I heard on the TED Radio hour that in the neutron star collision that LIGO recently detected, some of the mass of the neutron stars was turned into energy in the form of gravitational waves. How does that work?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Related: physics.stackexchange.com/q/266760/25301, physics.stackexchange.com/q/235810/25301 $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Feb 12, 2018 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ Since you're not asking about blackholes, is the question: how do the stars loss mass while conserving baryon (and lepton) number? $\endgroup$
    – JEB
    Feb 13, 2018 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ What level of physics and math do you want used in an explanation? This is a very broad question, since it includes a lot of different elements: why gravitational waves exist at all, why colliding neutron stars produce them, and why emitting them converts mass into energy. Writing a long answer to all three of these is not necessarily a good use of people's time if it's not going to be at the level you need. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Feb 13, 2018 at 23:40

2 Answers 2


This not too hard to understand. In fact, applying even Newtonian intuition will give an answer that is a reasonable (qualitative) approximation of the (always complicated) relativistic reality.

Simply put this can be viewed as two processes:

  1. The mutual gravitational pull accelerates the two objects. In Newtonian terms, the gravitational forces do work as the inspiral shrinks (converting potential gravitational energy to kinetic energy).

  2. As the two neutron stars mull around in each other gravitational field, gravitational waves are created. (This bit clearly is relativistic and does not have a proper Newtonian counter part, but if you want you can think about how moving electric charges generate electromagnetic waves.) This process takes kinetic energy from the moving neutron stars and turns it into gravitational radiation.

This pretty much sums up what is going on. Of course, this is a bit of a simplification. In general relativity, things like kinetic and potential energy do not have nice, local definitions making the description much harder.

Note that unlike the suggestions made in the comments, the Baryon number of the neutron stars does not change during the inspiral. In particular, the energy emitted in the gravitational waves does not come from converting rest mass, it comes from increasing the binding energy of the system.

I realize that the two point above do not full answer the question, "How does a neutron star collision turn mass into gravitational waves?". The missing ingredient is that the gravitational mass of the system as a whole is given by

$$ \text{(total rest mass)} - \frac{\text{(binding energy)}}{c^2},$$

hence increasing the binding energy means reducing the gravitational mass.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, this is the part that makes sense to me, turning energy into gravity waves. They made it sound like some of the neutrons were being transformed into gravitational radiation. That would be weird... So it seems like the choice of words they used on the TED Radio Hour was somewhat misleading... $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 15, 2018 at 18:36

The short answer is that no one knows. When you say mass is turned into energy in the form of gravitational waves, youre talking about mass in the form of nucleons (neutrons) being converted somehow into quanta of gravitational waves (gravitons). Viewed from this perspective, the question turns roughly into, "what is the quantum nature of gravity?", and that is an open question. The reason is that for us to understand the conversion of neutrons into gravitons presupposed, in some effective sense, a coupling between the two fields, in specific an operator in the lagrangian which generates a vertex containing the standard model fermions and some quantum gravitational field (normally thought to be some massless spin-2 field). But in reality such a theory is nowhere near being fleshed out entirely. No one knows if this is even the correct way to think about gravity in a quantum sense.

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    $\begingroup$ In principle the system can lose mass without changing nucleon count (or any other particle count). Because the mass of a system is not found by adding up the mass of the parts. This occurs regularly with nuclei, right? $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2018 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously, conversion of potential gravitational energy to gravitational waves can be called as conversion of "mass-energy" but thats just a word game. I'm assuming OP wanted to know whether or not rest mass was being converted into gravitational energy. $\endgroup$
    – CBlanco
    Feb 12, 2018 at 22:48

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