Black Holes Are Even Stranger Than You Can Imagine

Image credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

The Conversation

Guest Author Alister Graham, Swinburne University of Technology

Our love of black holes continues to grow as our knowledge of these celestial bodies expands. The latest news is the discovery of a rare “middleweight” black hole, a relative newcomer to the black hole family.

We already knew that some black holes are just a few times the mass of our Sun, while others are more than a billion times as massive. But others with intermediate masses, such as the one 2,200 times the mass of our Sun recently discovered in the star cluster 47 Tucanae, are surprisingly elusive.

So what is it about black holes, these gravitational prisons that trap anything that gets too close to them, that captures the imagination of people of all ages and professions?

‘Dark stars’

As far back as 1783, within the framework of Newtonian dynamics, the concept of “dark stars” with sufficiently high density that not even light can escape their gravitational pull had been advanced by the English philosopher and mathematician John Michell.

Almost immediately after Albert Einstein presented his theory of general relativity in 1915, which supplanted Newton’s description of our Universe and revealed how space and time are intimately linked, fellow German Karl Schwarzschild and Dutchman Johannes Droste independently derived the new equations for a spherical or point mass.

Although at the time the issue was still something of a mathematical curiosity, over the ensuing quarter of a century nuclear physicists realised that sufficiently massive stars would collapse under their own weight to become these previously theorised black holes.

Their existence was eventually confirmed by astronomers using powerful telescopes, and more recently colliding black holes were the source of the gravitational waves detected with the LIGO instrumentation in the United States.

A dense object

The densities of such objects is mind-boggling. If our Sun were to become a black hole, it would need to collapse from its current size of 1.4 million km across to a radius of less than 3km (6km across). Its average density within this “Schwarzschild radius” would be nearly 20 billion tonnes per cubic centimetre.

The increasing strength and pull of gravity as you get closer to a black hole can be dramatic.

On Earth, the strength of the gravitational pull holding you to its surface is roughly the same at your feet as it is at your head, which is a little bit farther away from the planet.

But near some black holes, the difference in gravitational pull from head to toe is so great that you would be pulled apart and stretched out on an atomic level, in a process referred to as spaghettification.

In 1958, the American physicist David Finkelstein was the first to realise the true nature of what has come to be called the “event horizon” of a black hole. He described this boundary around a black hole as the perfect unidirectional membrane.

It’s an intangible surface encapsulating a sphere of no return. Once inside this sphere, the gravitational pull of the black hole is too great to escape – even for light.

In 1963, the New Zealand mathematician Roy Kerr solved the equations for the more realistic rotating black holes. These yielded closed time-like curves that permitted movement backwards through time.

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