Gravitational Astronomy? How Detecting Gravitational Waves Changes Everything

Is This The Future?

Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.

As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.

One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.

On January 4th, 2017, LIGO detected two black holes merging into one. Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.

The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.

Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.

Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.

Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.

This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.

As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.

Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.

But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.

With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.

LIGO has already significantly increased the number of black holes with known masses. The observatory has definitively detected two sets of black hole mergers (bright blue). For each event, LIGO determined the individual masses of the black holes before they merged, as well as the mass of the black hole produced by the merger. The black holes shown with a dotted border represent a LIGO candidate event that was too weak to be conclusively claimed as a detection. Credit: LIGO/Caltech/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.

If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.

But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.

Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.

This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?

And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.

Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.

But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.

And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The other facility is located in Hanford, Washington. Image: LIGO

The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.

In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.

LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.

Current operating facilities in the global network include the twin LIGO detectors—in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana—and GEO600 in Germany. The Virgo detector in Italy and the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) in Japan are undergoing upgrades and are expected to begin operations in 2016 and 2018, respectively. A sixth observatory is being planned in India. Having more gravitational-wave observatories around the globe helps scientists pin down the locations and sources of gravitational waves coming from space. Image made in February 2016. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.

A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.

Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.

The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.

There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) consists of three spacecraft orbiting the sun in a triangular configuration. Credit: NASA

And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.

Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

What Exactly Should We See When a Star Splashes into a Black Hole Event Horizon?

This artist's impression shows a star crossing the event horizon of a supermassive black hole located in the center of a galaxy. The black hole is so large and massive that tidal effects on the star are negligible, and the star is swallowed whole. Image: Mark A. Garlick/CfA

At the center of our Milky Way galaxy dwells a behemoth. An object so massive that nothing can escape its gravitational pull, not even light. In fact, we think most galaxies have one of them. They are, of course, supermassive black holes.

Supermassive black holes are stars that have collapsed into a singularity. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted their existence. And these black holes are surrounded by what’s known as an event horizon, which is kind of like the point of no return for anything getting too close to the black hole. But nobody has actually proven the existence of the event horizon yet.

Some theorists think that something else might lie at the center of galaxies, a supermassive object event stranger than a supermassive black hole. Theorists think these objects have somehow avoided a black hole’s fate, and have not collapsed into a singularity. They would have no event horizon, and would have a solid surface instead.

“Our whole point here is to turn this idea of an event horizon into an experimental science, and find out if event horizons really do exist or not,” – Pawan Kumar Professor of Astrophysics, University of Texas at Austin.

A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University have tackled the problem. Wenbin Lu, Pawan Kumar, and Ramesh Narayan wanted to shed some light onto the event horizon problem. They wondered about the solid surface object, and what would happen when an object like a star collided with it. They published their results in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

“Our whole point here is to turn this idea of an event horizon into an experimental science, and find out if event horizons really do exist or not,” said Pawan Kumar, Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin, in a press release.

Since a black hole is a star collapsed into a singularity, it has no surface area, and instead has an event horizon. But if the other theory turns out to be true, and the object has a solid surface instead of an event horizon, then any object colliding with it would be destroyed. If a star was to collide with this hard surface and be destroyed, the team surmised, then the gas from the star would enshroud the object and shine brightly for months, or even years.

This is the first in a sequence of two artist's impressions that shows a huge, massive sphere in the center of a galaxy, rather than a supermassive black hole. Here a star moves towards and then smashes into the hard surface of the sphere, flinging out debris. The impact heats up the site of the collision. Image: Mark A. Garlick/CfA
This is the first in a sequence of two artist’s impressions that shows a huge, massive sphere in the center of a galaxy, rather than a supermassive black hole. Here a star moves towards and then smashes into the hard surface of the sphere, flinging out debris. The impact heats up the site of the collision. Image:
Mark A. Garlick/CfA
In this second artist's impression a huge sphere in the center of a galaxy is shown after a star has collided with it. Enormous amounts of heat and a dramatic increase in the brightness of the sphere are generated by this event. The lack of observation of such flares from the center of galaxies means that this hypothetical scenario is almost completely ruled out. Image: Mark A. Garlick/CfA
In this second artist’s impression a huge sphere in the center of a galaxy is shown after a star has collided with it. Enormous amounts of heat and a dramatic increase in the brightness of the sphere are generated by this event. The lack of observation of such flares from the center of galaxies means that this hypothetical scenario is almost completely ruled out. Image: Mark A. Garlick/CfA

If that were the case, then the team knew what to look for. They also worked out how often this would happen.

“We estimated the rate of stars falling onto supermassive black holes,” Lu said in the same press release. “Nearly every galaxy has one. We only considered the most massive ones, which weigh about 100 million solar masses or more. There are about a million of them within a few billion light-years of Earth.”

Now they needed a way to search the sky for these objects, and they found it in the archives of the Pan-STARRS telescope. Pan-STARRS is a 1.8 meter telescope in Hawaii. That telescope recently completed a survey of half of the northern hemisphere of the sky. In that survey, Pan-STAARS spent 3.5 years looking for transient objects in the sky, objects that brighten and then fade. They searched the Pan-STARR archives for transient objects that had the signature they predicted from stars colliding with these supermassive, hard-surfaced objects.

The trio predicted that in the 3.5 year time-frame captured by the Pan-STAARS survey, 10 of these collisions would occur and should be represented in the data.

“It turns out it should have detected more than 10 of them, if the hard-surface theory is true.” – Wenbin Lu, Dept. of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin.

“Given the rate of stars falling onto black holes and the number density of black holes in the nearby universe, we calculated how many such transients Pan-STARRS should have detected over a period of operation of 3.5 years. It turns out it should have detected more than 10 of them, if the hard-surface theory is true,” Lu said.

The team found none of the flare-ups they expected to see if the hard-surface theory is true.

“Our work implies that some, and perhaps all, black holes have event horizons…” – Ramesh Narayan, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

What might seem like a failure, isn’t one of course. Not for Einstein, anyway. This represents yet another successful test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, showing that the event horizon predicted in his theory does seem to exist.

As for the team, they haven’t abandoned the idea yet. In fact, according to Pawan Kumar, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Texas at Austin, “Our motive is not so much to establish that there is a hard surface, but to push the boundary of knowledge and find concrete evidence that really, there is an event horizon around black holes.”

“General Relativity has passed another critical test.” – Ramesh Narayan, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Our work implies that some, and perhaps all, black holes have event horizons and that material really does disappear from the observable universe when pulled into these exotic objects, as we’ve expected for decades,” Narayan said. “General Relativity has passed another critical test.”

The team plans to continue to look for the flare-ups associated with the hard-surface theory. Their look into the Pan-STARRS data was just their first crack at it.

An artist's illustration of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope with a simulated night sky. The team hopes to use the LSST to further refine their search for hard-surface supermassive objects. Image: Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation
An artist’s illustration of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope with a simulated night sky. The team hopes to use the LSST to further refine their search for hard-surface supermassive objects. Image: Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation

They’re hoping to improve their test with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) being built in Chile. The LSST is a wide field telescope that will capture images of the night sky every 20 seconds over a ten-year span. Every few nights, the LSST will give us an image of the entire available night sky. This will make the study of transient objects much easier and effective.

More reading: Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope


Black Hole Imaged For First Time By Event Horizon Telescope

Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

For decades, scientists have held that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of larger galaxies. These reality-bending points in space exert a extremely powerful influence on all things that surround them, consuming matter and spitting out a tremendous amount of energy. But given their nature, all attempts to study them has been confined to indirect methods.

All of that changed beginning on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, when an international team of astronomers obtained the first-ever image of a Sagittarius A*. Using a series of telescopes from around the globe – collectively known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – they were able to visualize the  mysterious region around this giant black hole from which matter and energy cannot escape – i.e. the event horizon.

Not only is this the first time that this mysterious region around a black hole has been imaged, it is also the most extreme test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity ever attempted. It also represents the culmination of the EHT project, which was established specifically for the purpose of studying black holes directly and improving our understanding of them.

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke/Radboud University

Since it began capturing data in 2006, the EHT has been dedicated to the study of Sagitarrius A* since it is the nearest SMBH in the known Universe – located about 25,000 light years from Earth. Specifically, scientists hoped to determine if black holes are surrounded by a circular region from which matter and energy cannot escape (which is predicted by General Relativity), and how they accrete matter onto themselves.

Rather than constituting a single facility, the EHT relies on a worldwide network of radio astronomy facilities based on four continents, all of which are dedicated to studying one of the most powerful and mysterious forces in the Universe. This process, whereby widely-space radio dishes from across the globe are connected into an Earth-sized virtual telescope, is known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

As Michael Bremer – an astronomer at the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy (IRAM) and a project manager for the Event Horizon Telescope – said in an interview with AFP:

“Instead of building a telescope so big that it would probably collapse under its own weight, we combined eight observatories like the pieces of a giant mirror. This gave us a virtual telescope as big as Earth—about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) is diameter.”

Sagittarius A is the super-massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. It is shown in x-ray (blue) and infrared (red) in this combined image from the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI
Combined image of Sagittarius A shown in x-ray (blue) and infrared (red), provided by the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

All told, the network includes instruments like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Arizona Radio Observatory Submillimeter Telescope, the IRAM 30-meter Telescope in Spain, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano in Mexico, the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Submillimeter Array at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

With these arrays, the EHT radio-dish network is the only one powerful enough to detect the light released when an object would disappear into Sagittarius A*. And from six nights – from Wednesday, April 5th, to Tuesday, April 11th, – all of its arrays were trained on the center of our Milky Way to do just that. By the end of the run, the international team announced that they had snapped the first-ever picture of an event horizon.

In the end, some 500 terabytes of data were collected. This data is now being transferred to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts, where it will be processed by supercomputers and turned into an image. “For the first time in our history, we have the technological capacity to observe black holes in detail,” said Bremer. “The images will emerge as we combine all the data. But we’re going to have to wait several months for the result.”

Part of the reason for the wait is the fact that the recorded data obtained by the South Pole Telescope can only be collected when spring starts in Antarctica – which won’t happen until October 2017 at the earliest. As such, it won’t be until 2018 before the public gets to feast its eyes on the shadow region that surrounds Sagittarius A*, and it is not expected that the first image will be entirely clear.

As Heino Falcke – an astronomers from Radbound University who now chairs the Scientific Council of EHT (and was the one who proposed this experiment twenty years ago) – explained in a EHT press release prior to the observation being made:

“It is the challenge of doing something, that has never been attempted before. It is the start of an adventurous journey towards a black hole… However, I think we need more observation campaigns and eventually more telescopes in the network to make a really good image.”

Despite the wait, and the fact that repeated attempts will be needed before we can get our first clear look at a black hole, there is still plenty of reason to celebrate in the meantime. Not only was this a first that was a long time in he making, but it also represents a major leap towards understanding one of the most powerful and mysterious forces of nature.

Given time, the study of black holes may allow for us to finally resolve how gravity and the other fundamental forces of the Universe interact. At long last, we will be able to comprehend all of existence as a single, unified equation!

Further Reading: Event Horizon Telescope, NRAO

How Cold Are Black Holes?

Today we’re going to have the most surreal conversation. I’m going to struggle to explain it, and you’re going to struggle to understand it. And only Stephen Hawking is going to really, truly, understand what’s actually going on.

But that’s fine, I’m sure he appreciates our feeble attempts to wrap our brains around this mind bending concept.

All right? Let’s get to it. Black holes again. But this time, we’re going to figure out their temperature.

The very idea that a black hole could have a temperature strains the imagination. I mean, how can something that absorbs all the matter and energy that falls into it have a temperature? When you feel the warmth of a toasty fireplace, you’re really feeling the infrared photons radiating from the fire and surrounding metal or stone.

And black holes absorb all the energy falling into them. There is absolutely no infrared radiation coming from a black hole. No gamma radiation, no radio waves. Nothing gets out.

As with most galaxies, a supermassive black hole lies at the heart of NGC 5548. Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA. Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin

Now, supermassive black holes can shine with the energy of billions of stars, when they become quasars. When they’re actively feeding on stars and clouds of gas and dust. This material piles up into an accretion disk around the black hole with such density that it acts like the core of a star, undergoing nuclear fusion.

But that’s not the kind of temperature we’re talking about. We’re talking about the temperature of the black hole’s event horizon, when it’s not absorbing any material at all.

The temperature of black holes is connected to this whole concept of Hawking Radiation. The idea that over vast periods of time, black holes will generate virtual particles right at the edge of their event horizons. The most common kind of particles are photons, aka light, aka heat.

Normally these virtual particles are able to recombine and disappear in a puff of annihilation as quickly as they appear. But when a pair of these virtual particles appear right at the event horizon, one half of the pair drops into the black hole, while the other is free to escape into the Universe.

From your perspective as an outside observer, you see these particles escaping from the black hole. You see photons, and therefore, you can measure the temperature of the black hole.

PIA18919: How Black Hole Winds Blow (Artist's Concept)
Artist’s concept of the black hole at the center of the Pinwheel Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The temperature of the black hole is inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole and the size of the event horizon. Think of it this way. Imagine the curved surface of a black hole’s event horizon. There are many paths that a photon could try to take to get away from the event horizon, and the vast majority of those are paths that take it back down into the black hole’s gravity well.

But for a few rare paths, when the photon is traveling perfectly perpendicular to the event horizon, then the photon has a chance to escape. The larger the event horizon, the less paths there are that a photon could take.

Since energy is being released into the Universe at the black hole’s event horizon, but energy can neither be created or destroyed, the black hole itself provides the mass that supplies the energy to release these photons.

The black hole evaporates.

The most massive black holes in the Universe, the supermassive black holes with millions of times the math of the Sun will have a temperature of 1.4 x 10^-14 Kelvin. That’s low. Almost absolute zero, but not quite.

Artist's impression of a feeding stellar-mass black hole. Credit: NASA, ESA, Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)
Artist’s impression of a feeding stellar-mass black hole. Credit: NASA, ESA, Martin Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble)

A solar mass black hole might have a temperature of only .0.00000006 Kelvin. We’re getting warmer.

Since these temperatures are much lower than the background temperature of the Universe – about 2.7 Kelvin, all the existing black holes will have an overall gain of mass. They’re absorbing energy from the Cosmic Background Radiation faster than they’re evaporating, and will for an incomprehensible amount of time into the future.

Until the background temperature of the Universe goes below the temperature of these black holes, they won’t even start evaporating.

A black hole with the mass of the Earth is still too cold.

Only a black hole with about the mass of the Moon is warm enough to be evaporating faster than it’s absorbing energy from the Universe.

As they get less massive, they get even hotter. A black hole with the mass of the asteroid Ceres would be 122 Kelvin. Still freezing, but getting warmer.

A black hole with half the mass of Vesta would blaze at more than 1,200 Kelvin. Now we’re cooking!

Less massive, higher temperatures.

When black holes have lost most of their mass, they release the final material in a tremendous blast of energy, which should be visible to our telescopes.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

Some astronomers are actively searching the night sky for blasts from black holes which were formed shortly after the Big Bang, when the Universe was hot and dense enough that black holes could just form.

It took them billions of years of evaporation to get to the point that they’re starting to explode now.

This is just conjecture, though, no explosions have ever been linked to primordial black holes so far.

It’s pretty crazy to think that an object that absorbs all energy that falls into it can also emit energy. Well, that’s the Universe for you. Thanks for helping us figure it out Dr. Hawking.

What Are Virtual Particles?

Sometimes I figure out the weak spot in my articles based on the emails and comments they receive.

One popular article we did was all about Stephen Hawking’s realization that black holes must evaporate over vast periods of time. We talked about the mechanism, and mentioned how there are these virtual particles that pop in and out of existence.

Normally these particles self annihilate, but at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon, one particle falls in, while another is free to wander the cosmos. Since you can’t create particles from nothing, the black hole needs to sacrifice a little bit of itself to buy this newly formed particle’s freedom.

But my short article wasn’t enough to clarify exactly what virtual particles are. Clearly, you all wanted more information. What are they? How are they detected? What does this mean for black holes?

In situations like this, when I know the actual Physics Police are watching, I like to call in a ringer. Once again, I’m going to go back and talk to my good friend, and actual working astrophysicist, Dr. Paul Matt Sutter. He has written papers on subjects like the Bayesian Analysis of Cosmic Dawn and MHD Simulations of Magnetic Outflows. He really knows his stuff.

Fraser Cain:
Hey Paul, first question: What are virtual particles?

Paul Matt Sutter:
Alright. No pressure, Fraser. Okay, okay.

To get the concept of virtual particles you actually have to take a step back and think about the field, especially the electromagnetic field. In our current view of how the universe works all of space and time is filled up with this kind of background field. And this field can wibble and wabble around, and sometimes these wibbles and wabbles are like waves that propagate forward, and we call these waves photons or electromagnetic radiation, but sometimes it can just sit there and you know bloop bloop bloop, just you know pop fizzle in and out, or up and down, and kind of boil a little all on its own.

In fact all the time space is kind of wibbling/wabbling around this field even in a vacuum. A vacuum isn’t the absence of everything. The vacuum is just where this field is in its lowest energy state. But even though it’s in that lowest energy state, even though maybe on average there is nothing there. There’s nothing stopping it from just bloop bloop bloop you know bubbling around.

 Credit: NASA, ESA, Q.D. Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and S. Stolovy (Caltech)

Credit: NASA, ESA, Q.D. Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and S. Stolovy (Caltech)

So actually the vacuum is kind of boiling with these fields. In particular the electromagnetic field which is what we are talking about right now.

And we know that photons, that light, can turn into particle, anti-particle pairs. It can turn into say an electron and a positron. It can just do this. It can happen to normal photons, and it can happen to these kind of temporary wibbly wobbly photons.

So sometimes a photon or sometimes the electromagnetic field can propagate from one place to another, and we call it a photon. And that photon can split off into a positron and an electron, and other times it can just wibble wobble kind of in place and then wibble wobble POP POP. It pops into a positron and an electron and then they crash into each other or whatever, and they just simmer back down. So, wibble wobble, pop pop, fizz fizz is kind of what’s going on in the vacuum all they time, and that’s the name we give these virtual particles are just the normal kind of background fuzz or background static to the vacuum.

Okay. So how do we see evidence for virtual particles?

Yeah, great question. We know that the vacuum has an energy associated with it. We know that these virtual particles are always fizzing in and out of existence for a few reasons.

One is the transition of the electron in different states of the atom. If you excite the atom the electron pops up to a higher energy state. There is kind of no reason for that electron to pop back down to a lower energy state. It’s already there. It’s actually a stable state. There is no reason for it to leave unless there is little wibble wobbles in the electromagnetic field and it can giggle around that electron and knock it out of that higher energy state and send it crashing down into a lower state

Another thing is called the Lamb Shift, and this is when the wibbly wobbly electromagnetic field or the virtual particles interact again with electrons in say a hydrogen atom. It can gently nudge them around, and this shift effects some states of the electron and not other states. And there are actually states that you would say have the exact same say energy properties, they are just kind of identical, but because the Lamb Shift, because of this wibbly wobbly electromagnetic field interacts with one of those states and not the other, it actually subtly changes the energy levels of those states even though you’d expect them to be completely the same.

And another piece of evidence is in photon photon scattering usually two photons just, phweeet, fly by each other. They are electrically neutral, so they have no reason to interact, but sometimes the photons can wibble wobble into say electron/positron pairs, and that electron/positron pair can interact with the other photons. So sometimes they bounce off each other. It’s super rare because you have to wait for the wibble wobble to happen at just the right time, but it can happen.

Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital
Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

So how do they interact with black holes?

Alright, this is the heart of the matter. What do all of these virtual particles or wibbly wobbly electromagnetic fields have to do with black holes, and specifically Hawking radiation? But check this out. Hawkings original formulation of this idea that black holes can radiate and lose mass actually has nothing to do with virtual particles. Or it doesn’t speak directly about virtual particle pairs, and in fact no other formulations or more modern conceptions of this process talk about virtual particle pairs.

Instead, they talk more about the field itself and specifically what’s happening to the field before the black hole is there, what’s happening to it as the black hole forms, and then what happens to the field after it’s formed. And it kind of asks a question: What happens to these wibbly wobbly bits of the field, these like transient kind of boiling nature of the vacuum of the electromagnetic field? What happens to it as that black hole is forming?

Well what happens is that some of the wibbly wobbly bits just get caught near the black hole, near the event horizon as it is forming, and they spend a long time there, and eventually they do escape. So it takes awhile, but when they escape because of the intense curvature there, the intense curvature of space-time, they can get boosted or promoted. So instead of being temporarily wibbly wobbly’s, in the field they get boosted to become “real” particles or “real” photons. So it’s really like an interaction of the formation of the black hole itself with the wibbly wobbly background field, that eventually escapes because it’s not quite trapped by the black hole.

Eventually it escapes and gets turned into real particles, and you can calculate like what happens with say the expected number of particles near the event horizon of the black hole. The answer is the negative number, which means the black hole is losing mass and spitting out particles.

Now this popular conception of virtual particle pairs popping into existence and one getting caught inside the event horizon. That’s is not exactly tied to the mathematics of Hawking radiation but it’s not exactly wrong either. Remember the wibbly wobbly’s in the electromagnetic field are related to these pairs of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping in and out of existence. They kind of go hand in hand. So by talking about wibbly wobbly’s in the field you’re also kind of talking about the production of virtual particles. And it’s not exactly the math, but you know close enough.

An artist's conception of a supermassive black hole's jets. Image Credit: NASA / Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital
An artist’s conception of a supermassive black hole’s jets. Image Credit: NASA / Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital

Okay, and finally, Paul. I need you to just randomly blow the minds of the viewers. Something about virtual particles that is just amazing!

Alright. So you want to bend people’s minds? All right. I was saving this for the last. Something juicy, just for you, Fraser.

Check this out, it’s one other big piece of evidence we have for the existence of these background fluctuations and the existence of virtual particles, and that’s something we call the Casimir Effect, or Casimir Force.

You take two neutral metal plates, and what happens is this field that permeates all of space-time is inside the plates and it’s outside the plates. Inside the plates, you can only have certain wavelengths of modes. Almost like the inside of a trumpet can only have certain modes that make sound. The ends of the wavelengths must connect to the plates, because that’s what metal plates do to electromagnetic fields.

Outside the plates you can have any wavelength you want. It doesn’t matter.

So it means outside the plates you have an infinite number of possible wavelengths of modes. Every kind of possible kind of fluctuation, wibble wabble in the electromagnetic field is there, but inside the plates it’s only certain wavelengths that can fit inside the plates.

Now, outside there’s an infinite number of modes. Inside, there is still an infinite number of modes, just slightly fewer infinite number of modes. And you can take the infinity on the outside, and subtract the infinite infinity on the inside, and actually get a finite number, and what you end up with is a pressure or a force that brings the plates together. And we have actually measured this. This is a real thing, and yes, I am not kidding around, you can take infinity minus a different infinity, and get a finite number. It’s possible. One example is the Euler Mascheroni Constant. I dare you to look it up!

So there you go, now I hope you understand what these virtual particles are, how they’re detected, and how they contribute to the evaporation of a black hole.

And if you haven’t already, make sure you click here and go to his channel. You’ll find dozens of videos answering equally mind-bending questions. In fact, send your questions and he might just make a video and answer them.

If You’re Going to Fall Into a Black Hole, Make Sure It’s Rotating

In "Interstellar" Matthew McConaughey saves the day by traveling into a black hole. New research suggests this could be possible. (Image © Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.)
In “Interstellar” Matthew McConaughey saves the day by traveling into a black hole. New research suggests this could be possible. (Image © Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.)

It’s no secret that black holes are objects to be avoided, were you to plot yourself a trip across the galaxy. Get too close to one and you’d find your ship hopelessly caught sliding down a gravitational slippery slope toward an inky black event horizon, beyond which there’s no escape. The closer you got the more gravity would yank at your vessel, increasingly more on the end closest to the black hole than on the farther side until eventually the extreme tidal forces would shear both you and your ship apart. Whatever remained would continue to fall, accelerating and stretching into “spaghettified” strands of ship and crew toward—and across—the event horizon. It’d be the end of the cosmic road, with nothing left of you except perhaps some slowly-dissipating “information” leaking back out into the Universe over the course of millennia in the form of Hawking radiation. Nice knowin’ ya.

That is, of course, if you were foolish enough to approach a non-spinning black hole.* Were it to have a healthy rotation to it there’s a possibility, based on new research, that you and your ship could survive the trip intact.

A team of researchers from Georgia Gwinnett College, UMass Dartmouth, and the University of Maryland have designed new supercomputer models to study the exotic physics of quickly-rotating black holes, a.k.a. Kerr black holes, and what might be found in the mysterious realm beyond the event horizon. What they found was the dynamics of their rapid rotation create a scenario in which a hypothetical spacecraft and crew might avoid gravitational disintegration during approach.

“We developed a first-of-its-kind computer simulation of how physical fields evolve on the approach to the center of a rotating black hole,” said Dr. Lior Burko, associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and lead researcher on the study. “It has often been assumed that objects approaching a black hole are crushed by the increasing gravity. However, we found that while gravitational forces increase and become infinite, they do so fast enough that their interaction allows physical objects to stay intact as they move toward the center of the black hole.”


Read more: 10 Amazing Facts About Black Holes


Because the environment around black holes is so intense (and physics inside them doesn’t play by the rules) creating accurate models requires the latest high-tech computing power.

“This has never been done before, although there has been lots of speculation for decades on what actually happens inside a black hole,” said Gaurav Khanna, Associate Physics Professor at UMass Dartmouth, whose Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research developed the precision computer modeling necessary for the project.


Artist's representation of a black hole, which may or may not be responsible for preserving information forever due to time dialation. Credit: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA
Artist’s representation of a black hole. Credit: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA


Like science fiction movies have imagined for decades—from Disney’s The Black Hole to Nolan’s Interstellar—it just might be possible to survive a trip into a black hole, if conditions are right (i.e., you probably still don’t want to find yourself anywhere near one of these.)

Of course, what happens once you’re inside is still anyone’s guess…


The team’s paper “Cauchy-horizon singularity inside perturbed Kerr black holes” was published in the Feb. 9, 2016 edition of Rapid Communication in Physical Review D. You can find the full text here. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Sources: UMass Dartmouth and Georgia Gwinnett College


*A true non-rotating “Schwarzschild” black hole would not, due to angular momentum etc., be readily found in the real world, thus making this research on rotating black holes all the more essential.

How Massive Can Black Holes Get?

We talk about stellar mass and supermassive black holes. What are the limits? How massive can these things get?

Without the light pressure from nuclear fusion to hold back the mass of the star, the outer layers compress inward in an instant. The star dies, exploding violently as a supernova.

All that’s left behind is a black hole. They start around three times the mass of the Sun, and go up from there. The more a black hole feeds, the bigger it gets.

Terrifyingly, there’s no limit to much material a black hole can consume, if it’s given enough time. The most massive are ones found at the hearts of galaxies. These are the supermassive black holes, such as the 4.1 million mass nugget at the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers figured its mass by watching the movements of stars zipping around the center of the Milky Way, like comets going around the Sun.

There seems to be supermassive black holes at the heart of every galaxy we can find, and our Milky Way’s black hole is actually puny in comparison. Interstellar depicted a black hole with 100 million times the mass of the Sun. And we’re just getting started.

The giant elliptical galaxy M87 has a black hole with 6.2 billion times the mass of the Sun. How can astronomers possibly know that? They’ve spotted a jet of material 4,300 light-years long, blasting out of the center of M87 at relativistic speeds, and only black holes that massive generate jets like that.

Most recently, astronomers announced in the Journal Nature that they have found a black hole with about 12 billion times the mass of the Sun. The accretion disk here generates 429 trillion times more light than the Sun, and it shines clear across the Universe. We see the light from this region from when the Universe was only 6% into its current age.

Somehow this black hole went from zero to 12 billion times the mass of the Sun in about 875 million years. Which poses a tiny concern. Such as how in the dickens is it possible that a black hole could build up so much mass so quickly? Also, we’re seeing it 13 billion years ago. How big is it now? Currently, astronomers have no idea. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine right?

We’ve talked about how massive black holes can get, but what about the opposite question? How teeny tiny can a black hole be?

An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)
An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)

Astronomers figure there could be primordial black holes, black holes with the mass of a planet, or maybe an asteroid, or maybe a car… or maybe even less. There’s no method that could form them today, but it’s possible that uneven levels of density in the early Universe might have compressed matter into black holes.

Those black holes might still be out there, zipping around the Universe, occasionally running into stars, planets, and spacecraft and interstellar picnics. I’m sure it’s the stellar equivalent of smashing your shin on the edge of the coffee table.

Astronomers have never seen any evidence that they actually exist, so we’ll shrug this off and choose to pretend we shouldn’t be worrying too much. And so it turns out, black holes can get really, really, really massive. 12 billion times the mass of the Sun massive.

What part about black holes still make you confused? Suggest some topics for future episodes of the Guide to Space in the comments below.

How Can Black Holes Shine?

We hear that black holes absorb all the light that falls into them. And yet, we hear of black holes shining so brightly we can see them halfway across the Universe. What’s going on? Which is it?

I remember back to a classic episode of the Guide to Space, where I provided an extremely fascinating and concise explanation for what a quasar is. Don’t recall that episode? Well, it was super. Just super. Alright slackers, let’s recap.

Quasars are the brightest objects in the Universe, visible across billions of light years. Likely blanching life from everything in the path of the radiation beam from its lighthouse of death. They occur when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material, pouring out a mountain of radiation. Black holes, of course, are regions of space with such intense gravity where nothing, not even light itself, can escape.

But wait, not so fast “recap” Fraser Cain. I call shenanigans. If black holes absorb all the radiation that falls into them, how can they be bright?

You, Fraser Cain of days of yore, cannot have it both ways. It’s either a vortex of total destruction gobbling all the matter and light that fall into them OR alternately light can escape, which still sounds good. I mean, it could be WHERE NO STUFF CAN ESCAPE, except light.

If you’ll admit that you of the past was wrong, we’ll put you in the temporal cone of shame and move on with the episode. Right? Right? Wrong.

Let’s review. Black holes are freaky complicated beasts, with many layers. And I don’t mean that in some abstract Choprian “many connections on many different levels”. They’re a gobstopper from a Sam Neill Event Horizon style hellscape. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a black hole, and everything should fall into place, including the terror.

At the very heart of the black hole is the singularity. This is the region of compressed matter that used to be a star, or in the case of a supermassive black hole, millions or billions of times the mass of a star. Astronomers have no idea what the singularity looks like or behaves, because our understanding of physics completely breaks down, along with the rest of our brains.

Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

It’s possible that the singularity is a sphere of exotic matter, or maybe it’s constantly compressing down into an infinitely small size. It could also be a pork pie. We’ll never know, because nothing goes fast enough to escape from a black hole, not even light.

Maybe you’d need to be going 10 times the speed of light to escape. Or maybe a trillion times the speed of light. Which makes it easy; as far as we can tell, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and so nothing is escaping.

As you get further from the singularity, the force of gravity decreases. Initially, it’ll still requires that you go faster than light. You’ll finally reach a very specific point where the escape velocity is exactly the speed of light. This is the event horizon, and it’s a different distance from the singularity with every black hole. That’s the line. Within the event horizon, the light is doomed, outside the event horizon, it can escape. This is the hard candy shell surrounding the chocolately unimaginable nightmare of physics.

So when see bright black holes, like a quasar, we’re not actually seeing light coming from inside the black hole itself or reflected of its surface. What we’re seeing is the material that’s piling up just outside the event horizon. For all its voracious hunger, a black hole’s gravitational eyes are much bigger than its stomach, and it can only feed so quickly. Excess stuff piles up around the black hole’s face and forms a vast disk of material, just like me at a Pizza Hut’s $5 all you can eat buffet. This pizza heats up until it’s like the core of a star, and starts blasting out radiation into space.

A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.
A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.

Everything I’ve said is for non-spinning black holes, by the way. Physicists will always make this point with great emphasis. Stay your angry comments astrophysicists, for I have said the magic stone-cutter appeasement code-word, “Non-rotating”.

Of course, black holes do rotate, and can rotate at nearly the speed of light. And this rotation changes the nature of the black hole’s event horizon in ways that make difficult math even harder. All this spinning generates powerful magnetic fields around the black hole, which focuses jets of material that blast out for hundreds of thousands of light-years. When we see these bright quasars, we’re staring right at these jets with our delicate little eyeballs.

So how can we see light coming from black holes when black holes absorb all light? It’s not coming from black holes. It’s coming from the super-heated region of junk all around the black hole. And still, anything that falls through the event horizon, whether it be light, junk, you, me or Grumpy Cat it will never been seen again.

What’s your favorite sci-fi black hole? Tell us in the comments below.

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Don’t Look At Black Holes Too Closely, They Might Disappear

We’ve come a long way in 13.8 billion years; but despite our impressively extensive understanding of the Universe, there are still a few strings left untied. For one, there is the oft-cited disconnect between general relativity, the physics of the very large, and quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small. Then there is problematic fate of a particle’s intrinsic information after it falls into a black hole. Now, a new interpretation of fundamental physics attempts to solve both of these conundrums by making a daring claim: at certain scales, space and time simply do not exist.

Let’s start with something that is not in question. Thanks to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, we can all agree that the speed of light is constant for all observers. We can also agree that, if you’re not a photon, approaching light speed comes with some pretty funky rules – namely, anyone watching you will see your length compress and your watch slow down.

But the slowing of time also occurs near gravitationally potent objects, which are described by general relativity. So if you happen to be sight-seeing in the center of the Milky Way and you make the regrettable decision to get too close to our supermassive black hole’s event horizon (more sinisterly known as its point-of-no-return), anyone observing you will also see your watch slow down. In fact, he or she will witness your motion toward the event horizon slow dramatically over an infinite amount of time; that is, from your now-traumatized friend’s perspective, you never actually cross the event horizon. You, however, will feel no difference in the progression of time as you fall past this invisible barrier, soon to be spaghettified by the black hole’s immense gravity.

So, who is “correct”? Relativity dictates that each observer’s point of view is equally valid; but in this situation, you can’t both be right. Do you face your demise in the heart of a black hole, or don’t you? (Note: This isn’t strictly a paradox, but intuitively, it feels a little sticky.)

And there is an additional, bigger problem. A black hole’s event horizon is thought to give rise to Hawking radiation, a kind of escaping energy that will eventually lead to both the evaporation of the black hole and the destruction of all of the matter and energy that was once held inside of it. This concept has black hole physicists scratching their heads. Because according to the laws of physics, all of the intrinsic information about a particle or system (namely, the quantum wavefunction) must be conserved. It cannot just disappear.

Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University alongside illustrations of a black hole and an event horizon with Hawking Radiation. He continues to engage his grey matter to uncover the secrets of the Universe while others attempt to confirm his existing theories. (Photo: BBC, Illus.: T.Reyes)
Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University alongside illustrations of a black hole and an event horizon with Hawking Radiation. He continues to engage his grey matter to uncover the secrets of the Universe while others attempt to confirm his existing theories. (Photo: BBC, Illus.: T.Reyes)

Why all of these bizarre paradoxes? Because black holes exist in the nebulous space where a singularity meets general relativity – fertile, yet untapped ground for the elusive theory of everything.

Enter two interesting, yet controversial concepts: doubly special relativity and gravity’s rainbow.

Just as the speed of light is a universally agreed-upon constant in special relativity, so is the Planck energy in doubly special relativity (DSR). In DSR, this value (1.22 x 1019 GeV) is the maximum energy (and thus, the maximum mass) that a particle can have in our Universe.

Two important consequences of DSR’s maximum energy value are minimum units of time and space. That is, regardless of whether you are moving or stationary, in empty space or near a black hole, you will agree that classical space breaks down at distances shorter than the Planck length (1.6 x 10-35 m) and classical time breaks down at moments briefer than the Planck time (5.4 x 10-44 sec).

In other words, spacetime is discrete. It exists in indivisible (albeit vanishingly small) units. Quantum below, classical above. Add general relativity into the picture, and you get the theory of gravity’s rainbow.

Physicists Ahmed Farag Ali, Mir Faizal, and Barun Majumder believe that these theories can be used to explain away the aforementioned black hole conundrums – both your controversial spaghettification and the information paradox. How? According to DSR and gravity’s rainbow, in regions smaller than 1.6 x 10-35 m and at times shorter than 5.4 x 10-44 sec… the Universe as we know it simply does not exist.

Einstein and Relativity
“Say what??” -Albert Einstein

“In gravity’s rainbow, space does not exist below a certain minimum length, and time does not exist below a certain minimum time interval,” explained Ali, who, along with Faizal and Majumder, authored a paper on this topic that was published last month. “So, all objects existing in space and occurring at a time do not exist below that length and time interval [which are associated with the Planck scale].”

Luckily for us, every particle we know of, and thus every particle we are made of, is much larger than the Planck length and endures for much longer than the Planck time. So – phew! – you and I and everything we see and know can go on existing. (Just don’t probe too deeply.)

The event horizon of a black hole, however, is a different story. After all, the event horizon isn’t made of particles. It is pure spacetime. And according to Ali and his colleagues, if you could observe it on extremely short time or distance scales, it would cease to have meaning. It wouldn’t be a point-of-no-return at all. In their view, the paradox only arises when you treat spacetime as continuous – without minimum units of length and time.

“As the information paradox depends on the existence of the event horizon, and an event horizon like all objects does not exist below a certain length and time interval, then there is no absolute information paradox in gravity’s rainbow. The absence of an effective horizon means that there is nothing absolutely stopping information from going out of the black hole,” concluded Ali.

No absolute event horizon, no information paradox.

And what of your spaghettification within the black hole? Again, it depends on the scale at which you choose to analyze your situation. In gravity’s rainbow, spacetime is discrete; therefore, the mathematics reveal that both you (the doomed in-faller) and your observer will witness your demise within a finite length of time. But in the current formulation of general relativity, where spacetime is described as continuous, the paradox arises. The in-faller, well, falls in; meanwhile, the observer never sees the in-faller pass the event horizon.

“The most important lesson from this paper is that space and time exist only beyond a certain scale,” said Ali. “There is no space and time below that scale. Hence, it is meaningless to define particles, matter, or any object, including black holes, that exist in space and time below that scale. Thus, as long as we keep ourselves confined to the scales at which both space and time exist, we get sensible physical answers. However, when we try to ask questions at length and time intervals that are below the scales at which space and time exist, we end up getting paradoxes and problems.”

To recap: if spacetime continues on arbitrarily small scales, the paradoxes remain. If, however, gravity’s rainbow is correct and the Planck length and the Planck time are the smallest unit of space and time that fundamentally exist, we’re in the clear… at least, mathematically speaking. Unfortunately, the Planck scales are far too tiny for our measly modern particle colliders to probe. So, at least for now, this work provides yet another purely theoretical result.

The paper was published in the January 23 issue of Europhysics Letters. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

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!

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!