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 is Planck Time?

Planck Time

What is the smallest unit of time you can conceive? A second? A millisecond? Hard to say seeing as how time is relative. Under the right circumstances, hours can fly by and seconds can feel like a lifetime. But unfortunately for physicists, time is not something that can be dealt with so philosophically. And since they deal with cosmological forces both infinitesimally large and small, they need units that can objectively measure them. When it comes to dealing with the small, Planck Time is the measurement of choice. Named after German physicist Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, a unit of Planck time is the time it takes for light to travel, in a vacuum, a single unit of Planck length. Taken together, they part of the larger system of natural units known as Planck units.

Originally proposed in 1899 by German physicist Max Planck, Planck units are physical units of measurement defined exclusively in terms of five universal physical constants. These are the Gravitational constant (G), the Reduced Planck constant (h), the speed of light in a vacuum (c), the Coulomb constant 1/4??0 (ke or k), and Boltzmann’s constant (kB, sometimes k). Each of these constants can be associated with at least one fundamental physical theory: c with special relativity, G with general relativity and Newtonian gravity, ? with quantum mechanics, ?0 with electrostatics, and kB with statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. They were invented as a means of simplifying the particular algebraic expressions appearing in theoretical physics, especially in quantum mechanics.

Ultimately, Planck time is derived from the field of mathematical physics known as dimensional analysis, which studies units of measurement and physical constants. The Planck time is the unique combination of the gravitational constant G, the relativity constant c, and the quantum constant h, to produce a constant with units of time. They are often semi-humorously referred to by physicists as “God’s units” because eliminate anthropocentric arbitrariness from the system of units, unlike the meter and second, which exist for purely historical reasons and are not derived from nature. Some challenges to Planck’s Time have been mounted. For example, in 2003 during the analysis of the Hubble Space Telescope Deep Field images, some scientists speculated that where there are space-time fluctuations on the Planck scale, images of extremely distant objects should be blurry. The Hubble images, they claimed, were too sharp for this to be the case. Other scientists disagreed with this assumption however, with some saying the fluctuations would be too small to be observable, others saying that the speculated blurring effect that was expected was off by a very large magnitude.

A unit of Planck Time can be expressed as follows:

Planck Time
Planck Time

We have written many articles about Planck Time for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Big Bang Theory, and here’s an article about astronomical units.

If you’d like more info on the Planck Time, check out Wikipedia, and here’s a link to Physics and Astronomy Online.

We’ve also recorded a Question Show all about Black Hole Time. Listen here, Question Show: Galileoscope, Black Hole and What Exactly is Energy?.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Planck
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_units
http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/physics/PlanckTime.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimensional_analysis