In 2017, an international group of astronomers and physicists excitedly reported the first simultaneous detection of light and gravitational waves from the same source–a merger of two neutron stars. In the world of astrophysics, Aug. 17, 2017, was a red-letter day. “This is a game-changer for astrophysics,” said UC Santa Barbara faculty member Andy Howell, who leads the supernova group at the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO). “A hundred years after Einstein theorized gravitational waves, we’ve seen them and traced them back to their source to find an explosion with new physics of the kind we’ve only dreamed about.”
Quarks, the smallest building-blocks of matter, never appear alone in nature. They are always tightly bound inside the protons and neutrons. However, neutron stars, weighing as much as the Sun, but being just the size of a city like Frankfurt, possess a core so dense that a transition from neutron matter to quark matter may occur. Physicists refer to this process as a phase transition, a fancy term to describe a holistic change in the overall arrangement of a system’s structure, and in turn, its function.