Myriad Details of Black Holes

Myriad Details of Black Holes

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Definition: Black holes are rapidly spinning stellar bodies of incredible mass. A typical black hole has a mass many times that of our own sun , but the size approaches point density. For all intents and purposes, black holes are singularities, a fact that many physicists find contradictory, since in general the universe abhors a singularity. They are formed when a large sun exhausts its fuel and collapses to a very small volume. Of course, conservation of angular momentum and mass hold true, so as the star shrinks, it rotates faster and faster, and its density becomes greater and greater. Eventually, the star becomes so dense that space-time curves so much in its vicinity that not even light can escape. For more on space-time, click on curved space time at the bottom of the page.

Black holes are fascinating phenomena. Only recently have physicists begun to even find proof of their existence, and yet their unique physical properties have extraordinary and galaxies-wide effects. The physics to truly understand the underpinnings of black holes have only been around since 1915 when Einstein conceived and presented his General Theory of Relativity, in which gravity is considered in terms of curved space-time. However, in Exposition of the System of the World, written over a hundred years earlier in 1798, Laplace predicted that masses of sufficient size would have a gravitational attraction so large that light itself could not escape. Stephen Hawking, the author of A Brief History of Time-- perhaps the most successful cogent popular science book ever written-- and an extraordinary physicist, wrote one of the definitive papers on the physics behind black holes. (and then interestingly enough, recanted his once firm belief that black holes even existed--at which time he married his nurse. Physicists are eccentrics in a long and noble tradition.

Black Holes Collide

"In a looming collision of giants, two super massive black holes are drifting towards a violent merger and an eruption of energy that will warp the fabric of space"

Sound like science fiction?

It isn't. The words above were written in an article entitled "Telescope Sees Black Holes Merging", by Paul Recer, writer for the online Yahoo Science AP. The article was posted November 19. 2002.

The Harvard-sponsored Chandra Observatory has captured for the first time two black holes in orbit around each other in the extraordinarily bright galaxy NGC6240, a mere 400 million light years away. This is no stable orbit.

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The two black holes, says Stefanie Komossa, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, are "the aftermath of two galaxies that collided.." to form the new galaxy that we now know. Galaxies colliding, deformed space-time--heady stuff, but far in the future. The black holes aren't expected to collide for another 100 million years. (Although, keep in mind, this info and the pictures are already 400 million years old)

Yet if you live that long…and hey, you never know… earth is going to RIPPLE… squeezed by an inch or so every few minutes, depending on how close it is to the black hole. In the context of nuclear bombs…it is so far beyond our imagination…it'll be the best show in town for centuries! Actually, we would be unlikely to feel much…although I imagine that we would feel a bit queasy and/or radiation could be a difficulty.

These two black holes each have a mass equivalent to about 100 million suns. Each of the galaxies around the black holes, before they collided, were about the same size as the Milky Way.

The last scary thought…in 4 billion years, scientists expect that the Milky Way--our galaxy--is going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy and our respective black holes are going to do the same thing!

What, you didn't know that we have a black hole at the center of our galaxy? All signs point to the idea that we do. And when our galaxy collides, humanity better be extinct or very advanced, or we'll be extinct anyways..radiation output, even over parsec distances can still fry our bacon.

There is so much more….I cannot even begin to cover the stuff..but I'm trying not to be boring, so I must, I must, I must be succinct. (Sad isn't it?) But I can say a couple more little things that might interest you.

First of all…when I showed you the blanket analogy, there are two possibilities. One, that the blanket is merely wrapped around the black hole, so light is going in, but its just trapped there. Two, that the black hole stretched the fabric of space-time so much that where the black hole exists…there is a hole.....and when there is a hole in the universe, is there something on the other side? We just don't know whether the universe forms a hole or a pocket, or if it does form a hole, what is on the other side.

Measuring the gravitational mass of an object which not only is so immense I'm not even sure if we have large enough numbers, but is also surrounded by a glowing accretion disk spinning at improbably high speeds is downright difficult. The only way I could think of would be to attempt to model the accretion disk and calculate the rotational acceleration and relate that to the gravitational attraction of the black hole.

Oh! I forgot! All those pretty pictures on the other pages …haven't you thought, "if those are pictures of black holes, and you can't see them because light can't escape them, that why can we see them?" Well, the disks of flaming suns and whatnot are accretion disks, the matter that is irresistibly attracted to the black hole but hasn't gone into the pocket/hole of space-time.

Another peculiar piece of physics about black holes---time dilation. Remember I said that black holes distort space time? And remember that space time is time and space, inextricably bound together? I told you about the overall effect, but not two subeffects-time dilation and stretching. First…for an observer on the rim of the black hole (if that were possible) a person being sucked down into it would appear to be stretching into an infinite length. Also, to the trapped individual…it takes only a couple of minutes to actually be sucked into the black hole and die (which is inevitable) but the outside observer never actually sees the trapped inividual get sucked in because light is actually slowed by the intense gravitational force. At the point where he'd get sucked in, light can't travel back to give the observer the sight. Theoretically, however, if the black hole were to become unstable and die, that last sight of the death of the individual would be ejected back outwards and visible to an observer...but only at the instant of the black hole's death.

Well, I can't write too much or I'll get in trouble!

If you liked hearing about black holes, the Chandra observatory has a lot more information and pictures on work they are doing on the subject. However, if you want to learn more about the physics of black holes, I'd recommend starting out with my personal favorite…Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.

Curved Space-Time

I'm going to use a famous analogy……you may have heard it in Event Horizon, a movie that m,ay well have stunted public desire to see whats on the other side of a black hole…forever. It is one hell of a scary movie. Anyways…

Space-time is simply the theoretical consideration that for all practical purposes, the idea of space (volume, matter, the weft of the universe) and time (the weave of the universe…the inevitable forward progression of events) are inextricably bound into one form…Space-time. Thus, deformations in one are deformations in the other. Something that deforms space-time is mass-specifically gravitational attraction.

See, think of the universe as a flat blanket.

Large masses, like the earth, and the sun, and other stars, like heavy objects on that blanket, leave depressions in space time like the depressions in a blanket.

Particularly heavy, dense objects such as black holes warp space-time so much that (remember our blanket analogy) it is as if sitting on the blanket, the black hole sunk far enough that it is surrounded by blanket…like sitting in a little purse.

Light travels along the surface of the blanket, as do we…we can't really tell that the blanket is curved. So when light approaches the pocket where the black hole is, it travels down the slippery slopes and gets stuck. It doesn't have the speed to climb the hill on the other side. Nothing in our universe does have the power to escape once trapped by a black holes gravitational attraction because light travels the fastest…and since it can't get out..nothing else can either.


Chandra Observatory Online. 11/19/02

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Yahoo(internet server): AP Science, 11/19/02.

Serway, Raymond A. and Robert J. Beichner. (2001).
Physics for Scientists and Engineers. 5th ed. USA:
Thomson Learning.

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