Gravity 6: Black Holes

by Shane L. Larson

There are many topics that set the mind afire with wonder, wild speculation, and imaginative ramblings into the unknown and the unknowable. Particularly popular, especially among human beings less than about 12 years old, are dinosaurs, volcanoes, alien life, and black holes. “Grown-ups” will often rediscover a bit of their childhood wonder when these topics come up, and have been known to engage in deep question-and-answer marathons to try and understand what it is that we, the humans, have learned and understood about these enigmas of Nature.

There are many things in science that spark our imaginations in dramatic ways, no matter your age, like dinosaurs, volcanoes, alien life (or freaky life on Earth, like octopuses), and black holes.

There are many things in science that spark our imaginations in dramatic ways, no matter your age, like dinosaurs, volcanoes, alien life (or freaky life on Earth, like octopuses), and black holes.

While most of us lose our penchant for crazy trivia factoids as we age, there is still a lingering desire to think about dinosaurs, volcanoes, alien life, and black holes. These topics can be understood quite well on a heuristic level, and from those simple descriptions emerges a rich tapestry that serves as a playground to let our imaginations run wild.  All four topics are particularly interesting because they in a very real way represent the frontiers, the boundaries of our understanding of what is possible in the Cosmos. The dinosaurs were among the largest lifeforms ever to walk the Earth. Volcanoes are among the most violent, explosive, destructive natural phenomena on Earth, the planet vomiting its guts onto the surface for us to see. A single instance of alien life would transform our parochial view of life in the Cosmos.  But even among these grand mysteries that are so enjoyable to speculate and dream about, black holes hold a special place. Black holes are the ultimate expression of Nature’s power to utterly erase anything from existence.

What are these enigmatic black holes? Where do they come from, and what do we understand about them?

Imagine Stick Picard, Stick Geordi, and Stick Spock are throwing apples in the air. If Picard throws an apple up, it comes back down. If Geordi throws an apple up faster, it goes higher, but still comes back down. If Spock throws an apple fast enough, at escape speed, it will not come back down -- it will break free of the Earth's gravity.

Imagine Stick Picard, Stick Geordi, and Stick Spock are throwing apples in the air. If Picard throws an apple up, it comes back down. If Geordi throws an apple up faster, it goes higher, but still comes back down. If Spock throws an apple fast enough, at escape speed, it will not come back down — it will break free of the Earth’s gravity.

Fundamentally, a black hole is an object whose gravity is so strong that not even light can escape its grasp.  What does that mean?  Imagine we go stand out in the middle of a field. You take a baseball, and throw it up in the air as fast as you can.  What happens? The ball rises, but gravity slows it down until it turns around and falls back to Earth.  If you have a friend do the same thing, but she throws her baseball even faster, it goes higher than your baseball, but still it turns around and falls back to Earth.  The faster you throw the baseball, the higher it goes. As it turns out, there is a certain speed you can throw the ball that is so fast, the ball will escape the gravity of the Earth and sail into deep space. That speed is called, appropriately enough, the escape speed.  On Earth, that speed is 11.2 km/s — if a rocket reaches that speed, it will make it into space, slipping free of the Earth’s gravity forever.

(T) The fasted "plane" ever built was the rocket powered X-15, which attained a speed of 2.02 km/s, far short of the escape speed of Earth (11.2 km/s). (B) Rockets, like the Apollo 15 Saturn V, have broken free of the Earth's gravity. [aside: Apollo 15 tested the Equivalence Principle on the Moon.]

(T) The fasted “plane” ever built was the rocket powered X-15, which attained a speed of 2.02 km/s, far short of the escape speed of Earth (11.2 km/s). (B) Rockets, like the Apollo 15 Saturn V, have broken free of the Earth’s gravity. [aside: Apollo 15 famously tested the Equivalence Principle on the Moon.]

Our operational definition of a black hole is this: a black hole is an object whose escape speed is the speed of light. You may notice that this definition has nothing related to relativity in it. Black holes are a natural consequence of any description of gravity. The first ponderings about black holes were made in 1783 by the Reverend John Michell. A graduate of Cambridge University, Michell was by all accounts a genius of his day, an unsung polymath who pondered the mysteries of the Cosmos as he went about his duties as the rector of St. Michael’s Church in Leeds. He made many contributions to science, including early work that gave birth to what we today call seismology, and the idea for the torsion balance that Henry Cavendish later employed to measure the mass of the Earth and the strength of gravity. But here we are interested in Michell’s mathematical work on escape speed.

At the time Michell was thinking about escape speed, the speed of light was the fastest speed known (it had been measured to better than 1% accuracy more than 50 years earlier by James Bradley), though no one knew it was a limiting speed. Michell asked a simple and ingenious question: how strong would the gravity of a star have to be for the escape speed to be the speed of light?

No known picture of John Michell survives. But he still speaks to us from the past, through his scientific writings.

No known picture of John Michell survives. But he still speaks to us from the past, through his scientific writings.

He described his result to his friend Henry Cavendish in a letter, noting that light could not escape such a star, assuming “that light is influenced by gravity in the same way as massive objects.” A prescient statement that ultimately turns out to be true, as Einstein showed when he proposed general relativity 132 years later. Michell called such an object a dark star.

Michell’s ideas were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and then more or less faded into history until they were revived by the publication of general relativity. Most of us associate the idea of black holes with relativity and Einstein, not Newtonian gravity and Michell. Why?

speedLimitBecause special relativity adds an important constraint on Michell’s dark stars: there is an ultimate speed limit in the Universe. Nothing can escape from one, because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. General relativity has this idea built into it, together with the idea that light responds to gravity just as matter does, completing the picture. The first true black hole solution in general relativity was written down by Karl Schwarzschild in the months after Einstein first announced the field equations to the world.

So how can we think about black holes in general relativity? An easy heuristic picture is to appeal to our notion of curvature. Imagine flat space — space with no curvature, thus no gravity. If you give an asteroid a little nudge, it begins to move, and continues to move on a straight line. It will do so forever, in accordance with Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion stays in motion (until acted up on by an external force). Now imagine that same asteroid in an orbit a little ways down inside a gravitational well. If you give the asteroid a little nudge outward, its orbit will wobble around a bit, but still remain confined to the gravitational well. If you give it a bigger nudge, it can climb up out of the well and escape into the flat space beyond — this is escape speed.

Weak orbits, far from a source of gravity, are not deep in a gravitational well (top orbit); a small nudge will give a rock in these orbits escapse speed and it will break free.  Strongly bound orbits, deep in the gravitational well (bottom orbit) require much larger nudges to reach escape speed and break away.

Weak orbits, far from a source of gravity, are not deep in a gravitational well (top orbit); a small nudge will give a rock in these orbits escape speed and it will break free. Strongly bound orbits, deep in the gravitational well (bottom orbit) require much larger nudges to reach escape speed and break away.

But what happens if the asteroid orbit is in a deep gravitational well? A deep well is indicative of strong curvature — what a Newtonian gravitational astronomer would call a “strong gravitational field.” If you are going to nudge the asteroid so it can climb out of the gravitational well, it will require a BIG nudge — objects strongly bound by gravity need BIG escape speeds.

For a black hole, the gravitational well is infinitely deep. Imagine you are orbiting far from the black hole. This is just like any orbit in any gravitational well; you are somewhere down in the well, and with a big enough nudge, you will have the escape speed to break free and climb out of the well. As you go deeper and deeper in the well, you have to climb further out, so the required speed to break free is higher. But there will come a point of no return. At some point deep down in the well, the escape speed becomes the speed of light. At that point, no matter what speed you attain, you will never be able to climb out of the gravitational well. That point, is a point of no return — we call it the event horizon.

Around a black hole, there is a point, deep in the gravitational well, where the escape speed is the speed of light. This  is called the event horizon, and is the point of no return. Outside the event horizon is outside the black hole --- you can still escape. Inside the event horizon is inside the black hole --- you are trapped forever, being pulled inexorably toward the singularity.

Around a black hole, there is a point, deep in the gravitational well, where the escape speed is the speed of light. This is called the event horizon, and is the point of no return. Outside the event horizon is outside the black hole — you can still escape. Inside the event horizon is inside the black hole — you are trapped forever, being pulled inexorably toward the singularity.

This is an overly simple picture of the event horizon, but is a perfectly good operational definition. General relativity predicts that time and space behave weirdly inside this surface, but for those of us on the outside, we’ll never know because that information can never be carried up the gravitational well, past the event horizon, and to the outside Universe.

The existence of the event horizon as a one way membrane, as a point of no return, means black holes are exceedingly simple — they are among the simplest objects in the Cosmos. What does that mean?

Think about an average automobile, like my prized 1990 Yugo GVX. What does it take to completely describe such an object? You have to describe every part of it — the shape and size of the part, what it is made of, where it goes on the vehicle, what it touches and is attached to. All told, there may be 10,000 parts — bumpers, windshields, lugnuts, u-joints, battery leads, spark plug cables, fuses, windshield wiper blades, turn signal indicators, and on and on and on.

Magazines devoted to cars and black holes may look the same. There may be a LOT to talk about in a car magazine. In a black hole magazine, there are only 3 things to talk about, but those 3 things have tremendous influence on the Cosmos, which is quite interesting.

Magazines devoted to cars and black holes may look the same. There may be a LOT to talk about in a car magazine. In a black hole magazine, there are only 3 things to talk about, but those 3 things have tremendous influence on the Cosmos, which is quite interesting.

What about a black hole? There are only THREE numbers you need to specify to completely characterize all the properties of a black hole. Those numbers are (1) the mass, (2) the spin, and (3) the electric charge. If you know these three numbers, then general relativity tells you everything you can know about the black holes.

What does that mean everything? The idea that you only need 3 numbers to describe a black hole is a central feature in general relativity, known as the “No Hair Theorem.” Here the word hair hearkens back to our idea of a “field” as being some invisible extension that spreads out from an object in every direction (like hair). General relativity says that if the black hole has any properties besides mass, spin, and electric charge, there should be other kinds of hair emanating from the black hole.

Now, that statement should incite the little scientist in the back of your brain to start jumping up and down. This is a prediction of general relativity. Predictions were meant to be tested — that is what science is all about. One could pose the question “are the black holes we find in Nature the same ones predicted by general relativity?” Are black holes bald (described only by mass, spin, and charge) or do they have some kind of external hair that affects the Universe around them?

For astronomers to address questions like this, they have to understand what happens to things that get too close to a black hole. How do black holes appear in and influence the Cosmos? This will be the subject of our next chat.

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This post is part of an ongoing series written for the General Relativity Centennial, celebrating 100 years of gravity (1915-2015).  You can find the first post in the series, with links to the successive posts in this series here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-ru.

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6 responses to “Gravity 6: Black Holes

  1. I enormously appreciated and enjoyed this post, as well as this whole blog; in facts, I’m advising colleagues with young sons to read it as a way to prop up the youngsters’ interest in science. Had you guys been around when I was in high school, it’d have been completely different!!

  2. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts!

  3. I’m currently taking a class on black holes and constellations and I really liked this post. I have even considered maybe becoming a nurse for NASA in the future!

  4. Pingback: Black Holes: Part I – Behind Blue Eyes

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