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!

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Hawking Radiation Replicated in a Laboratory?

Dr. Stephen Hawking delivered a disturbing theory in 1974 that claimed black holes evaporate. He said black holes are not absolutely black and cold but rather radiate energy and do not last forever. So-called “Hawking radiation” became one of the physicist’s most famous theoretical predictions. Now, 40 years later, a researcher has announced the creation of a simulation of Hawking radiation in a laboratory setting.

The possibility of a black hole came from Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Karl Schwarzchild in 1916 was the first to realize the possibility of a gravitational singularity with a boundary surrounding it at which light or matter entering cannot escape.

This month, Jeff Steinhauer from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, describes in his paper, “Observation of self-amplifying Hawking radiation in an analogue black-hole laser” in the journal Nature, how he created an analogue event horizon using a substance cooled to near absolute zero and using lasers was able to detect the emission of Hawking radiation. Could this be the first valid evidence of the existence of Hawking radiation and consequently seal the fate of all black holes?

This is not the first attempt at creating a Hawking radiation analogue in a laboratory. In 2010, an analogue was created from a block of glass, a laser, mirrors and a chilled detector (Phys. Rev. Letter, Sept 2010); no smoke accompanied the mirrors. The ultra-short pulse of intense laser light passing through the glass induced a refractive index perturbation (RIP) which functioned as an event horizon. Light was seen emitting from the RIP. Nevertheless, the results by F. Belgiorno et al. remain controversial. More experiments were still warranted.

The latest attempt at replicating Hawking radiation by Steinhauer takes a more high tech approach. He creates a Bose-Einstein condensate, an exotic state of matter at very near absolute zero temperature. Boundaries created within the condensate functioned as an event horizon. However, before going into further details, let us take a step back and consider what Steinhauer and others are trying to replicate.

Artists illustrations of black holes are guided by descriptions given from theorists. There are many illustrations. A black hole has never been seen up close. However, to have Hawking radiation all the theatrics of accretion disks and matter being funneled off a companion star are unnecessary. One just needs a black hole in the darkness of space. (Illustration: public domain)
Artists illustrations of black holes are guided by descriptions given to them by theorists. There are many illustrations. A black hole has never been seen up close. However, to have Hawking radiation, all the theatrics of accretion disks and matter being funneled off a companion star are unnecessary. Just a black hole in the darkness of space will do. (Illustration: public domain)

The recipe for the making Hawking radiation begins with a black hole. Any size black hole will do. Hawking’s theory states that smaller black holes will more rapidly radiate than larger ones and in the absence of matter falling into them – accretion, will “evaporate” much faster. Giant black holes can take longer than a million times the present age of the Universe to evaporate by way of Hawking radiation. Like a tire with a slow leak, most black holes would get you to the nearest repair station.

So you have a black hole. It has an event horizon. This horizon is also known as the Schwarzchild radius; light or matter checking into the event horizon can never check out. Or so this was the accepted understanding until Dr. Hawking’s theory upended it. And outside the event horizon is ordinary space with some caveats; consider it with some spices added. At the event horizon the force of gravity from the black hole is so extreme that it induces and magnifies quantum effects.

All of space – within us and surrounding us to the ends of the Universe includes a quantum vacuum. Everywhere in space’s quantum vacuum, virtual particle pairs are appearing and disappearing; immediately annihilating each other on extremely short time scales. With the extreme conditions at the event horizon, virtual particle and anti-particles pairs, such as, an electron and positron, are materializing. The ones that appear close enough to an event horizon can have one or the other virtual particle zapped up by the black holes gravity leaving only one particle which consequently is now free to add to the radiation emanating from around the black hole; the radiation that as a whole is what astronomers can use to detect the presence of a black hole but not directly observe it. It is the unpairing of virtual particles by the black hole at its event horizon that causes the Hawking radiation which by itself represents a net loss of mass from the black hole.

So why don’t astronomers just search in space for Hawking radiation? The problem is that the radiation is very weak and is overwhelmed by radiation produced by many other physical processes surrounding the black hole with an accretion disk. The radiation is drowned out by the chorus of energetic processes. So the most immediate possibility is to replicate Hawking radiation by using an analogue. While Hawking radiation is weak in comparison to the mass and energy of a black hole, the radiation has essentially all the time in the Universe to chip away at its parent body.

This is where the convergence of the growing understanding of black holes led to Dr. Hawking’s seminal work. Theorists including Hawking realized that despite the Quantum and Gravitational theory that is necessary to describe a black hole, black holes also behave like black bodies. They are governed by thermodynamics and are slaves to entropy. The production of Hawking radiation can be characterized as a thermodynamic process and this is what leads us back to the experimentalists. Other thermodynamic processes could be used to replicate the emission of this type of radiation.

Using the Bose-Einstein condensate in a vessel, Steinhauer directed laser beams into the delicate condensate to create an event horizon. Furthermore, his experiment creates sound waves that become trapped between two boundaries that define the event horizon. Steinhauer found that the sound waves at his analogue event horizon were amplified as happens to light in a common laser cavity but also as predicted by Dr. Hawking’s theory of black holes. Light escapes from the laser present at the analogue event horizon. Steinhauer  explains that this escaping light represents the long sought Hawking radiation.

Publication of this work in Nature underwent considerable peer review to be accepted but that alone does not validate his findings. Steinhauer’s work will now withstand even greater scrutiny. Others will attempt to duplicate his work. His lab setup is an analogue and it remains to be verified that what he is observing truly represents Hawking radiation.


Observation of self-amplifying Hawking radiation in an analogue black-hole laser“, Nature Physics, 12 October 2014

“Hawking Radiation from Ultrashort Laser Pulse Filaments”, F. Belgiorno, et al., Phys. Rev. Letter, Sept 2010

“Black hole explosions?”, S. W. Hawking, et al., Nature, 01 March 1974

“The Quantum Mechanics of Black Holes”, S. W. Hawking, Scientific American, January 1977

What Would It Be Like To Fall Into A Black Hole?

Let’s say you happened to fall into the nearest black hole? What would you experience and see? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening?

Let’s say you decided to ignore some of my previous advice. You’ve just purchased yourself a space dragon from the Market on the Centauri Ringworld, strapped on your favorite chainmail codpiece and sonic sword and now you’re going ride head first into the nearest black hole.

We know it won’t take you to another world or galaxy, but what would you experience and see on your way to your inevitable demise? And what would the rest of the Universe see as this was happening, and would they point and say “eewwwwww”?

If you were falling toward a black hole, most of the time you would simply feel weightless, just as if you were playing Bowie songs and floating in a most peculiar way in the International Space Station. The gravity of a black hole is just like the gravity of any other large mass, as long as you don’t get too close. But, as we’ve agreed, you’re ignoring my advice and flying dragon first into this physics nightmare. As you get closer, the gravitational forces on various parts of your and your dragon’s body would be different. Technically this is always true, but you wouldn’t notice it… at least at first.

Suppose you were falling feet first toward a black hole. As you got closer, your feet would feel a stronger force than your head, for example. These differences in forces are called tidal forces. Because of the tidal forces it would feel as if you are being stretched head to toe, while your sides would feel like they are being pushed inward. Eventually the tidal forces would become so strong that they would rip you apart. This effect of tidal stretching is sometimes boringly referred to as spaghettification.

I’ve made up some other names for it, such as My Own Private String Cheese Incident, “the soft-serve effect” and “AAAHHHHH AHHHH MY LEGS MY LEGS!!!”.

So, let’s summarize. You wouldn’t survive falling toward a black hole because you wouldn’t listen. Why won’t you ever listen?

A friend watching you fall toward a black hole would never see you reach the black hole. As you fall towards it, gravity would cause any light coming from you to be redshifted. So as you approached the black hole you would appear more and more reddish, and your image would appear dimmer and dimmer. Your friend would see you redden and dim as you approach, but never quite reach, the event horizon of the black hole. If they could still see you past this point, there would be additional red from the inside of you clouding up the view.

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

Hypothetically, if you could survive crossing the event horizon of a black hole, what
would you see then? Contrary to popular belief, you would not see the entire future of the universe flash before you.

What you would see is the darkness of the black hole fill your view and as you approached the event horizon you would see stars and galaxies on the edge of your view being gravitationally lensed by the black hole. The sky would simply appear more and more black until you reach the event horizon.

Many people think that it is at the event horizon where you would be ripped apart, and at the event horizon all sorts of strange things occur. Unfortunately, this goes along with those who suspect black holes are actually some sort of portal. For a solar mass black hole, the tidal forces near the event horizon can be quite large, but for a supermassive black hole they aren’t very large at all.

In fact, the larger the black hole, the weaker the tidal forces near its event horizon. So if you happened to be near a supermassive black hole, you could cross the event horizon without really noticing. Would you still be totally screwed? YOU BETCHA!

What do you think? If you could drop anything into a black hole, what would it be? Tell us in the comments below.

How Do You Kill a Black Hole?

Black holes want to absorb all matter and energy in the Universe. It’s just a matter of time. So what can we do to fight back? What superweapons have been devised to destroy black holes?

Black holes are the natural enemies of all spacefaring races. With their bottomless capacity to consume all light and matter, it’s just a few septillion years before all things in the Universe have found their way into the cavernous maw of a black hole, crushed into the infinitely dense singularity. If Star Trek has taught us anything, it’s that it’s mankind’s imperative to survive against all odds.

So will we take this lying down?
Heck no!

Will we strike first and destroy the black holes before they destroy us?
Heck yes!

But how? How could you kill a black hole?
This… gets a little tricky.
Continue reading “How Do You Kill a Black Hole?”

How Fast Do Black Holes Spin?

There is nothing in the Universe more awe inspiring or mysterious than a black hole. Because of their massive gravity and ability to absorb even light, they defy our attempts to understand them. All their secrets hide behind the veil of the event horizon.

What do they look like? We don’t know. They absorb all the radiation they emit. How big are they? Do they have a size, or could they be infinitely dense? We just don’t know. But there are a few things we can know. Like how massive they are, and how fast they’re spinning.

Wait, what? Spinning?

Consider the massive star that came before the black hole. It was formed from a solar nebula, gaining its rotation by averaging out the momentum of all the individual particles in the cloud. As mutual gravity pulled the star together, through the conservation of angular momentum it rotated more rapidly. When a star becomes a black hole, it still has all that mass, but now compressed down into an infinitesimally smaller space. And to conserve that angular momentum, the black hole’s rate of rotation speeds up… a lot.The entire history of everything the black hole ever consumed, averaged down to a single number: the spin rate.

If the black hole could shrink down to an infinitely small size, you would think that the spin rate might increase to infinity too. But black holes have a speed limit.

“There is a speed limit to the spin of a black hole. It’s sort of set by the faster a black hole spins, the smaller is its event horizon.”

That’s Dr. Mark Morris, a professor of astronomy at UCLA. He has devoted much of his time to researching the mysteries of black holes.

“There is this region, called the ergosphere between the event horizon and another boundary, outside. The ergosphere is a very interesting region outside the event horizon in which a variety of interesting effects can occur.”

Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Imagine the event horizon of a black hole as a sphere in space, and then surrounding this black hole is the ergosphere. The faster the black hole spins, the more this ergosphere flattens out.

“The speed limit is set by the event horizon, eventually, at a high enough spin, reaches the singularity. You can’t have what’s called a naked singularity. You can’t have a singularity exposed to the rest of the Universe. That would mean that the singularity itself could emit energy or light and somebody outside could actually see it. And that can’t happen. That’s the physical limitation of how fast it can spin. Physicists use units for angular momentum that are cast in terms of mass, which is a curious thing, and the speed limit can be described as the angular momentum equals the mass of the black hole, and that sets the speed limit.”

Just imagine. The black hole spins up to the point that it’s just about to reveal itself. But that’s impossible. The laws of physics won’t let it spin any faster. And here’s the amazing part. Astronomers have actually detected supermassive black holes spinning at the limits predicted by these theories.

One black hole, at the heart of galaxy NGC 1365 is turning at 84% the speed of light. It has reached the cosmic speed limit, and can’t spin any faster without revealing its singularity.

The Universe is a crazy place.