way. We used these results to construct a neutron star from it. What we found is written up in a paper. And I will describe here what we learned.

The first insight is that we needed a baseline. Of course, we could compare to what we have on neutron star from astrophysics. But we do not yet know too much about their internal structure. This may change with the newly established gravitational wave astronomy, but this will take a few years. Thus, we decided to use neutrons, which do not interact with each other, as the baseline. A neutron star of such particles is only held together by the gravitational pull and the so-called Pauli principle. This principle forbids certain types of particles, so-called fermions, to occupy the same spots. Neutrons are such fermions. Any difference from such a neutron star has therefore to be attributed to interactions.

The observed neutron stars show the existence of interactions. This is exemplified by their mass. A neutron star made out of non-interacting neutrons can have only masses which are somewhat below the mass of our sun. The heaviest neutron stars we have observed so far are more than twice the mass of our sun. The heaviest possible neutron stars could be a little bit heavier than three times our sun. Everything which is heavier would collapse further, either to a different object unknown to us, or to a black hole.

Now, the theory we investigated is different from the true strong-interactions by two effects. One is that we had only one type of quarks, rather than the real number. Also, our quarks was heavier than the lightest quark in nature. Finally, we have more colors and also more gluons than in nature. Thus, our neutron has a somewhat different structure than the real one. But we used this modified version of the neutron to create our baseline, so that we can still see the effect of interactions.

Then, we cranked the machinery. This machinery is a little bit of general relativity, and thermodynamics. The prior is not modified, but our theory determines the latter. What we got was a quite interesting result. First, our heaviest neutron star was much heavier than our baseline. Roughly 20 to 50 percent heaver than our sun, depending on details and uncertainties. Also, a typical neutron star of this mass had much less variation of its size than the baseline. For non-interacting neutrons, changing the maximum mass by ten percent changes the radius by a kilometer, or so. In our case, this changed the radius almost not at all. So, our heaviest neutron stars are much more reluctant to change. So interactions indeed change the structure of a neutron star considerably.

Another long-standing question is, what the internal structure of a neutron star is. Especially, whether they are a, more or less, monolithic block, except for a a very thin layer close to the surface. Or whether they are composed of many different layers, like our earth. In our case, we find indeed a layered structure. There is an outer surface, a kilometer or so thick, and then a different state of matter down to the core. However, the change appears to be quite soft, and there is no hard distinction. Still, our results signal that there a light neutron stars, which only consist out of the 'surface' material, and only heavier neutron stars have such a core of different stuff. Thus, there could be two classes of neutron stars, with different properties. However, the single-type class is lighter than those which have been observed so far. Such light neutron stars, while apparently stable, seem not, or rarely, be formed during the supernovas giving birth to neutron stars.

Of course, the question is, to which extent such qualitative features can be translated to the real case. We can learn more about this by doing the same in other theories. If features turn out to be generic, this points at something which may also happen for the real case. But even our case, which in a certain sense is the simplest possibility, was not trivial. It may take some time to repeat it for other theories.