What Would A Black Hole Look Like?

If you could see a black hole with your own eyeballs, what would you see?

Here on the Guide to Space production team: We love everything about Black Holes.

We like how they’re terrifying and completely conflict with our day to day experience of how stuff should work. We like how they completely mess you up before absolutely tearing you pieces, and we like how they ruin time and space and everything nearby.

We like them so much, we even enjoy giving them cute nick names like “Kevin”.

So I’m now going to show you images and animations of black holes.
Should you find this either too exciting or terrifying and need a breather I suggest you pause the video and walk around the block and try not to think about how absolutely terrifying these things are.

Those are just the artist’s illustrations, who’ve no doubt been awe inspired in the same way the rest of us have… but those people have never ACTUALLY seen one. Have they?

Is that what a black hole would really look like? Or are these just pictures of lasercorns?
I’ve got good news!

Here’s a picture of a real black hole. Can’t see much? That’s because it’s more than 25,000 light years away. It’s got 4 million times the mass of the Sun, and it’s still a tiny dot.

So, how do we know it’s there? The answer is awful. Even if we can’t see them directly, they make such a giant mess of things in their neighborhood we can still figure out where they are.

For an actively feeding black hole, we see a disk of material surrounding it.

This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Quasars are the jets emanating from active black holes, and we see them billions of light-years away. As you get closer, this area would get brighter until it was like you were close to millions of stars. The radiation would be overwhelming. Closer and closer, there would be region of total darkness, that’s the black hole itself.

For non-active or “sleepy time” black holes, we’d only see the distortion of light around them as light is bent by gravity. As you got closer and closer, there’d be less light coming from the area around the black hole. No photons can be reflected by it. You’d then pass a region called the photon sphere, where light is orbiting the black hole. You’d see the whole Universe as a swirling jumble of mixed up photons.

Next the event horizon, where light can’t escape. You could look out into the Universe and see the distorted light coming from everywhere, but the singularity itself would still be dark. Is it a single point, or a sphere? Astronomers don’t know yet.

A new telescope is in the works called the Event Horizon Telescope. It would combine the light from a worldwide constellation of radio telescopes. They’re hoping to actually image the event horizon of a black hole, and could have their first images within 5 years. Hopefully it’ll never get loaded onto a ship with Sam Neill.

Here’s hoping we’re just a few years away from knowing what black holes look like directly. But once seen, they can never be unseen. What do you think it’ll look like? tell us in the comments below!

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One Reply to “What Would A Black Hole Look Like?”

  1. Hello Mr. Koberlein.

    I just stumble upon your article; to be clear I’m not a physicist, would have liked to be but that’s life… So I will surely make mistakes on that subject. English is not my native language as well, so expect some “typos” let’s say. So I will drop some lines!

    I have some questions, I already guess what will be your answers but let’s try out (maybe you will dissipate my doubts, who knows). First, how is it possible that, after something like half a century of theoretical speculation about that, not even one black hole has been observed? Let alone the fact that they are, it is an understatement, difficult to catch…
    Generally speaking a good theory is relatively quickly confirmed by observation. The best example for me being the General Relativity and the famous solar eclipse observation. Or the neutron discovery, but with a greater gap between proposal and observation (something like 20 years? I don’t remember). Even the Higgs boson has been found, albeit with a long, long waiting and even with that, it does not solve the main problems of the Standard Model : hierarchy, particle masses, ultra fine tuning of parameters, neutrinos oscillation and their masses. In fact the neutrino, maybe I’m wrong, is the main problem of the model, there is something wrong (not about the neutrino which is beautiful) because the actual theory cannot explain neither the mass nor the oscillations of those tiny things and I would not be surprised if another neutrino type is discovered soon, adding to the actual problems of the model… I would rather have preferred to see physicists stumble upon technicolor particles, that theory and the different derivatives were elegant… Not to mention the Supersymmetry. Speaking of that, apparently you physicists (well maybe not you…) are really eager to find out those particles, to help the model go further. But also I think, and again maybe I’m wrong, to avoid putting definitely to trash the Supercord theory. No Supersymmetry, no “Super” in the cord theory, ending with no light speed limit. Bye bye 40 years of wasted career and academic brainstorming about that non testable (and thus non?) theory. The M theory? 10e500 universes and guess what’s the good one in that mess? Good luck with that… Poor mainstream science…

    But let’s go back to our black holes. The other question I have is why Archibald Wheeler (I’m not sure it was him) decided that when you cross the event horizon, the time variable becomes the distance and vice versa? Correct me if I’m wrong. Were is the mathematical logic behind that? Is it not completely ad-hoc? If I remember correctly, the Schwarzschild solution for that problem was composed of two parts: external of Schwarzschild sphere (void matter) and internal of Schwarzschild sphere (object of constant density), right? WHY you physicists decided to take the external solution referring to void space to describe the hyperdense object that was supposed to be inside the event horizon? Would not be the internal solution better fitted for that purpose? This is complete nonsense for me… But it maybe explain the need to inverse time and distance terms, just to avoid an infinite result due to a zero divider appearing when reaching the Schwarzschild sphere… Am I wrong? If that is the case, then it is not a very elegant trick. And for what I know, this is surely not renormalization! Albeit, a really, really cheap one.

    Another question, well maybe it is more of a thought than a question… Would it not be possible to make precise measurements by using background neutrinos when those pass trough a (still hypothetical) black hole? I know they don’t interact a lot (understatement again) but they are present in an insane quantity. If one day we have detectors fine enough to do that, we will know for sure if there is or not an hyperdense object, let’s say in the center of our galaxy or at Cygnus X1 location. At least we will maybe sooner than later get a precise picture of the latter, I hope so, and I would not bet on a black hole…

    For what I read about that topic, I only see speculation, nothing else, nice pictures in magazines, nice 3D models and so on. But I would be curious to know what most of the pure mathematicians think about what you are doing with the equations when TRYING to describe what’s going on when a star collapses beyond it’s neutron star state. What are you doing with geodesics/geometry inside the horizon as it happens? I mean, General Relativity goes infinite about that thing (as well as for the big bang event). I have always been told that an infinite result is only a mathematical “object” or result that cannot exist in reality. That yes make sense for me. But the black hole singularity IS nonsense for me. It is just saying stop! Find something else to tell you the sequel of the story… I don’t get why physicists are happy with that. I recently read about the last declaration of Stephen Hawking about black Holes, saying that they do not exist, or that they are more grey than black, etc. Apparently referring to long term evaporation… Well as I told you I’m not physicist and of course I’ve not read his two papers on arXiv… But what I read is some physicists commenting on that and some of them even saying that Hawking is old and, well, maybe senile… WTF? You are the ones that in the first place praised all his work on that matter and now some of you (not the majority I suppose but still) are saying that he now may be wrong? Really strange behavior… Either some of you don’t understand anything of his work or you understand it but don’t want to even remotely start to consider that maybe some parts of the black hole theory are not correct because you spent all your time and career hunting those objects. The same behavior applies to “Supercordists”.
    This is pathetic.

    Well, to change subject, it is even worse when you think, for example, about dark matter and dark energy. Dark energy: something like a factor 10e120 between the particle physics calculations and the cosmology side. Right? Pardon me but there is something wrong somewhere, no? Dark matter: must be precisely distributed for each and every galaxies (except maybe for irregular ones) for them to be able to gently turn without being thorn apart. Correct me if I’m wrong but even with that your are still not able to maintain 2 or 3 turns in 3D simulations. Is dark matter not a completely ad-hoc ingredient?
    What about MOND/Teves? Why is such a massive amount of research money thrown on evidently, at least for me, flawed concepts? Come on, 95% of unknown force/matter driving the universe, continuously patched big bang theory to match observations (yes you will tell me it is fine tuning of the model for precise predictions…), singularities everywhere (I mean literally everywhere), particle physics playing solo with its own BIG problems, Supercords/Supersymmetry nowhere to be found or complete nonsense of the Copenhagen interpretation. About that, last point/question: is it a normal practice to use flawed conceptual foundations to derive mathematical equations, forgot those foundations and then try to recursively infer physical interpretations for those foundations from the mathematical equations derived in the first place? … Better smoking weed. Another thing I don’t understand is why do you not consider hidden variables solutions? I read basically always the same thing: the Bell’s theorem denies that! Wow. That means if I’m correct that all of you believe that QM solutions MUST BE limited to zero-dimensional particles only. End of discussion! Are sure all of you want to bet on that? Now? In the actual state of theoretical physics? Nothing new happening? Nothing fundamental on the horizon (not the black hole one)? AND YET, you all praise like a religion the Supercord “theory”!
    How is it intellectually possible to deny a one or multi-dimensional particle design on one side with Quantum Mechanics AND on the other side accept that very same idea of non zero-dimensional particles with Supercord objects and use that to try to unify GR an QM?????????? Then why not recursively accept to explore hidden-variables solutions for QM ??? Why not try to consider that superposition and wave-function are approximations to something deeper, some hidden deterministic mechanics (yes I know, speaking deterministic with QM is a sin), instead of considering that a nothing else than a zero-dimensional particle occupies all possible quantum states simultaneously, and that the wave-function only collapses to one state when a variable is measured? This is bullshit, complete non-sense. Pardon me.

    Yet, you all seam to be very happy with that situation… For me, it looks like a complete mess… So what to say? Continue that way… Just like corporate finance continues to control states by maintaining colossal debt, just like nuclear industry continues poisoning the world even after Tsjernobyl and Fukushima, just like military industry continues to kill innocent people around the world to sell weapons… I’m sure of one thing now, science will no more save us. Biology sells medics and patents life, Chemistry sells pesticides and poison food, Physics sells weapons and gave us nuclear meltdowns, Computer science serves corporate finance and sells TV screen for its propaganda… And that’s it.

    And the worst of all, if one day mankind disappears, that will automatically result in a full scale nuclear disaster, whether it is for a nuclear war or if it is for whatever other reasons, the actual near 500 civil nuclear reactors around the world will not magically maintain themselves in sub-critical state and will all of them go for a good measure planetary meltdown.

    What an achievement for science…

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