On the Relevance of Black Holes and Supermassive Black Holes to Human Development
It has been said that Einstein once dreamed that he himself was traveling with a photon–a single particle of light. He was attempting to imagine past the boundary of the then known physical theories. It was an endeavor that would eventually produce both General, and Special Relativity. These two theories provided mankind things like GPS technology, more efficient communication technologies (communication satellite coordination), and seemingly, an overall truer knowledge of reality. In fact, relativistic physics have birthed an unimaginable level of understanding of the physical world, and in turn enabled an unparalleled level of engineering. We have developed a nearly perfect model of reality called the Standard Model (SM) from applying these understandings.
But then, what of those things passed Einstein’s imagination? Imagine a place, a thing, 3*10^31 times the mass of earth, that controls the destiny and composition of whole galaxies. A place where even light cannot overcome. This thing is what we call a Black Hole and it is the next major frontier of not just astronomy, but also computer engineering, and science as a whole. As one experienced science journalist put it “”[e]verything about black holes is astonishing, dramatic, controversial, or mysterious — and sometimes all four. Most people remain confused about them, with misconceptions repeated like echoes in a canyon”” (Berman 22). Our advancement as a society has always been marked by milestones of mastering higher levels of energy, and given that Black Holes are amongst the most energetic entities in the universe, we must dedicate more resources to accurately understanding the process involved in them.
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It seems so often that science can answer any physical question–that we are almost on the precipice of having all the answers. It would behoove scientists to be humble though and remember that so too Ptolemy and his contemporaries thought that they were at the edge of knowing all there was to know. Our modern masterpiece is the Standard Model (as Ptolemy’s was the geocentric model of the universe). It describes the fundamental particles: quarks, gluons, and bosons, as well as their interactions amongst each other. However, upon critical inspection our model doesn’t account for all the observed particle behaviors or interactions! An expert in the field, Rolf Ent, long time lead scientist at the Jefferson Lab who has performed or lead experiments at NIKHEF-EMIN, the KVI and VU cyclotrons, CERN, SLAC, IUCF, MIT-Bates, NIKHEF-ITH, and JLab provided,
“”For example, adding up the masses of the quarks and gluons inside protons does not begin to account for the total masses of protons, raising the puzzle of where all this missing mass comes from. Further, we wonder how exactly gluons do the work of binding quarks in the first place and why this binding seems to rely on a special type of “”color”” charge within quarks. We also do not understand how a proton’s rotation — a measurable quantity called spin — arises from the spins of the quarks and gluons inside it”” (Ent 44).
It is clear then that the Standard Model is incomplete, just as Newton’s theories were before Einstein. It is also safe to assume that the world will be revolutionized when the next breakthrough in physical understanding occurs, just as it was when Einstein shared his famous equation E=mc^2.
It would be a fair question to ask why it should be Black Holes to hold these answers. The reason is simple–energy. It is no coincidence that Black Holes were first theorized in 1905; the same year Einstein published his Theory of Relativity. For the first time it was known that there was a relationship between mass, and energy! It logically follows that since Black Holes are the most massive objects in the observable Universe, they should also be the most energetic. As a testament to the unmatched ferocity of Black Holes, Robert Naeye, former chief-editor for Sky & Telescope, spoke about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) recently detecting after effects of Black Hole activity, also known as gravitational waves, “”… caught the final half-second inward spiral and merger of two black holes containing the masses of 29 and 36 Suns. In a fleeting moment, the smash-up created a 62-solar-mass black hole and converted the remaining 3 solar masses into pure gravitational wave energy, a cosmic tsunami that barreled outward at the speed of light. The wave’s peak power briefly exceeded the total energy output of the entire visible universe 50 times over”” (Naeye 20). It would seem that we need massively powerful particle colliders in order to answer the aforementioned questions, yet there exist insurmountable challenges associated with terrestrial particle accelerators. Namely space, and safety limitations here on Earth, where there are populations close together. Even a technician and operator from LIGO admits, “”No accelerator on Earth could conceivably achieve such energies. In this picture, what lies between us and the unattainable promised land is a desert devoid of interest. It makes the LHC’s upgraded collision energy of 13 TeV seem a rather forlorn gesture”” (Chalmers 30).
In describing Black Holes and their nature, it is overwhelmingly important to hold in mind that essentially all of their qualities are inferred from the atypical behavior of other objects, e.g. if a star begins to orbit an empty space, we attribute it to a Black Hole. However, Einstein’s General Relativity (GR) and its associated maths have given astronomers and physicists tools to peer into the workings of Black Holes. The one quintessential quality of a Black Hole is that the mass be enough to create a force from gravity that is greater than the speed of light, 299,792,458 m/s. However, there can be different types of Black Holes, Stellar Black Holes are the traditional type. They are what people are referencing when they mention “”Black Holes””. Exponentially large Black Holes are known as Supermassive Black Holes, they are unique in that modern astronomy show them to be centrally located in most galaxies. Regardless of the type of Black Hole, the point of no return for light at its center is known as a singularity, it is the Black Hole proper. In a graph of energy and mass distribution, singularities behave asymptotically. The boundary between a singularity, and “”normal space”” is known as the event horizon.
Paradoxically, many mathematical interpretations of relativity show that nothing that fully crosses the threshold of a Black Hole’s event horizon can be recovered. In other words, “”When an object crosses the event horizon into a black hole, it can never come back out ? it, and all information about its identity, are trapped forever”” (Scoles 28). Furthermore, there are constant streams of various forms of radiation being emitted from the poles of a Black Hole, in some regards this is analogous to the Black Hole “”evaporating”” over time. Although, more accurately put, Black Holes release varying amounts of thermal radiation. These polar jettisons are known as Hawking Radiation, and are so named for the discoverer, Stephen Hawking. They were first proposed in 1974, and observed in 2008. Finally, Black Holes also often have accretion disks, gigantic flattened disks of floating gas and debris particles being pulled into their inevitable resting spot in the singularity. Much like a leaf in a whirlpool. These debris will heat to incredible temperatures and ionize. In particular, Supermassive Black Holes can have stable orbiting bodies instead of accretion disks (like their smaller cousins, Stellar Black Holes) as is the case with Supermassive Black Holes at the center of galaxies (Schnittman 33).
In fact there seems to be an intimate, and perhaps multifaceted connection between Supermassive Black Holes, and galaxies themselves. As early as 2000, it has been shown that there is an almost direct correlation between the mass of a Supermassive Black Hole, and the speed at which outlying stars (and presumably those closer as well) orbit (Kormendy 48). In the case of Supermassive Black Holes, the intensity of the Hawking Radiation being emitted from the poles is theorized to be powerful enough to act as an agitator for the currents of the entire galaxy. In many regards this implies that galaxies behaviors are primarily dependent on the qualities of their central Supermassive Black Hole. The gravitational forces exerted by Black Holes onto their surrounding environment are often called tidal forces. Unlike the case of Supermassive Black Holes, Stellar Black Holes are unable to host stable orbits predominantly. The tidal forces of these Black Holes can actually pull the super-heated plasma right out of a too-close star, in immense filaments until the entirety of the star has been consumed (Gerazi 19). When this “”tidal shredding”” occurs, a Black Hole can entirely consume a star, or it may only partially shred a star. When this partial tidal shredding occurs, the remains of a star are flung out on an altered trajectory at immense velocity.
Regardless of how dynamic the happenings around a Black Hole may be, because of their nature, Black Holes cannot be seen–their immense accretion disks, and blasts of Hawking Radiation are barely detected with the best of our modern techniques. Even Einstein himself, the revolutionary mind to produce General Relativity, was unprepared to conceptualize Black Holes! “”…Albert Einstein was rather skeptical concerning physical applications of the solution [of Black Holes], for instance, at the end of the paper he wrote: ‘. . .The essential result of this investigation is a clear understanding as to why [Black Holes] do not exist in physical reality. . .’ (Einstein 1939)”” (Zakharov 540). Even to this day there are still a minority of brilliant scientific minds that are not moved by the evidence for the existence of Black Holes.
One common alternative theory to Supermassive Black Holes at the center of most galaxies is that there could be vast expanses of undetected gas (or alternatively, Dark Matter) in approximately the same location. This phenomenon could explain the gravitational effects that are observed on other nearby celestial bodies. However, it does not offer an explanation as to why we do not detect light from these regions, even if there were a sufficient quantity of gas in these regions to account for the missing mass, then surely there should be stars amongst the region. If there were stars though, we would then be able to detect them. Truly, it would seem that there is overwhelming mathematical, experimental, and observed evidence to support the existence of Black Holes. Rather, the real difficulty with Black Holes is their notorious counter-intuitiveness; even the discoverers of Black Holes could not reconcile their beliefs on how reality is supposed to behave, with the qualities exhibited by Black Holes!
To start to grasp this counter-intuitiveness, consider the things that do fall into a Black Hole. It is unclear what happens to them, or if it is even possible to ascertain the answer to that question. In fact some modern physicists claim that when something falls into a black hole (or when something becomes a Black Hole), all of the information about the object is lost, irrecoverably destroyed forever. This is called the Information Loss Paradox. In other words, it seems most matter has many parameters required to describe it: mass, volume, kinetic and potential energy, momentum, velocity, angular momentum and velocity, moment of inertia, etc…. However, our mathematical descriptions of Black Holes “”turn out to be completely characterized by a very small number of parameters, namely, the mass, charge and angular momentum appearing in…black holes”” (Okon 463). Thus, the extra parameters seem to vanish! So then because scientists maintain that a true paradox cannot exist in nature, there certainly is validity to the claim that we may not have the whole picture when it comes to Black Holes, or even that we may be misinterpreting them entirely.
The Information Paradox is prime evidence for the claim. There can be only two possibilities concerning the Paradox, either information is in fact destroyed forever upon crossing the boundary of a Black Hole’s event horizon; or that information is somehow preserved in the process. Either case represents a contradiction to our current understanding of reality, and thus an area to further our understanding. In the case of the former, then our notion of information, and thus energy needing to be preserved would be thrown into doubt; in the case of the latter, then surely our understanding of what happens past a Black Hole’s event horizon must be incorrect! On the paradox, one polymath PHD succinctly wrote, “”All these results indicate that when a body collapses to form a black hole, the large amount of information corresponding to the full characterization of the collapsing body (type of matter, multipole moments of the initial mass distribution, etc.) is simply lost”” (Okon 462). So it would then seem that although Black Holes almost certainly tangibly exist, their exact properties are still unknown to us. Although the discovery of Hawking Radiation in 2008 does help to clarify the mechanisms by which information may ultimately be preserved, it does not however totally balance our missing information.
As a result of this haze of uncertainty surrounding Black Holes, there are several theories as to additional, or alternative properties characteristic of them. In many of these theories, a relationship between Black Holes and either Dark Energy, or Dark Matter, is proposed. One of these theories, that may have the most proponents, is that an effect attributable to Black Holes is behind the phenomenon of Dark Matter. Or, in other words, that they may be behind all the missing mass in the observable universe somehow. “”Black holes would initially seem to be ideal candidates for dark matter because they emit no light. Indeed, along with other dark objects such as planets and brown dwarfs, they make up one long proposed solution to the dark matter problem: MACHOs, short for [ma]ssive [c]ompact [h]alo [o]bjects”” (Garc?a-Bellido 41). Even if it Black Holes are not directly related to Dark Matter, it seems at least that they have very similar qualities.
So, with all the uncertainty related to Black Holes, perhaps it is no mystery why there is a lack of resources allocated to them. It is likely that governmental and private firms feel as though increased funding of Black Hole investigation would be a financial loss, an endeavor likely to not have a return equal to its opportunity costs. Since long before the days of colonialism and famed explorers, it has always been a struggle to receive resources for scientific exploration. Historically one of the best ways has been to make the relevant bodies consider the research to be profitable. Yet this seems to be an ineffective strategy and assumes that anyone’s intuition is good enough to predict future results. As testament to the haphazard nature of scientific advancements, there are an almost innumerable number of examples of “”random”” scientific research producing groundbreaking, world-changing, results. Consider William Herschel, the discoverer of the infrared spectrum of light. He made this discovery purely by chance! Of course, he was well funded by the Royal Society at the time, and was thus free to carry out experiments nearly at his discretion. Yet spurred on by his curiosity about the relative temperatures of different shades of light, he split a ray of light into its wave-spectrum and placed a thermometer on each color, with a control thermometer above the red spectrum, in a “”dark region””. “”The heating was greatest in red, but the curve did not appear to reach a maximum in the visible spectrum. Instead, the readings seemed to point somewhere in the dark region beyond red. He felt compelled to follow this trend… If the maximum lay outside the visible spectrum, then the heating was not from light but from something else. Herschel used the expression “”invisible light”.