Tag Archives: black holes

The Cosmic Classroom on Boxing Day

by Shane L. Larson

The seas of the Cosmos are vast and deep. From our vantage point here on the shores of Earth, we have seen much that is beautiful, awe-inspiring, frightening, humbling, confusing, and enigmatic. The simple truth of astronomy is that it is a spectator sport. The only thing we can do, is watch the skies and wait for the next Big Thing to happen. We collect events, like bottle-caps or flowers, and add them to our collection. Each new addition is a mystery, a new piece of a puzzle that takes shape ever-so-slowly over time.

On 14 September 2015, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration announced that they had detected the first gravitational waves ever, and that those waves had been created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos.

Today, we have some more news: LIGO has detected the second gravitational wave event ever, and those waves were also created by a pair of merging black holes far across the Cosmos. But as is often the case with astronomy, we know what we’ve observed, but we still don’t know what it means.

The name of the event is GW151226 (the date of the event), but within the collaboration, we call it “The Boxing Day Event.” On 26 December 2015 (Boxing Day in Europe), the two LIGO detectors responded to the faint ripple of gravitational energy washing across the Earth, the signature of two black holes merging to form a new larger black hole.

LIGO detected the black holes merging at 3:53 UTC in the morning on Boxing Day (it was late in the evening on Christmas Day in the United States, 9:53pm Central Standard Time). The event happened 440 Megaparsecs away — almost 1.4 billion lightyears! As with GW150914 before it, this titanic merger of black holes happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It happened before multi-cellular life had ever arisen on Earth, and for a billion years that information has been sailing through the void, until it washed across our shores.

Learning to do astronomy: We can’t do experiments in astronomy, not the way we all learned to do them in middle schoolExperiment. Observe. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

The timeline of LIGO's first Observing run (called O1). The first detection (GW150914) and the second detection (GW151226) are marked. There was also a candidate that looked like a gravitational wave, but was not strong enough for astronomers to confidently say a detection was made.

The timeline of LIGO’s first Observing run (called O1). The first detection (GW150914) and the second detection (GW151226) are marked. There was also a candidate that looked like a gravitational wave, but was not strong enough for astronomers to confidently say a detection was made. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

In astronomy, all we can do is observe, and hope that when we see something interesting happen, it happens again. Or something similar happens again, so we can start trying to make connections. Since the first LIGO detection, we have been patiently waiting for more detections. It could have been anything: merging neutron stars, a gamma-ray burst with an associated gravitational wave signal, a supernova explosion in the Milky Way, or perhaps other pair of black holes similar to GW150914.  As it turns out, it was the merger of black holes, but somewhat different than the one we observed before. Excellent! A chance to learn something new about the Cosmos!

When you look at the pile of gravitational wave events we’ve seen before (it’s a very small pile — there is only one event there, GW150914), we do the most obvious thing you can imagine: we start to compare them.

sll_blackHoleSummary

Strictly in terms numbers, you see that the Boxing Day black holes are less massive than the GW150914 black holes, by a substantial amount. This tells astronomers something very important: black holes can and do come in a variety of masses. That certainly did not have to be the case; there are many instances in the Cosmos where almost every example of an object is similar to every other object. People are all roughly the same height; grains of sand are almost all roughly the same size; yellow-green stars like the Sun (“Type G2” in astronomer speak) are all roughly the same mass. Though we did not expect it to be true, it could have been the case that all black holes were about the same mass; LIGO is happy to report that black holes come in many different masses.

But this, in and of itself, inspires new questions and new mysteries. The question for astronomers now is where do black holes of different sizes come from? The Boxing Day black holes are “normal size” — we think we understand how black holes in this mass range are made in supernovae explosions. The GW150914 black holes are a much grander mystery — they are larger (by a factor of 2 or 3) than any black holes that we expect to form from stars today. We have some interesting ideas about where they may come from, but those ideas can only be tested with more gravitational wave observations.

Comparison of the size of black holes observed by LIGO, as well as other candidates detected with conventional telescopes. (L) The physical size of the black holes overlaid on a map of the eastern United States. (R) The same image showing the masses on the vertical axis, and the black holes that combined to make larger black holes. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

Comparison of the size of black holes observed by LIGO, as well as other candidates detected with conventional telescopes. (L) The physical size of the black holes overlaid on a map of the eastern United States. (R) The same image showing the masses on the vertical axis, and the black holes that combined to make larger black holes. [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

Gravitational wave astronomy: Every observation is different, because every source is different. Every set of waves is a unique fingerprint that encodes the physical properties of the objects that made the waves: their masses, how fast they are spinning, what kind of object they are,  how physically big they are, the distance to them, and so on. It’s like looking at the pictures in your high school yearbook — every picture is the same size, and is what we all call a “picture,” but each one uniquely identifies you or your friends. It encodes the color of your hair and eyes, whether you were smiling and wearing braces, the sweater you wore on picture day, and so on.

A typical visualization of a black hole binary. They emit no light, so there are no pictures! [Image: SXS Collaboration]

A typical visualization of a black hole binary. They emit no light, so there are no pictures! [Image: SXS Collaboration]

When we look at our data, we don’t usually show pictures. LIGO is not a telescope, so it does not generate images like we are used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. Most “pictures” you see are simulations or realizations of the data. Instead, we show our data as graphs and plots that represent our data in ways that tell astronomers what LIGO is measuring and how that relates to quantities in physics we understand, like orbit size or energy.

A stereo equalizer display.

A stereo equalizer display.

One common picture we use is something called a “spectragram” — you may have encountered something like a spectragram on a stereo. The equalizers on your stereo tell you how loud the music in terms of whether it is more treble sounding or bass sounding.  In LIGO, we look at our data by looking a spectragram and how it changes over time.  The fact that the Boxing Day black holes and GW150914 are different is immediately obvious when comparing their spectragrams — the fine details of the shape and duration is different in the two cases, but they have the same basic swoopy shape to them. Think about your high school yearbook: the pictures are all kind of the same, but different in the details.

The comparison of spectragrams from GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day event (bottom). The blue swoop is the gravitational wave signal as it evolves in time (early in the event on the left, and the final merger in the tall swoop on the right). [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

The comparison of spectragrams from GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day event (bottom). The blue swoop is the gravitational wave signal as it evolves in time (early in the event on the left, and the final merger in the tall swoop on the right). [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

The difference in the gravitational waves LIGO detected is even more obvious if you look at the waveforms themselves. Imagine you are standing on the beach watching waves roll in and crash on the sand. In between waves, the water is calm and relatively low, but at the moment the wave is washing ashore, the height of the water increases subtantially; if you happen to be standing in the wave as it washes by, you might not be able to stand up because the energy carried by the wave is enough to knock you over. In a very similar way, the waveforms illustrate the strength of the gravitational waves as they wash past the Earth. The size of the “up and down” in the waveforms we plot tells us how strong the waves are.  If you compare the Boxing Day black hole waveforms with the GW150914 waveforms, you see they both have a lot of up and down (a measure of strength — they were strong enough for LIGO to detect!), but their overall shape and duration is different.

Comparison of the "waveforms" for GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day black holes (bottom). The signals are considerably different, and longer in the case of the Boxing Day event. [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

Comparison of the “waveforms” for GW150914 (top) and the Boxing Day black holes (bottom). The signals are considerably different, and longer in the case of the Boxing Day event. [Images: LIGO Collaboration]

Gravitational wave astronomers at LIGO are most excited about the long chain of up-and-downs in the Boxing Day waveforms. This is a part of the black hole evolution we call the insprial — the long, slow time where the orbit is shrinking, the black holes drawing inexorably closer, creeping toward their ultimate fate: the coalesence into a new, single, spinning black hole. The longer the inspiral is visible to LIGO, the longer we can study the black holes with gravitational waves. Once they merge to form a new black hole, they very quickly become quiet, much like a bell fading into silence after being struck by a hammer. The inspiral, and the merger, are the only chance we have to take the measure of these tremendous astrophysical entities.

What now? LIGO has now made two detections of gravitational waves, both during our first observing run (what we call “O1”). In mid-January 2016, we turned LIGO off and have spent the ensuing months combing over the machine and addressing all the problems and difficulties we encountered in O1. In late summer 2016, we’ll start up for “O2.” We’ll turn up the lasers a little bit, and LIGO will be able to see a bit farther into the Cosmos. If our first stint as gravitational wave astronomers is any indication, we will likely see something new; we don’t know, all we can do is observe.  After a few months, we’ll shut down again, tune things up, think hard about how we are working with the machine, and in 2017 expect to come back online with everything at full design specifications.  We are like toddlers, learning to walk. We’ve taken our first few steps, and have discovered there is a tremendous world just waiting to be explored. We’re learning to keep our balance and do things right, but in the not too distant future will be confident and excited in our new found ability to observe and discover a Cosmos that up to now, has been completely hidden from us.  Carpe infinitum!


Many of my colleagues in the LIGO Virgo Collaboration have also written excellent blog posts about the Boxing Day event, and the work we do to make gravitational wave astronomy a reality. You should visit their blogs!

The Harmonies of Spacetime — GW150914

by Shane L. Larson

I have a good friend, Tyson, whom I don’t get to see nearly often enough. We are both privileged to be among the first generation of scientists who will know the Universe by observing the faint whisper of spacetime, bending under the influence of massive astrophysical systems. We are “gravitational wave astronomers.”

Picking crab with Tyson (far right) and family. [Image: Sabrina Savage]

Picking crab with Tyson (far right) and family. [Image: Sabrina Savage]

A while back we were sitting on his back porch late into the evening, picking crab and talking about everything. It was the kind of common, easy conversation among friends that ranges over movies, politics, family, childhood memories, inside jokes, and so on. But at one point, the conversation drifted back to science and to the near future. Tyson said something that really just kind of made us all stop in shocked silence: “If we’re really going to detect gravitational waves in the next 3 or 4 years, they are already closer than Alpha Centauri and heading right for us.”

Whoa.

Little did we know then how prescient that observation was. We are both part of a project called LIGO — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. And this morning our collaboration made the big announcement.

Frame from a visualization of the binary black hole merger seen by LIGO [Visualization by "Simulating Extreme Spacetime" (SXS) Collaboratoin]

Frame from a visualization of the binary black hole merger seen by LIGO [Visualization by “Simulating Extreme Spacetime” (SXS) Collaboration]

On 14 September 2015, the two LIGO observatories detected a very loud gravitational wave event. Our analysis since that day has told us that it was the merger of two black holes — one 29 times the mass of the Sun, the other 36 times the mass of the Sun. The two black holes merged, forming a new, bigger black hole 62 times the mass of the Sun. We named the event after the date: GW150914.

All of this happened about 400 Megaparsecs from Earth (1.3 billion lightyears). If you are adding up the numbers, you see that there are 3 solar masses missing. That is the equivalent mass that was radiating away from the system in the energy of the gravitational waves.

Make no doubt about it — this is one of the most momentous discoveries in the history of astronomy. It will be up to historians of science to place this within context, but I would rank it right up there with the discovery of the nature of the spiral nebulae and the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

There are many important and stunning parts of this story. Let’s me tell you just a small slice of how we got to today.

LIGO: LIGO is two gravitational wave observatories that work together as a single experiment. The are located 3002 kilometers apart, with one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. They are enormous, 4 kilometers to a side — so large, they can be seen in satellite photos.

(L) Aerial view of LIGO-Hanford Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom]. (R) Aerial view of LIGO-Livingston Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom].

(L) Aerial view of LIGO-Hanford Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom]. (R) Aerial view of LIGO-Livingston Observatory [top] and in Google Maps [Bottom].

The observatories are “laser interferometers” — laser light is injected into the the detector, and split so it flies up and down each of the two arms. When the light returns back to the splitter, it is recombined. When you combine laser light in this way, it can be combined such that the beams cancel out (making what we call a “dark fringe”) or they combine to make a bright spot (making what we call a “bright fringe”); in between combinations have a full range between bright and dark. We sit on a “dark fringe.”

Schematic of the LIGO interferometers, showing the basic layout of the lasers and optics locations. [Image: S. Larson & LIGO Collaboration]

Schematic of the LIGO interferometers, showing the basic layout of the lasers and optics locations. The lasers travel up and down the two 4 kilometer long arms, and are recombined and detected at the photodetector. [Image: S. Larson & LIGO Collaboration]

When a gravitational wave hits LIGO, it stretches and compresses the arms. The result is that it changes how long it takes the lasers to travel from the splitter to the end mirror and back. If that happens, when the lasers are recombined the brightness of the fringe changes.

What Happened? Both the LIGO detectors run more or less continuously, and we get our primary science data when they are on at the same time. In the early morning hours of 14 September 2015, at 4:50:45am Central Daylight Time, a signal was detected in the Livingston detector. 7 milliseconds later, a signal was also detected in the Hanford detector. These detections are sensed automatically by sophisticated software that looks for things that are “out of the ordinary.” Notable events are logged, and then humans can take a look at them. In this case, we knew almost immediately it was significant because it was in BOTH detectors, and it was a strong signal (we use words like “loud” and “bright” to mean strong, but we don’t really “hear” or “see” the signals in the usual sense; these are descriptive adjectives that are helpful because of the analogy they make with our normal senses).

Spectrograms of the event at Hanford and Livingston. The darker areas are what a "typical" spectrogram might look like; the bright swoops are the (very noticeable) signal! [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

Spectrograms of the event at Hanford and Livingston. The darker areas are what a “typical” spectrogram might look like; the bright swoops are the (very noticeable) signal! [Image: LIGO Collaboration]

One of the easiest ways to see the signal is in a diagram called a “spectrogram” which shows how the signal in the detector changes in time. Once we had the first spectrograms, the emails began to fly.

Finding Out: We all get LOTS of email, so it took a while before everyone in the collaboration actually realized what was going on. I didn’t hear until the night of September 15. AT 9:35pm CST I got an email from Vicky Kalogera, the leader of our group, that said “have you caught any of what’s going on within LIGO?” We had a round of email with unbearably long delays between them, but by 11:35pm, I had our initial understanding/guesses in my hands. That was enough to do what we all do in science — we make some calculations and extrapolations to understand what we have seen, and to plan what we should do next. We want to figure out what the new result might mean! Here’s the page out of my Moleskine, where I started to compute what a detector in space, like LISA, might be able to see from a source like this.

My journal page from the hour after I first found out about the event. [Image: S. Larson]

My journal page from the hour after I first found out about the event. [Image: S. Larson]

The Importance: There are all kinds of reasons why this discovery is important. If you take your favorite gravitational physicist out for pizza, they’ll talk your ear off for hours about exactly why this is important. But let me tell you the two I think the most about.

First, this is the first direct detection of gravitational waves. It is the first time we have built an experiment (LIGO) and that experiment has responded because a gravitational wave passed through it. This is the beginning of gravitational wave astronomy — the study of the Cosmos using gravity, not light.

Second, this is the first time that we have directly detected black holes, not observed their effects on other objects in the Universe (stars or gas).

The Astrophysics: The two black holes, caught in a mutual gravitational embrace, had spent perhaps a million years slowing sliding ever closer together, a long and lonely inspiral that ended with their merger into a single, bigger black hole. This is the first time we know conclusively of the existence of black holes that are tens of solar masses in size. Such black holes have been predicted in theoretical calculations, but never seen in the Cosmos before.

A more technical simulation of the binary black hole merger; gravitational physicsists and astronomers will be comparing the data to their simulations to examine how well we understand "real" black holes. [Image: SXS Collaboration]

A more technical simulation of the binary black hole merger; gravitational physicsists and astronomers will be comparing the data to their simulations to examine how well we understand “real” black holes. [Image: SXS Collaboration]

Our next big question is “how often does this happen?” If it happens a lot, that is a potential clue pointing to where such black holes come from. If it is a rare event, that also tells us something. So now, we wait — this is just the beginning of LIGO observations, and after a few years of listening for more, we’ll know how common these are.

The People: Science is a way of thinking about the Universe, and so often when we talk about science we talk about Nature — all the wonder, all the mystery, the rules of the Cosmos. But science is a uniquely human endeavour and every momentous discovery is the culmination of countless hours of sweat, uncountable failures, and equally uncountable tiny moments of success that culminate at a profound moment of knowing something new. It would not be possible without the dedication of enormous numbers of people. The world gravitational wave community has been working toward this day for decades. More than 1000 authors appear on the discovery paper, and there are thousands of others who have worked and are working on the project, who are not in that list of authors. It has been a heroic effort on the part of physicists, astronomers, optical engineers, data and computer scientists, technical and support staff, professors and students.

Just some of the thousands of people who have made LIGO a reality and the detection of GW150914 possible. [Images from the LIGO Collaboration]

Just some of the thousands of people who have made LIGO a reality and the detection of GW150914 possible. [Images from the LIGO Collaboration]

Teasing out the secrets of Nature is hard. Since before recorded history began, our distant ancestors  have plumbed the mysteries of the Cosmos using tools that Nature gave us — our five senses. Astronomer Edwin Hubble once opined “Equipped with his five senses, man [sic] explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.” (Harper’s Magazine 158: 737 [May, 1929]).

Today, we add a new sense to our quest to understand the Cosmos. TODAY the Era of Gravitational Wave Astronomy opens. Within the next few years, we will no longer live in a world where our view of the Cosmos is limited to what light alone can tell us. TODAY, we see the Cosmos anew, with senses attuned to the fabric of space and time itself!

———————————

I’ve written about gravitational waves here at WriteScience before. In many of those I’ve explored what the physical description and meaning of gravitational waves are, and what the endeavour to detect them is all about. If you’d like to take a stroll down memory lane, here are links to those old posts:

Many of my colleagues in LIGO are also blogging about this momentous discovery. I will add their links here as they appear, so you can read their accounts as well:

 

Gravity 8: Black Holes in the Cosmos

by Shane L. Larson

When I give talks about black holes, I usually lead with a question for the crowd: “You’ve all heard about black holes. What do you know about them?”  The responses are varied, but can be succinctly summarized as this: black holes mess things up!

This little chat captures the essential truth about black holes: if you fall inside, you are without question doomed.  That notion is a bit horrifying, and one of the reasons why these enigmatic objects are so fascinating to us — there exist objects in the Cosmos that have the ability to utterly destroy anything. No amount of human ingenuity or heroics by Bruce Willis can ever spare your fate if you fall down the throat of a black hole.

People’s intuitions are all (more or less) based on solid science, and can help us understand how astronomers find and study black holes. One of the classic thought experiments is often posited to me as a question: what would happen to Earth if you replaced the Sun with a black hole (of equal mass)?  The answer is simple: absolutely nothing!

Oh sure, 8 minutes after the transformation it would get dark on Earth because there would be no more sunlight, and eventually Earth would turn into a snowball and all life as we know it would die. But in terms of the orbit nothing would change! The Earth would continue to happily speed along its appointed path, obeying Kepler’s laws of orbital motion, with nary a concern that it is orbiting a black hole instead of a friendly star. Far from a black hole, the gravity is not extreme at all.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but as is often the case in the Cosmos, the most innocuous of ideas are often hiding a deeper, more profound notion, if you open your mind to it. This is the case here.

A binary star is a pair of stars that orbit one another, just like a planet orbits our Sun. They are often roughly the same mass, so they both move around a common center that astronomers call the "center of mass." The stars more or less continue with their lives as if they lived alone, but if they are close enough together their interactions can have profound consequences for their evolution.

A binary star is a pair of stars that orbit one another, just like a planet orbits our Sun. They are often roughly the same mass, so they both move around a common center that astronomers call the “center of mass.” The stars more or less continue with their lives as if they lived alone, but if they are close enough together their interactions can have profound consequences for their evolution.

We know that a large fraction of stars in the galaxy are actually binary stars — two stars mutually orbiting one another the way planets orbit the Sun. So what would happen if we replaced one star in a binary with a black hole? This is eminently reasonable because we think black holes are one of the possible skeletons of dead stars.

In terms of the binary orbit, if the star and it’s black hole companion are far apart, nothing would change! The star that remains a star would continue to happily speed along its appointed path, obeying Kepler’s laws of orbital motion, with nary a concern that it is orbiting a black hole instead of the friendly star that was once its gravitational partner in the Cosmos.

Even though the orbit of the companion star is not dramatically affected by the presence of a black hole, there is an important consequence for astronomers: if they are watching this star system they will see the single star apparently orbiting … nothing! The star will continue to trace out its orbital path, appearing in our telescopes to wobble back and forth for no discernible reason.  This is something we have looked for, and it is something we have found!

Cygnus, the Swan, is a constellation in the northern sky. Three bright stars (Deneb in Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila) make up "The Summer Triangle." The black hole system, Cygnus X-1, lies near the center of the Triangle, in the neck of Cygnus.

Cygnus, the Swan, is a constellation in the northern sky. Three bright stars (Deneb in Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila) make up “The Summer Triangle.” The black hole system, Cygnus X-1, lies near the center of the Triangle, in the neck of Cygnus.

In the northern sky, the Milky Way can be seen high in the sky on clear summer evenings. Prominent along the faint, diaphanous band is the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, flying south along the great river of the galaxy. In the neck of Cygnus, near the naked eye star Eta Cygni, astronomers have found a bright blue-supergiant known as V1357 Cygni (also known as HD 226868 — there are a lot of stars, so astronomer names for them are not always the most pleasing for idle conversation!). It is bright enough to see in a telescope from your backyard, but there is little else you or I can discern. But in 1964, astronomers flew an x-ray detector on a rocket to the edge of space, and discovered this star is one of the strongest sources of x-rays in the sky. We now call it Cygnus X-1.  Since then, astronomers have watched this star closely, and note that ever so slightly it is wobbling back and forth once every 5.6 days, suggesting its unseen companion is about 14.8 times the mass of our Sun; the orbit between the two is about half the size of Mercury’s orbit.

An artist's impression of Cygnus X-1. The strong stellar wind blowing off the supergiant is captured by the black hole and pulled down to form an accretion disk. [ESA/Hubble image]

An artist’s impression of Cygnus X-1. The strong stellar wind blowing off the supergiant is captured by the black hole and pulled down to form an accretion disk. [ESA/Hubble image]

But what about the x-rays? Ordinary binary stars don’t spew off as many x-rays as Cygnus X-1. What gives? This is another clue pointing toward the companion being a black hole. The blue supergiant blows off a strong stellar wind, much like the solar wind from our own Sun, but stronger. That material is captured by the gravitational pull of the companion and pulled down onto a turbulent maelstrom of material called an accretion disk. The accretion disk swirls just above the black hole, and is subject to intense gravity. Heuristically, the picture is this: the intense gravity makes the gas move very fast. When gas moves fast, it gets hot. When gas gets hot, it emits light. The faster it moves, the hotter it gets, and the more energetic the light. X-rays are very energetic, so the gas must be moving very fast. Why? The extreme gravity of a black hole.

So black holes can do crazy stuff to gas that streams down close to them. But what will the extreme gravity do to a solid object that gets too close? Imagine you (unwisely) decide to jump into a black hole; not being much of a diver, you jump in feet first. As expected, far from the black hole you don’t notice anything; the gravitational field looks perfectly normal, like any Newtonian gravitational field. Space and time are only distorted and stretched by noticeable amounts when you get close.

Tidal forces are a difference in the strength of gravity across your body. In the extreme gravity near a black hole, the side closest to the black hole is pulled on more strongly than the far side. As  you get closer and closer to the black hole the effect is to stretch you out ("spaghettify" you) until you are pulled apart ("tidally disrupted").

Tidal forces are a difference in the strength of gravity across your body. In the extreme gravity near a black hole, the side closest to the black hole is pulled on more strongly than the far side. As you get closer and closer to the black hole the effect is to stretch you out (“spaghettify” you) until you are pulled apart (“tidally disrupted”).

As you get closer, the strength of gravity increases — general relativity tells us the curvature, the warpage of spacetime is increasing. As you approach, the black hole pulls more strongly on your feet than your head. As you get closer and closer, this difference in force (what your physicist friends call a “tidal force”) can become quite strong! The net result — it stretches you out — provided you can withstand the strain, you’ll stay together, but get longer, like a rubber band.

Stephen Hawking has dubbed this effect “spaghettification” — the turning of you into a long piece of spaghetti. It is more extreme if your head is farther from your feet — short people have a better survival probability than tall people!  If you really want to survive the dive into a black hole, your best choice is to belly flop or cannonball — both greatly reduce the distance between the side of you close to the black hole, and the side of you farther from the black hole.

Astronomers observe tidal disruption flares. Here is an artists conception (top) and telescope observations (bottom) of a star being tidally disrupted by a 100 million solar mass black hole in galaxy RXJ1242 in 2004. [NASA]

Astronomers observe tidal disruption flares. Here is an artists conception (top) and telescope observations (bottom) of a star being tidally disrupted by a 100 million solar mass black hole in galaxy RXJ1242 in 2004. [NASA]

Imagine now it wasn’t you diving into a black hole, but a star.  The exact same effects occur. Imagine a star falling toward a black hole. As it closes the distance, the strength of gravity grows inexorably stronger. The side of the star closest to the black hole feels the tug of the black hole more strongly than the far side. Despite the fact that it’s own self-gravity is strong enough to keep it together, as the influence of the black hole grows, it begins to overcome the self-identity of the star, and distorts it into a oblong caricature of its former self.  If the star strays too close, the black hole’s gravity will overcome the star’s gravity, and tear it apart. The star will be tidally disrupted.

When this happens, the guts of the star are violently exposed in an energetic event called a tidal disruption flare. Generally, the remains of the star, now a seething, turbulent cloud of gaseous debris, collapses down toward the black hole, forming an accretion disk that heats up and, for a time, becomes very bright. Slowly, the gas falls down the throat of the black hole, vanishing forever, and all evidence of the star is erased.

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

So what are these black holes that eat stars? They are the great monsters of the Cosmos. Lurking at the centers of spiral galaxies, like Charybdis in the Straits of Messina, these “supermassive black holes” have grown on a steady diet of stars and gas to enormous sizes. Our own Milky Way harbors a massive black hole that is 4 million times heavier than the Sun; even though it is millions of times more massive, the horizon is only about 17 solar radii across. But the consequences of its existence are profound. For the last two decades or so, astronomers have been watching a small cluster of stars in the center of the galaxy. We’ve been watching them long enough now, that they have traced out significant pieces of their orbits, and in some cases completed an entire orbit, allowing us to measure the mass of the black hole.

Despite being 4 million times more massive than our Sun, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has an event horizon diameter only 17x larger than the Sun's diameter!

Despite being 4 million times more massive than our Sun, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has an event horizon diameter only 17x larger than the Sun’s diameter!

Astronomers have looked for and found supermassive black holes in many other galaxies. In the course of those observations, we have discovered a tantalizing and interesting connection between galaxies and the massive black holes they host. Galaxies often have a part of them astronomers call “the bulge.” In the Milky Way, and other spiral type galaxies, the bulge is the large spherical bubble of stars that sits over the center of the galaxy. Some galaxies, like elliptical galaxies, are “all bulge.”  Astronomers have discovered an interesting relationship: the bigger a bulge, the bigger the black hole that lies at the center of it.

The black hole in the center of M87 powers an enormous, energetic jet of material spewing out from the galactic core. (L) I was one of the first amateurs image this jet in 2001. (R) HST image of the jet, for comparison. :-)

The black hole in the center of M87 powers an enormous, energetic jet of material spewing out from the galactic core. (L) I was one of the first amateurs image this jet in 2001. (R) HST image of the jet, for comparison. 🙂

An example of galaxies that are “all bulge” are ellipticals, like M87 in Virgo. M87 has a 2 BILLION solar mass black hole in its core that has launched an enormous jet that shoots out of the galaxy, extending nearly 5000 light years out from the core. No one knows exactly how black holes launch jets, but the best observations and models lead astronomers to believe that a spinning black hole can twist up magnetic fields into galactic sized magnetic tornadoes. Hot gas is very easy to convince to follow strong magnetic fields, and as it plummets toward the black hole, some of it is redirected up the jets.

But even among galaxies, some black holes are larger than others. In the northern sky, just below the Big Dipper is a smattering of faint stars known as Coma Berenices — “Bernice’s Hair.”  The stars of Coma Berenices are in our own Milky Way galaxy, but behind them, across 320 million lightyears of the void, lies the Coma Cluster of galaxies. A group of about 1000 galaxies, the center of the cluster is ruled by two super-giant elliptical galaxies known as NGC 4874 and NGC 4889 (both of which can be seen with backyard telescopes; NGC 4889 is easier than NGC 4874!). Both show strong evidence for massive central black holes, including enormous jets emanating from the centers. But astronomers have attempted to mass the black hole in NGC 4889 and found the black hole could be as massive as 37 billion solar masses. If true, the event horizon would be 24 times larger than Neptune’s orbit. That size boggles the mind — a void of nothing, almost 25 times larger than the solar system; anything that goes in is lost. Forever.

Coma Berenices is a pretty splatter of stars beneath the Big Dipper (which is part of Ursa Major). The Coma Cluster of galaxies, and NGC 4889, lies 320 million lightyears behind the stars of Coma Berenices.

Coma Berenices is a pretty splatter of stars beneath the Big Dipper (which is part of Ursa Major). The Coma Cluster of galaxies, and NGC 4889, lies 320 million lightyears behind the stars of Coma Berenices.

The idea that black holes and galaxy bulges are related is a new one in astronomy, only having been proposed in 1999.  A diligent padawan of the Cosmos would ask the obvious question: if a galaxy has no bulge, does it then have no super-massive black hole? The answer may be “yes.” A classic example of this is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), right here in our own Local Group. A beautiful, classic spiral galaxy, M33 is only marginally tipped to our line of sight and can be easily seen and studied with a backyard telescope. Curiously, M33 has no bulge; so far, no massive black hole has been found.

M33, the Great Galaxy in Triangulum. There is almost no bulge surrounding the bright core seen here; astronomers have yet to find any evidence of a supermassive black hole there.

M33, the Great Galaxy in Triangulum. There is almost no bulge surrounding the bright core seen here; astronomers have yet to find any evidence of a supermassive black hole there.

And so the search continues. The number of galaxies for which we know the bulge-black hole relation works is still small — we have seen enough to understand the implications and possibility, but we still haven’t seen so many that we are confident stating, without equivocation, that “all bulgy galaxies have black holes.” Time and diligent observations of new galaxies will help resolve this question.

The fact that you and I can have conversations like this about black holes, dealing with what astronomers see and not (too much) about what we speculate is a mark of how far astronomy has come. When general relativity was first penned, black holes started as a curious, if somewhat suspect mathematical solution to the equations of gravity. Repeated, careful observations of the Cosmos have, however, led astronomers to the inescapable conclusion that black holes do in fact exist. They are part of our understanding of the machinery of the Universe. Now, the questions are different than what they were a century ago. Instead of asking “do they exist?” and “are they real?” we instead noodle our brains on the questions of “how many are there?” and “how big are they?” and “what are they doing to the Cosmos around them?

And a lot of us still wonder, “what would happen if I jump in one?

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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.

Gravity 7: Recipe for Destruction (Making Black Holes)

by Shane L. Larson

Black holes emit no light, by definition. For many years, the only hope astronomers had of detecting these enigmatic objects was to look for how they interact with other astrophysical objects, like stars and gas. Astronomers have been around the block a few times — they’ve studied a lot of stars, and seen a lot of gas in the Cosmos. What should they be looking for that would clue them in when the stuff they can see has drifted near a black hole? What do black holes do to things that fall under the influence of their gravity?

1280px-Black_hole_consuming_star

If you’ve ever heard about or read about black holes, you’ve learned that their gravity can be strong — extremely strong. This leads to a somewhat deceptive notion that black holes are like little Hoovers, running all over the Universe sucking things up.  The reality is that a black hole’s gravity is strong and can have a profound effect on the Cosmos around it, but only up close.

To get a handle on this, it is useful to go back to the way we first started thinking about gravity — in terms of a field. In the field picture, the strength of gravity — what you feel — is given by the density of field lines in your vicinity; gravity is stronger when you are surrounded by more field lines. There are two ways to increase the strength of the gravitational field.

The easiest way to make gravity stronger is to have more mass. Mass is the source of gravity; when we were drawing gravitational fields, the number of field lines we drew depended on the mass of the object.  The Sun is much more massive than the Earth, so we draw many more field lines to represent its gravitational field.

Two observers (Stick Picard, top; Stick Spock, bottom) are the same distance from objects. For the person near the smaller object, they feel weaker gravity (evidenced by fewer field lines around them).

Two observers (Stick Picard, top; Stick Spock, bottom) are the same distance from objects. For the person near the smaller object, they feel weaker gravity (evidenced by fewer field lines around them).

Another way to increase the strength of gravity is to make an object more compact. You can see this by considering two stars of equal mass, but one smaller than the other. How do their gravitational fields compare? Far from either star, the gravitational fields look identical. There is no way to distinguish between the two based on simple experiments, like measuring orbits. But suppose you were down near the surface of each star. Here we notice something interesting. Both stars have the same number of field lines, because they have the same mass. But down near the surface of the smaller, more compact star the lines are much closer together. This was the signature of gravity being stronger.

Imagine two stars with exactly the same mass, but one is larger in size (top) than the other (bottom). Observers far from either star (Stick Spock, both panels) feel the same gravity if they are the same distance away. For close-in observers (Stick Geordi, both panels) the gravity is stronger. But for the compact star (bottom) the observer can get closer, and when they do, they feel even stronger gravitational forces. The gravity is much stronger near a compact object.

Imagine two stars with exactly the same mass, but one is larger in size (top) than the other (bottom). Observers far from either star (Stick Spock, both panels) feel the same gravity if they are the same distance away. For close-in observers (Stick Geordi, both panels) the gravity is stronger. But for the compact star (bottom) the observer can get closer, and when they do, they feel even stronger gravitational forces. The gravity is much stronger near a compact object.

The field picture of gravity is associated with the idea of forces (it is a “force field”), which is the foundation of Newton’s approach to gravity. But one of the requirements of general relativity when it was developed was that it correctly describe situations where we would normally use Newtonian gravity, as well as any situation that required relativistic thinking. We’ve seen in these examples that gravity gets stronger if an object is more massive, or if it is more compact. In the language of general relativity, we would say “there is stronger curvature” in both these cases. Remember our mantra: “mass tells spacetime how to curve.” Spacetime is told to curve more where the masses are bigger, or when the mass is very compact.

So what does this tell us about black holes? It says that to make an object whose gravity is so strong that the escape speed is the speed of light, I can do one of two things: I can dramatically increase the mass, or I can make the object more compact.  This is the first clue we have to where black holes might come from — they have to be either very massive, or extremely small. We actually encounter both in the Cosmos, as we shall see, but for the moment let’s focus on the small ones. So how do you make things extremely small?

Wrap a balloon in aluminum foil. The foil is like the stuff of the star; the balloon is nuclear fusion, keeping the star from collapsing.

Wrap a balloon in aluminum foil. The foil is like the stuff of the star; the balloon is an outward force, keeping the star from collapsing.

Let’s do an experiment to think about this. Go find a balloon and some aluminum foil. Blow the balloon up (it doesn’t have to be huge) and wrap it in aluminum foil.  This is a mental model of a star at any given moment in its life. Gravity is always trying to pull everything toward the center. But the star is not collapsing — why not?  Deep in the cores of stars, the temperature and pressure is so high that nuclear fusion occurs — through a series of interactions with all the nuclei that are packed together, hydrogen is “burned” into helium. This process releases energy — it’s nuclear fusion power! In your balloon and foil model, the foil is stuff in the star — all the churning roiling gas and plasma that make up the body of a star. What is keeping it from collapsing? In this case it is the balloon, pushing the foil outward — the balloon is acting like the fusion energy bursting out from the core, supporting the star and keeping gravity from collapsing it.

Gravity (turquoise arrows) is constantly trying to pull the star inward on itself. The pressure from the nuclear fusion generating energy in the core presses outward (yellow arrows) preventing the star from collapsing.

Gravity (turquoise arrows) is constantly trying to pull the star inward on itself. The pressure from the nuclear fusion generating energy in the core presses outward (yellow arrows) preventing the star from collapsing.

As a star ages, the fusion process in its core evolves, slowly burning the core fuels into heavier and heavier elements, until a large core of iron builds up. There are no effective nuclear reactions that can sustain the burning of iron into heavier elements.  The iron is effectively ash (that’s what astronomers call it!) and it settles down into the core.  The iron is not burning, so there is no fusion energy pushing outward against gravity’s desire to collapse the core — what’s stopping it?

In addition to the iron nuclei, the core is also full of the other constituents that make up atoms, electrons.  Electrons are a particular kind of particle we encounter in the Cosmos called a fermion. Fermion’s are okay to hang out together, provided they all think they are different from one another (in the language of the physicists — the fermions all have to have different “quantum numbers”); this is a well known physical effect known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle. If you do pack fermions together they dislike it immensely. They start to think they are all looking the same, and they press back; this is called “degeneracy pressure”, and it is what keeps gravity from being able to crush the iron core of the star.

When fusion stops (pop the balloon), there is nothing in the star pushing outward against gravity, so the star can collapse.

When gravity overcomes the electron degeneracy pressure in the iron core (pop the balloon), there is nothing pushing outward against gravity, so the core can collapse.

High above, the star continues to burn, raining more and more iron ash down on the core. The mass of the core grows, and the gravity grows with it. When enough iron amasses in the core, the gravity will grow so strong not even the degeneracy pressure of the electrons can oppose it. When that happens, gravity suddenly finds that there is nothing preventing it from pulling everything down, and the iron core collapses.  In your model, this is equivalent to popping your balloon — you’re left with a lot of material that is not being supported at all, so it collapses.  Collapse the foil shell in your hands — you are playing the role of gravity, crushing the material of the star down into a smaller and smaller space.

When the collapse occurs, the iron nuclei are the victims. The compression of the iron core squeezes down on the iron nuclei, disintegrating them into their constituent protons and neutrons. The extreme pressure forces protons and electrons to combine to become more neutrons (a process creatively called “neutronization”). In less than a quarter of a second, the collapse squeezes the core down to the size of a small city and converts more than a solar mass worth of atoms into neutrons. We call this skeleton a neutron star.

Gravity wants to compress all the matter, to pull down as close together as it can get. The explosion helps gravity move toward its goal by applying astronomical pressures from the outside, squeezing and squeezing the matter down. What stops it?

You hands act like gravity to crush the foil into a small remnant of its former self. There is a minimum crushing size, because the foil presses back against your efforts.

You hands act like gravity to crush the foil into a small remnant of its former self. There is a minimum crushing size, because the foil presses back against your efforts.

Let’s go back to your model. The balloon has been popped — that’s gravity overcoming the supporting pressure of the electrons. The foil has collapsed — that is gravity pulling as hard as it can to get all the material down into the center. Now squeeze that lump of foil as hard as you can; make the smallest, most compact ball of foil you can. Odds are there is some minimum size you can make that ball of foil. What is keeping you from squeezing the foil smaller? The foil itself is getting in the way! It is pushing back against the force that is trying to crush it — you — and you are not strong enough to overcome it!

This is the case with the neutron star. When neutrons are so closely packed together, their interactions are dominated by the strong nuclear force, which is enormously repulsive at very short distances. As more and more neutrons are packed into a smaller and smaller space, they become intensely aware of one another and the pressure from the strong nuclear force grows until it is strong enough to oppose gravity once again.  The collapse stops, suddenly.

The iron core is heavy (more than a solar mass) and moving fast (between 10-20% the speed of light) — it is not easy to stop so suddenly. When the center of the core stops, the outer layers of the core are unaware of what lies ahead. In the astrophysical equivalent of a chain-reaction traffic pile-up, the layers crash down on one another; the outer layers rebound outward.  This rebounding crashes into the innermost layers of the star above the core, setting up a shock wave that propagates outward through the star.  The wave begins to tear the star apart from the inside.

The Western Veil Nebula (NGC 6960), just off the wing of the constellation Cygnus. Visible in amateur telescopes, it is one of the most exquisite supernova remnants in the sky. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Western Veil Nebula (NGC 6960), just off the wing of the constellation Cygnus. Visible in amateur telescopes, it is one of the most exquisite supernova remnants in the sky. [Wikimedia Commons]

Energized by an enormous flux of neutrinos produced by the newly birthed neutron star, the shock is driven upward through the star, until it emerges through the surface, destroying the star in a titanic explosion known as a supernova.  It is an explosion that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud — the energy released is enormous, for a time making the exploding star brighter than all the other stars in the galaxy combined. The material of the star is blown outward to become a supernova remnant, a vast web of ejected gas and atoms thrown out into the Universe. We see many, many supernova remnants in the galaxy — every one of them is unique, they are all exquisite and beautiful in ways that only the Cosmos can create.

Left behind, slowly settling down into a well-behaved stellar skeleton, is the neutron star.  At the surface of the neutron star, the gravity is enormous — about 200 billion time stronger than the gravity at the surface of the Earth. The escape speed is 64 percent the speed of light. If you fell just 1 millimeter, you would be travelling at 61,000 meters per second (136,400 miles per hour!) when you hit the surface!

Lego Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lego Me visit the surface of a neutron star. [click to enlarge]

Lego Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lego Me visit the surface of a neutron star. [click to enlarge]

But this is still not the extreme gravity of a black hole. If a star is massive enough, the crushing force of the collapsing star and the ensuing explosion is so strong it cannot be stopped even by the protestations of the neutrons. In fact, the infalling matter crushes the matter so strongly that gravity becomes triumphant — it crushes and crushes without bound. The strength of gravity — the warp of space and time — soars. At some point the escape speed at the surface of the crushing matter reaches the speed of light — the point of no return has been reached, but the matter keeps falling right past the event horizon, continuing to fall inward under the inexorable pull of gravity. All the matter is crushed into the smallest volume you can imagine, into the singularity, at the center of the empty space we call the black hole. No force known to physics today is strong enough to overcome this event.

Different effects in astrophysical systems fight against gravity's inexorable pull. If the gravity gets strong enough, nothing can prevent the collapse to a black hole.

Different effects in astrophysical systems fight against gravity’s inexorable pull. If the gravity gets strong enough, nothing can prevent the collapse to a black hole.

The process just described is known as core-collapse and is just one way that astronomers think black holes might be made. Similar explosive events that lead to collapse include the collision of two neutron stars, the parasitic destruction of a small star by a compact companion that grows its mass large enough to collapse, and possibly even the collision of smaller black holes to make larger black holes.

So how compressed do you have to be to become a black hole? The answer for a perfect ball of matter is called “the Schwarzschild radius.” If you squeeze an object down to a ball that fits inside the Schwarzschild radius (that is, it fits inside the event horizon) then no known force can stop gravity from collapsing that object into a black hole. For the Sun, the Schwarzschild radius is about 3 kilometers — if you shrink the Sun down into a ball just 6 kilometers in diameter, the size of a small city, it will be a black hole. For the Earth, the Schwarzschild radius is about 1 centimeter — if you shrink the Earth down to the size of a marble, it will be a black hole.

What it would take to make the Sun or the Earth into a black hole. The Sun as a black hole would cover your town, but you could carry the Earth in your pocket (though this is NOT recommended).

What it would take to make the Sun or the Earth into a black hole. The Sun as a black hole would cover your town, but you could carry the Earth in your pocket (though this is NOT recommended).

Given a notion of how black holes form, astronomers can start probing the Universe, peering into places that should give birth to black holes. The same physical effects that we used to understand their formation can be used to understand how they interact with the Cosmos around them, giving astronomers clues about how to detect them. Next time, we’ll use this information to find out how black holes influence the Universe around them, and use that information to go black hole hunting in the Cosmos.

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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.

[9 March 2015] This is revised version of the original post. I owe many thanks to my colleague, Christian Ott, who pointed out that my original explanation of core-collapse was seriously flawed, following very old (and wrong!) ideas about how stars die. In this revision, I have endeavoured to present a correct but still clear picture of what is going on. Any inaccuracies that still persist are my own.

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.

A Thin Rain of Black Holes

by Shane L. Larson

As a scientist, I am used to being humbled by Nature. Consider how difficult it is for us to replicate physical situations that the Universe creates and maintains almost effortlessly. For instance, in the central African nation of Gabon, in the hills near the eastern border, there are vast deposits of Uranium ore in an area known as Oklo. Analysis of the Oklo ore has shown that it has been processed via nuclear fission roughly 2 billion years ago. All on it’s own, Nature created and ran a nuclear reactor.

The Oklo natural reactors are found in exposed ore deposits in central Africa. Note the person for scale!

The Oklo natural reactors are found in exposed ore deposits in central Africa. Note the person for scale!

Human beings didn’t even know of the existence of nuclear fission until 1938 when Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman first detected it in the laboratory; it wasn’t understood until the following year when Lise Meitner explained what was going on! It would take a further 4 years and a huge team of scientists and engineers, supervised by Enrico Fermi, to create the first nuclear fission reactor under the football field at the University of Chicago. On 2 December 1942, “Chicago-Pile 1” became active, finally replicating what the Universe had figured out 2 billion years before.

(L) Strassman, Meitner and Hahn in 1956, at the dedication of the Max Planck Institute. (R) The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experimental setup that first detected nuclear fission. Note it fits on a tabletop!

(L) Strassman, Meitner and Hahn in 1956, at the dedication of the Max Planck Institute. (R) The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experimental setup that first detected nuclear fission. Note it fits on a tabletop!

Today, our experimental efforts in science have continued to grow, continued to allow us to peer into Nature’s great mysteries. One of the most prominent efforts is the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside of Geneva, on the border of France and Switzerland.  All told, more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from 100 countries contributed to the design, construction, and operation of the LHC.  It is the most powerful particle-collider in the world, smashing together hadrons (particles that are made up of quarks, bound together by the strong force).

An aerial view of the area around Geneva, with the location of the LHC indicated; the tunnel is 27 kilometers in circumference. Center left is Lake Geneva, the background are the Swiss Alps.

An aerial view of the area around Geneva, with the location of the LHC indicated; the tunnel is 27 kilometers in circumference. Center left is Lake Geneva, the background are the Swiss Alps.

The LHC is an enormous machine. The ring is 27 kilometers in circumference, and the major experiments that watch the collisions of sub-atomic particles are bigger than buildings — gigantic, complex machines designed to watch what Nature does on the tiniest scales, which we have only begun to understand over the past 100 years.

The ATLAS experiment, along the beamline of the LHC. It is difficult to comprehend exactly how huge these experiments are, but note the person in front of the experiment, lower center!

The ATLAS experiment, along the beamline of the LHC. It is difficult to comprehend exactly how huge these experiments are, but note the person in front of the experiment, lower center!

The collision energies in the LHC are so high that the protons we smash together break apart into their constituent bits: quarks, gluons, and a lot of energy. At its highest energies — as physicists say, “14 TeV” or “14 Tera-electron-Volts” — the protons we are smashing together will only be travelling about 2.7 meters per second slower than light. What does that mean? Imagine a race to the Moon, between a laser beam and a proton ejected from the LHC. The laser beam would reach the Moon in 1.282 217 0463 seconds, but the protons would only be 11.3 meters behind, arriving at 1.282 217 0578 seconds after the race started. They are moving incredibly fast, which is why they blast themselves to smithereens when they collide.

The post collision mess is a hot writhing, seething mass of energy and fundamental particles that we think is very similar to the conditions just after the Big Bang. At some point in our planning for the LHC, and as we were imagining this hot burst of quark-gluon plasma, someone asked a very interesting question.  Aren’t the collisions strong enough that all of the energy could concentrate mass and energy down to a microscopic point, creating a microscopic black hole? After all, that’s what we expect to happen after the Big Bang — we call them “primordial black holes.”

And then what you’re saying sinks in. We can MAKE black holes? What could happen? Could they sink to the core of the Earth and slowly consume the Earth? If that happened, is there anything we could do about it? This is an idea that has been explored in science fiction before, notably by my astrophysics colleague, J. Craig Wheeler, in his 1986 novel, The Krone Experiment. But what about the case of the Large Hadron Collider? Should we be worried?

There are two very simple reasons why the answer should be “No.”  First and foremost, the protons are travelling at enormous speeds, 99.999 999 1% the speed of light, and the post collision detritus will be travelling at similarly high speeds, propelled by the enormous release of energy in the collision.  Anything travelling at 11.2 kilometers per second or faster can escape the gravitational pull of the Earth.  How fast is 11.2 kilometers per second compared to lightspeed?  That is 0.0037% the speed of light. Any microscopic black holes created by the LHC will easily be travelling so fast that the Earth’s gravity could not possibly keep them stuck here.

Second is this: Nature is far better at making particle accelerators than we are. The LHC energies are paltry compared to the energetic particles that the Cosmos is bombarding the Earth with every single minute of every single day.

The Earth is constantly under the drizzle of a thin cosmic rain (that turn of phrase is the title of an excellent book by Michael Friedlander) of particles from outer space, called “cosmic rays.” These particles come from all over — the vast majority are from the Sun, but others come from highly magnetized stars, or from supernovae, or from shock fronts in vast clouds of interstellar gas and plasma, or from active galactic nuclei, or from black holes. They are constantly bombarding the planet in vast numbers; we like to tell people that TWO cosmic rays go right through your head, every second. 🙂

Cosmic rays constantly bombard the Earth. Very often they collide with particles in the Earth's atmosphere, creating MORE particles (just like collisions in the LHC) when then shower down to Earth.

Cosmic rays constantly bombard the Earth. Very often they collide with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating MORE particles (just like collisions in the LHC) when then shower down to Earth.

Like the particles in the LHC, every cosmic ray that hits the earth has an energy, sometimes a very large energy. Imagine grabbing some masking tape and marking out a square on the floor next to you, 1 meter by 1 meter. About 1 time per hour, every hour, a cosmic ray with the same energy as an LHC collision passes through your square.  And not just for your square — for EVERY 1 meter by 1 meter square you could make on the surface of the Earth! In the 15 minutes it takes you to read this article, roughly 10 such events will happen right in your living room. In one year, across the surface of the entire Earth, there are about 4 billion billion such events (4 x 1018).

When astronomers talk about cosmic rays, they often think about something called FLUX -- how many particles go through a known area in a known time. The cosmic ray flux at LHC energies is about 1 particle in a square meter (the blue square in this image) every hour.

When astronomers talk about cosmic rays, they often think about something called FLUX — how many particles go through a known area in a known time. The cosmic ray flux at LHC energies is about 1 particle in a square meter (the blue square in this image) every hour.

But that’s not the whole story either. Because at higher energy, it should be easier to make black holes, right? If I smash harder, I can compress more, and get into that black hole state much more easily. Imagine making a square 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer.  About 1 time every year, a cosmic ray particle will hit that square with an energy that has 1 MILLION times the energy of the LHC. That means every square kilometer on Earth (0.4 square miles) will get hit about 1x per year by a particle that has about 1 MILLION times the energy of the LHC. Over the entire surface of the Earth then, there are about 500 million events every year that have 1 million times the energy of the LHC.

And this has been going on for the entire 4.5 billion year history of the solar system!

Because of this, most scientists aren’t worried by the idea that the LHC could make black holes or transform the quantum state of the Universe, because Nature is already doing its best to do the same thing, and doing it at energies we could only imagine in our wildest experimental dreams.

I’m not worried about the LHC making microscopic black holes. You should not be worried about the LHC making microscopic black holes. Because there is probably already a thin rain of them showering over us every moment of every day. Thanks, Universe!

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This post is based on a short “Expert Show” talk I gave at the iO Improv Theatre in Chicago; I talked for about 10 minutes about the LHC and black holes, and then the improv troop took over. 🙂