Pulsar Timing and Relativistic Gravity

J. H. Taylor


In addition to being fascinating objects to study in their own right, pulsars are exquisite tools for probing a variety of issues in basic physics. Recycled pulsars, thought to have been spun up in previous episodes of mass accretion from orbiting companion stars, are especially well suited for such applications. They are extraordinarily stable clocks, approaching and perhaps exceeding the long-term stabilities of the best terrestrial time standards. Most of them are found in binary systems, with orbital velocities as large as 10$^{-3}$ c. They provide unique opportunities for measuring neutron star masses, thereby yielding fundamental astrophysical data difficult to acquire by any other means. And they open the way for high precision tests of the nature of gravity under conditions much more `relativistic' than found anywhere within the Solar System. Among other results, pulsar timing observations have convincingly established the existence of quadrupolar gravitational waves propagating at the speed of light. They have also placed interesting limits on possible departures of the strong-field nature of gravity from general relativity, on the rate of change of Newton's constant, G, and on the energy density of low-frequency gravitational waves in the universe.

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