6 Mind Blowing Things Nobody Taught You About Black Holes
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.
Quick! Choke it with your Nobel Prize!
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.
Electromagnetism just cried "HAX THIS IS BULLSHIT."
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.
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.
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.
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."
Galactic Explosions (in Our Galaxy)
Black holes create the most powerful gravitational accelerations in existence, and they're also the heaviest things in existence. Dropping one into another is the sort of thing you do when you're trying to crash God's computer, and we think it's already happened, creating the biggest explosion in the galaxy.
Yes, Michael Bay, there is a heaven.
Those are two cosmic explosions, vast expanding bubbles of high-energy particles ballooning out through space. How large are they? That thin smear of dirt across the middle is our galaxy. Those bubbles are each 25,000 light-years across. Here it is again with scales.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have located Thor's balls.
These bubbles cover half the visible sky, day or night, and have probably been expanding for millions of years. We've always known that humanity is but a blip in the universe. But now we know that we're only a blip in one of the universe's special effects.
The images are rendered in false colors, because gamma rays are to visible light what the Hulk is to arm-wrestling competitions. Scientists recently theorized that this cosmic kaboom was caused by a dwarf galaxy dive-bombing our Milky Way, like an intergalactic Gimli waving a singularity instead of an ax. At that point, its central black hole played Katamari to the death with ours and lost. (Oh yeah, pretty much all galaxies are being eaten by a central black hole forever.) The incoming black hole would have spiraled through our galaxy, making a bull in a china shop look like Jackie Chan in a china shop, before being eaten in the highest stakes sumo match possible. The team is now hunting for the stars this gravitational death match probably flung out of the galactic core, because when you do forensics on a black hole murder, you look for stars instead of semen.
There Are At Least Millions of Them
The bright black holes above are also known as active galactic nuclei or quasars. They aren't just the brightest objects in their home galaxies -- they can be thousands of times brighter than everything else in their galaxies put together, by both eating and becoming everything else in their galaxies put together. They're so bright that, despite being halfway across existence, we used to think they were nearby stars. They're lights so bright, God would say, "Woah, I didn't mean that much."
And on the eighth day, God created the best and most underrated Star Trek.
For small black holes, the mass supply can be the companion star, locked in the most destructive relationship possible.
"It just makes sense that we move in together until I find a job and finish eating you."
Lighthouses tell you where you are and why you should stay away from them. That has never been more true. These luminous black holes concentrate huge energy outputs in small sections of sky, making them extremely useful in building maps of the universe. People forget that building a 3D map of the universe is an act of unparalleled genius. The sky looks like someone sneezed on a monitor, and without seriously impressive science, that's about as good a map as you get. People studied the stars for millennia, and the best most could come up with was a family of pervert gods who pretended to be adulterous swans, or the best time for Virgos to meet a man.
Hint: not during swan mating season.
We can't move a bit to the side to see what's there because we don't have a starship Enterprise yet. But the emissions from black holes are accurate markers in space, useful for making maps. Viewed as the Big Bad Boss of astrophysics, people imagine that a black hole is fairly rare. One: Almost every galaxy has a monster black hole at its center. 2.5 million: the number of actively feeding supermassive black holes the WISE survey found. They have us surrounded. And just behold this glory.
Not pictured: NOTHING. EVER.
LOOK AT IT! You see those black empty black bits in the upper right?
WRONG! Every pixel of this image contains millions of times more stuff than our entire planet.
If people understood how amazing our maps of the universe are, the only reality shows would be people talking about how awesome reality is, thereby creating an opposite universe where "science" channels hosting reality shows wasn't a blatant contradiction.
We're going to need the word "discovery" back now. Your new name is the Don't Watch This Channel.
We Think They Constantly Emit Antimatter
Hawking radiation is a good contender for "the smartest sounding anything ever" award. It sounds like an antidote to the Hulk, giving incredible intelligence at the expense of physical strength. It's actually the reverse: a very intelligent thing that makes a mockery of the very idea of physical strength.
So it's very well named.
The idea is that the universe is constantly spawning particle-antiparticle pairs. They borrow enough energy to exist, then immediately annihilate each other in a blast of gamma radiation that pays it back, as long as they do it fast enough that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle doesn't notice. It's worrying to think that reality might play the same sort of bullshit game as stock traders.
Except the traders' tricks are even more unbelievable and violate more laws.
But if this virtual particle-antiparticle pair spawns on the edge of the event horizon, one is pulled into the black hole, and the other is free to escape. It would sound like psychedelic song lyrics if it hadn't been written by one of the smartest men on the planet. And the general impression among astrophysicists is that we're just waiting to develop the ability to detect it so that we can get on with giving him a Nobel Prize already.
Since which particle escapes is random, Hawking radiation implies that the event horizon pumps out a 50/50 mixture of matter and antimatter. That's a constant stream of self-destructing annihilation, which would mean that black holes add to the explosive awesomeness of the universe simply by existing.
WE THINK THEY CAN EXPLODE
You break it, you bought it, and that applies to the law of conservation of energy. The black hole has to pay the energy bill for so blatantly taking the piss out of physical reality. For large black holes, that's no problem: The Hawking radiation is a tiny outlay compared to the planets' worth of matter they consume every second. But for small black holes, they can emit more energy than they consume. If the black hole consumes less matter than it emits, these seemingly nonsensical outlays eventually drain and destroy the thing we all thought was absolutely certain. Again, just like stock traders. And the black hole explodes. Even Michael Bay hasn't thought of that one yet.
"Get me Bruce Willis and all of the special effects."
Don't worry -- any black hole small enough to explode is too small to damage anything when it does so. But punctures in space-time detonating themselves is how reality says, "Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn't make science cool; science makes Neil deGrasse Tyson cool. AND EVERYTHING ELSE THAT WAS EVER COOL."
And he is Attokelvinly cool.
They Fire Intergalactic Death Rays
Even if they get pretty bright as they eat everything ever, everyone knows that black holes are the roach motels of existence. They're the Pac-Man of reality: Once they eat everything, we'd better hope existence has another level. What you don't know is that they can fire high-energy intergalactic cannons.
For all you lens-flare-bashing pedants: Reality agrees with J.J. Abrams.
That's a black hole jet, and for scale, the bright dot it's coming from is the entire Messier 87 galaxy. It's one of the largest and closest galaxies to Earth, and that jet makes it look like a little bit of twinkle. The plasma jet is over 5,000 light-years long. Over 1,500 parsecs. That's the sort of distance that would make the Millennium Falcon say, "Let's just get a job as a postman."
While the black hole consumes matter swirling in around its equator, it also fires polar beams at the rest of the universe at close to the speed of light. The physics involved are still being studied, but are generally agreed to involve turning electromagnetism and stellar hydrodynamics up until the knobs break off and punch holes in the fabric of space-time.
Then there's the black hole firing an intergalactic plasma cannon.
"Well, honey, when a boy being of pure energy and a girl being of pure energy love each other very much ..."
That's 3C321, a pair of galaxies where one is blasting hell both into and out of the other. The lower left pink (X-ray) galaxy's central black hole is aimed so that its jet hits the blue (radio wave) one. Which means that a cosmic fire hose of gamma rays, X-rays, and relativistic particle cannonry blast across the 20,000 light-years between the two. But that's the black hole equivalent of Bruce Lee's one-inch punch. And that is the most ass-kicking sentence in existence. The pink/blue bright spot is where this jet is slamming into the side of an entire galaxy, flensing any planets of at least their atmosphere and causing cosmic levels of kickass.
This is the black hole that even NASA scientists call the "Death Star," and these are people who refer to stellar detonations as "events." Because when fiction makes a Death Star, it's much smaller than the real thing.
When reality does it, it's BIGGER.
When he isn't marveling at the real universe, Luke fights aliens in 6 Signs Your Love of StarCraft Goes Too Far. As an earthly achievement, he explains 5 Ways to Save Olympic Wrestling. Luke also tumbles and responds to every single tweet.
For more spectacular space insanity, check out 11 Deep Space Photos You Won't Believe Aren't Photoshopped and 6 Badass Space Landings Humanity Totally Nailed.