SpaceJibe

March 17, 2013

6 Mind Blowing Things Nobody Taught You About Black Holes

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 7:02 pm

Black holes are what happens when the universe divides by zero and eats anything that tries to notice. They’re cosmological grizzly bears: an inevitable result of nature that is majestic and terrifying to every species intelligent enough to comprehend them.

Black holes happen when reality has an overflow error: you put too much stuff in one place, and it breaks both the stuff and the place with gravity. Gravity is usually the responsible older sibling of the universe, always pulling things together. Black holes are where gravity goes full Al Capone, calls a meeting of all the fundamental forces of existence and makes a big showy spectacle of crushing them. It doesn’t just crush matter; it crushes the quantum laws that define matter, stomps them all into a compacted nugget until matter stops existing so much. It simply overrides reality.

And yet, most people treat them like cosmic vacuum cleaners. Science fiction characters are worse at understanding black holes than they are at aiming laser weapons, and the coverage they get in most schools only encourage students to kill themselves with trampolines and bowling balls. That’s a shame, since black holes are literally the ultimate everything, so we’re looking at how cool they are.

#6. They’re the Brightest Things in the Sky

“Black hole” is as simple and descriptive a title as “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and equally misleading. The one thing everybody knows about black holes is that not even light can escape, meaning they’re pictured as the interstellar equivalent of open manhole covers: pitch-black doom awaiting the unwary. But black holes are often the brightest points in the sky.

A black hole.

A black hole.

What people forget is that while there is an “event horizon” boundary inside of which light can’t escape, there’s also an “entire rest of the universe” where it can, often in galaxy-blinding quantities. When a rotating black hole consumes a cloud of interstellar gas, the material is drawn into a spiral, like fluid swirling down the plughole of existence … which is actually what’s cosmologically happening.

The hair around the universe's plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

The hair around the universe’s plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

Meteors light up because a thin layer of gas is being compressed by plummeting space rock and further heated by friction. When gas clouds fall into a black hole, the whole thing is being compressed, plummeting, and being heated by friction. The consumed cloud is its own meteor and atmosphere, and both are burning with cosmic fire. They get so hot, they don’t just glow white, they glow X-ray, converting 10 percent of their total mass into pure energy. For comparison, fusion warheads only convert 0.5 percent of their mass into energy. Understand: Black holes create a place where dropping something releases 20 times more energy than thermonuclear detonation. And our galaxy’s central black hole, Sagittarius A*, will be doing that this year.
Black holes can glow so brightly that they defeat their own gravity. Supermassive black holes can reach the Eddington limit, where continuum radiation force defeats the otherwise irresistible gravitational attraction. (That sentence contains more band names and anime series subtitles than anything else I’ve ever written.) The radiation becomes so intense that it blows away the incoming material. And this isn’t radiation as in “nuclear”; this is radiation as in “light.” As in “move toward the light, except in the real heavens, the light can be so intense that it shoves you back.”

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