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When physicists announced in February that they had detected gravitational waves firsthand, the foundations of physics scarcely rattled. The signal exactly matched the expectations physicists had arrived at after a century of tinkering with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. “There is a question: Can you do fundamental physics with it? Can you do things beyond the standard model with it?” said Savas Dimopoulos, a theoretical physicist at Stanford University. “And most people think the answer to that is no.”

Asimina Arvanitaki is not one of those people. A theoretical physicist at Ontario’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, Arvanitaki has been dreaming up ways to use black holes to explore nature’s fundamental particles and forces since 2010, when she published a paper with Dimopoulos, her mentor from graduate school, and others. Together, they sketched out a “string axiverse,” a pantheon of as yet undiscovered, weakly interacting particles. Axions such as these have long been a favored candidate to explain dark matter and other mysteries.

In the intervening years, Arvanitaki and her colleagues have developed the idea through successive papers. But February’s announcement marked a turning point, where it all started to seem possible to test these ideas. Studying gravitational waves from the newfound population of merging black holes would allow physicists to search for those axions, since the axions would bind to black holes in what Arvanitaki describes as a “black hole atom.”

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