Black Holes

What is a black hole and how is it formed?

The anomalous black holes are concentrated areas of mass so immense, that the mammoth force of gravity denies anything within a certain area around it from passing. This area is called the event horizon of a black hole. We have given black holes their name because light inside the event horizon can never be seen by mankind, or any outside observer. We believe that black holes in space are created by the collapse of a red super giant star. As these stars reach the end of their lives, an imbalance of inward and outward pressure forces the star to collapse.

Information on black holes is limited, though numerous schools of theory exist. We know black holes exist not because we can see them, but because of the impact they have on the space around them.

Scientists like Karl Schwarzschild, Jayant Narlikar and Stephen Hawking have built upon ideas from Einstein and others to offer theories on black holes. And yet, they remain an enigma. Because extensive, proven black holes information is scarce, they remain a constant area of intrigue and curiosity.

Black holes are places where ordinary gravity has become so extreme that it overwhelms all other forces in the Universe. Once inside, nothing can escape a black hole's gravity... not even light. Yet we know that black holes exist. We know how they are born, where they occur, and why they exist in different sizes. We even know what would happen if you fell into one. Our discoveries have revealed one of the strangest objects in the Universe, and there's still much we don't know.



Do black holes obey the laws of gravity?

Black holes obey all laws of physics, including the laws of gravity. Their remarkable properties are in fact a direct consequence of gravity. In 1687, Isaac Newton showed that all objects in the Universe attract each other through gravity. Gravity is actually one of the weakest forces known to physics. In our daily life, other forces from electricity, magnetism, or pressure often exert a stronger influence. However, gravity shapes our Universe because it makes itself felt over large distances. For example, Newton showed that his laws of gravity can explain the observed motions of the moons and planets in the Solar System. Albert Einstein refined our knowledge of gravity through his theory of general relativity. He first showed, based on the fact that light moves at a fixed speed (671 million miles per hour), that space and time must be connected. Then in 1915, he showed that massive objects distort the four-dimensional space-time continuum, and that it is this distortion that we perceive as gravity. Einstein's predictions have now been tested and verified through many different experiments. For relatively weak gravitational fields, such as those here on Earth, the predictions of Einstein's and Newton's theories are nearly identical. But for very strong gravitational fields, such as those encountered near black holes, Einstein's theory predicts many fascinating new phenomena.

Interesting Facts

  • If you fell into a black hole, theory has long suggested that gravity would stretch you out like spaghetti, though your death would come before you reached singularity. But a 2012 study in Nature suggests that quantum effects would cause the event horizon to act much like a wall of fire, instantly burning anyone to death
  • Black holes do not "suck." Suction is caused by pulling something into a vacuum, which the massive black hole definitely is not. Instead, objects fall into them
  • The first object considered to be a black hole is Cygnus X-1. Rockets carrying Geiger counters discovered eight new X-ray sources. In 1971, scientists detected radio emissions coming from Cygnus X-1, and a massive hidden companion was found and identified as a black hole
  • Cygnus X-1 was the subject of a 1974 friendly wager between Stephen Hawking and a fellow physicist Kip Thorne, with Hawking betting that the source was not a black hole. In 1990, he conceded defeat



What is inside a black hole?

We cannot glimpse what lies inside the event horizon of a black hole because light or material from there can never reach us. Even if we could send an explorer into the black hole, she could never communicate back to us.

Current theories predict that all the matter in a black hole is piled up in a single point at the center, but we do not understand how this central singularity works. To properly understand the black hole center requires a fusion of the theory of gravity with the theory that describes the behavior of matter on the smallest scales, called quantum mechanics. This unifying theory has already been given a name, quantum gravity, but how it works is still unknown. This is one of the most important unsolved problems in physics. Studies of black holes may one day provide the key to unlock this mystery.

Einstein's theory of general relativity allows unusual characteristics for black holes. For example, the central singularity might form a bridge to another Universe. This is similar to a so-called wormhole (a mysterious solution of Einstein's equations that has no event horizon). Bridges and wormholes might allow travel to other Universes or even time travel. But without observational and experimental data, this is mostly speculation. We do not know whether bridges or wormholes exist in the Universe, or could even have formed in principle. By contrast, black holes have been observed to exist and we understand how they form.

So, How Many Black Holes Are There?

There are so many black holes in the Universe that it is impossible to count them. It's like asking how many grains of sand are on the beach. Fortunately, the Universe is enormous and none of its known black holes are close enough to pose any danger to Earth.

Stellar-mass black holes form from the most massive stars when their lives end in supernova explosions. The Milky Way galaxy contains some 100 billion stars. Roughly one out of every thousand stars that form is massive enough to become a black hole. Therefore, our galaxy must harbor some 100 million stellar-mass black holes. Most of these are invisible to us, and only about a dozen have been identified. The nearest one is some 1,600 lightyears from Earth. In the region of the Universe visible from Earth, there are perhaps 100 billion galaxies. Each one has about 100 million stellar-mass black holes. And somewhere out there, a new stellar-mass black hole is born in a supernova every second.

Supermassive black holes are a million to a billion times more massive than our Sun and are found in the centers of galaxies. Most galaxies, and maybe all of them, harbor such a black hole. So in our region of the Universe, there are some 100 billion supermassive black holes. The nearest one resides in the center of our Milky Way galaxy, 28 thousand lightyears away. The most distant we know of lives in a quasar galaxy billions of lightyears away.