Black hole may be giant fryer
Scientist at CU presents new views on cosmic giants
Daily Camera, April 20, 2005
First, the good news: If you happen to be sucked into a supermassive
black hole on the way to the Loaf `N Jug, you will not be spaghettified, according to new research by a pair of local cosmologists.
The bad news: You`ll be incinerated, vaporized, fried or otherwise cooked in the seething relativistic plasma they say exists in the center of the big, dark vortexes.
Admittedly, this is not a serious concern for many of us in Boulder, who are far more likely to be trampled by an escaped rhinoceros. But the distinction is big news in black - hole science.
Andrew Hamilton, JILA fellow and professor in the University of Colorado`s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, presented his black - hole work last week at an international physics conference in Warwick, England. JILA Ph.D. student Scott Pollack was co-author.
Einstein`s general theory of relativity predicts the existence of black holes , and much circumstantial evidence backs up their existence. But
black holes cloak themselves, sucking in stellar matter faster than the speed of light, leaving no visible trace of what happens in their voracious bowels.
Black - hole theorists have postulated that an astronaut unfortunate enough to stumble into a black hole would perish via a process called "spaghettification." This involves the feet of an astronaut, which are closer to the matter-devouring singularity at the black hole `s center, becoming stretched to a sort of linguini some short period of time before the head is so abused.
Hamilton`s work says such a fate probably wouldn`t befall the visitor of a supermassive black hole , a class of black hole made up of a million or even billions of solar masses, Hamilton said. That`s because there is, according to his calculations, a space inside black holes that houses a dense relativistic plasma.
The plasma`s particles move at nearly the speed of light, and it`s 100 times hotter than the center of our sun, he said. The plasma`s volume depends on a black hole `s size and its rotational speed, Hamilton said. How it would affect the doomed astronaut would depend on the black hole `s size, too.
Visitors stumbling into a stellar-sized black hole - roughly the mass of the sun - still would be spaghettified by so-called tidal forces. But supermassive black holes have weaker tidal forces, giving the space traveler the opportunity to live a very short while longer.
"The question of what kills you depends on whether you get torn apart first or whether you hit this relativistic plasma first," Hamilton said.
Hamilton, an astrophysicist and expert in Einstein`s relativity, said he fell into the study of black holes as part of a project creating general relativistic visualizations for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He said the black - hole literature wasn`t providing what he needed, so he and Pollack did their own models.
"This isn`t my field," Hamilton said. "But what we found was an inevitable consequence of Einstein`s equations."
Eric Poisson, physics professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and author of "A Relativist`s Toolkit: The Mathematics of Black - Hole Mechanics," said the foray advanced science.
In an e-mail, Poisson said black holes would almost certainly have plasma at their centers "if the black holes were immersed in a typical astrophysical environment, which usually contains gas and other interstellar junk."
Poisson said he and physicist Werner Israel had made simplistic models of the material in black - hole innards, but that Hamilton`s description was much more realistic.
"His work brings us closer to a complete understanding of black - hole interiors," Poisson said.
© 2008 Todd Neff