The transverse-traceless spin-2 gravitational wave cannot be a standalone observable because it is acausal

Yi Zen Chu, Yen Wei Liu

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3 Scopus citations


We show, through an explicit calculation of the relevant Green's functions, that the transverse-traceless (TT) portion of the gravitational perturbations of Minkowski spacetime and of spatially flat cosmologies with a constant equation-of-state w receive contributions from their isolated matter source(s) outside the past null cone of the observer. This implies the TT gravitational wave (GW) cannot be a standalone observable - despite widespread (apparent) claims in the gravitational wave literature to the contrary. About a Minkowski background, all 4 of the gauge-invariant variables - the two scalars, one vector and tensor - play crucial roles to ensure the spatial tidal forces encoded within the gauge-invariant linearized Riemann tensor are causal. These gravitational tidal forces do not depend solely on the TT graviton but rather on the causal portion of its acceleration. However, in the far zone radiative limit, the flat spacetime 'TT' graviton Green's function does reduce to the causal 'tt' ones, which are the ones commonly used to compute gravitational waveforms. Similar remarks apply to the spin-1 photon; for instance, the electric field does not depend solely on the photon, but is the causal part of its velocity. As is known within the quantum theory of photons and linearized gravitons, there are obstacles to the construction of simultaneously gauge-invariant and Lorentz-covariant descriptions of these massless spin-1 and spin-2 states. Our results transparently demonstrate that the quantum operators associated with the helicity-1 photon and helicity-2 linear graviton both violate micro-causality: namely, they do not commute outside the light cone in flat and cosmological spacetimes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number055001
JournalClassical and Quantum Gravity
Issue number5
StatePublished - 6 Feb 2020


  • causality
  • cosmology
  • gravitational waves


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