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Searches for stochastic gravitational-wave backgrounds using pulsar timing arrays look for correlations in the timing residuals induced by the background across the pulsars in the array. The correlation signature of an isotropic, unpolarized gravitational-wave background predicted by general relativity follows the so-called Hellings and Downs curve, which is a relatively simple function of the angle between a pair of Earth-pulsar baselines. In this paper, we give a pedagogical discussion of the Hellings and Downs curve for pulsar timing arrays, considering simpler analogous scenarios involving sound and electromagnetic waves. We calculate Hellings-and-Downs-type functions for these two scenarios and develop a framework suitable for doing more general correlation calculations.


© 2015 American Association of Physics Teachers. Original published version available at

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American Journal of Physics





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