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Shining a light on the black hole mystery

Earth getting sucked into black hole

This feature was first published in late June in My Mensa Weekly, our exclusive newsletter for Mensa members

 

Calling all theoretical physics fans! There have been some exciting developments in the world of black holes that could help deepen our understanding of these strange but impressive objects…

It is estimated that there are 40 billion, billion black holes in our universe, ranging in size from the equivalent of 100,000 suns to tens of billions of solar masses. Each of these has been caused by the collapse of a star, which occurs when the star’s fuel depletes, and the gravity at its centre becomes stronger than the external pressure holding it together. In fact, the gravity becomes so strong that not even light particles can escape, hence the moniker ‘black’ hole. Meanwhile, outside the black hole, Einstein theorised, the original star’s mass and gravity remain, distorting the space and time that surrounds it.

Decades of research has been undertaken to discover more about these objects, while a dramatic stellar event and a new lab discovery have added another small piece to the puzzle. 

Back in October 2022, scientists detected “the brightest space explosion ever seen” – caused by the death of a massive star. When a star collapses, the black hole created sends out powerful jets of gamma radiation in two opposite directions, creating a bright explosion.

The collapse of this particular star produced a gamma-ray burst so powerful that it blinded instruments in space. It also had such a long afterglow that the researchers believe the jets also carried a large amount of outer star material. The event was described by the lead researcher as the “Rosetta stone of long gamma-ray bursts” – in other words, it could force a re-evaluation of current theories around black hole formation.

Meanwhile, in a lab far, far away – well, the Netherlands – another group of researchers has created a simulation of a black hole to allow them to explore various theories about gravity.

Synthetic black hole analogues have been created in the past using various methods; one from optical fibre, for example, and another from ultracold rubidium atoms. Each has provided incremental support for a theory posed by Stephen Hawking (aptly named Hawking radiation): that particles are created from disturbances around a black hole’s boundary (its ‘event horizon’), and that these act in a similar way to thermal radiation.

This latest experiment supports the theory further still. With previous research simulations, it was not possible to determine whether changes in thermal dynamics were caused by an increase in normal radiation; in this case, the researchers observed a rise in temperature without this being influenced by other dynamics that occur when an event horizon is formed.

This allowed them to posit that Hawking radiation only occurs when particles are ‘entangled’ across the black hole boundary, providing further evidence of what Hawking argued; that certain high-energy radiation could resist the pull of the black hole – contrary to theoretical physics hypotheses – and ultimately lead to its evaporation.

So, what does the synthetic analogue and the gamma ray burst tell us? While we are by no means close to understanding the full extent of what happens around the formation of black holes, these two recent discoveries take humankind a small step closer to understanding their formation and their effect on the spacetime around them – at least until we have the ability and instrumentation to study them for real.

And in the meantime, thanks to the film industry, we have had several mind-boggling (Interstellar) and even stomach-churning (horror flick Event Horizon) scenarios to ponder on…

The true meaning of ‘massive’

Want to know more? Have a look at NASA’s recent animation comparing the sizes of 10 supermassive black holes to our own solar system.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Shining a light on the black hole mystery

This feature was first published in late June in My Mensa Weekly, our exclusive newsletter for Mensa members

 

Calling all theoretical physics fans! There have been some exciting developments in the world of black holes that could help deepen our understanding of these strange but impressive objects…

It is estimated that there are 40 billion, billion black holes in our universe, ranging in size from the equivalent of 100,000 suns to tens of billions of solar masses. Each of these has been caused by the collapse of a star, which occurs when the star’s fuel depletes, and the gravity at its centre becomes stronger than the external pressure holding it together. In fact, the gravity becomes so strong that not even light particles can escape, hence the moniker ‘black’ hole. Meanwhile, outside the black hole, Einstein theorised, the original star’s mass and gravity remain, distorting the space and time that surrounds it.

Decades of research has been undertaken to discover more about these objects, while a dramatic stellar event and a new lab discovery have added another small piece to the puzzle. 

Back in October 2022, scientists detected “the brightest space explosion ever seen” – caused by the death of a massive star. When a star collapses, the black hole created sends out powerful jets of gamma radiation in two opposite directions, creating a bright explosion.

The collapse of this particular star produced a gamma-ray burst so powerful that it blinded instruments in space. It also had such a long afterglow that the researchers believe the jets also carried a large amount of outer star material. The event was described by the lead researcher as the “Rosetta stone of long gamma-ray bursts” – in other words, it could force a re-evaluation of current theories around black hole formation.

Meanwhile, in a lab far, far away – well, the Netherlands – another group of researchers has created a simulation of a black hole to allow them to explore various theories about gravity.

Synthetic black hole analogues have been created in the past using various methods; one from optical fibre, for example, and another from ultracold rubidium atoms. Each has provided incremental support for a theory posed by Stephen Hawking (aptly named Hawking radiation): that particles are created from disturbances around a black hole’s boundary (its ‘event horizon’), and that these act in a similar way to thermal radiation.

This latest experiment supports the theory further still. With previous research simulations, it was not possible to determine whether changes in thermal dynamics were caused by an increase in normal radiation; in this case, the researchers observed a rise in temperature without this being influenced by other dynamics that occur when an event horizon is formed.

This allowed them to posit that Hawking radiation only occurs when particles are ‘entangled’ across the black hole boundary, providing further evidence of what Hawking argued; that certain high-energy radiation could resist the pull of the black hole – contrary to theoretical physics hypotheses – and ultimately lead to its evaporation.

So, what does the synthetic analogue and the gamma ray burst tell us? While we are by no means close to understanding the full extent of what happens around the formation of black holes, these two recent discoveries take humankind a small step closer to understanding their formation and their effect on the spacetime around them – at least until we have the ability and instrumentation to study them for real.

And in the meantime, thanks to the film industry, we have had several mind-boggling (Interstellar) and even stomach-churning (horror flick Event Horizon) scenarios to ponder on…

The true meaning of ‘massive’

Want to know more? Have a look at NASA’s recent animation comparing the sizes of 10 supermassive black holes to our own solar system.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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