Holes in A Hole?

Mid-afternoon coffee break time so I head over to Al’s coffee shop. Vinnie’s at his usual table by the door, fiddling with some spilled coffee on the table top. I notice he’s pulled some of it into a ring around a central blob. He looks at it for a moment. His mental gears whirl then he looks up at me. “Hey Sy! Can you have a black hole inside another black hole?”

“That’s an interesting question. Quick answer is, ‘No.’ Longer answer is, ‘Sort of, maybe, but not the way you’re thinking.’ You good with that, Vinnie?”

“You know me better than that, Sy. Pull up a chair and give.”

I wave at Al, who brings me a mug of my usual black mud. “Thanks, Al. You heard Vinnie’s question?”

“Everyone on campus did, Sy. Why the wishy-washy?”

“Depends on your definition of black hole.”

Sky-watcher Al is quick with a response. “It’s a star that collapsed denser than a neutron star.”

Vinne knows me and black holes better than that. “It’s someplace where gravity’s so strong that nothing can get out, not even light.”

“Both right, as far as they go, but neither goes deep enough for Vinnie’s question.”

“You got a better one, I suppose?”

“I do, Vinnie. My definitition is that a black hole is a region of spacetime with such intense gravitation that it wraps an Event Horizon around itself. Al’s collapsed star is one way to create one, but that probably doesn’t account for the Event Horizons around supermassive black holes lurking in galactic cores. Your ‘nothing escapes‘ doesn’t say anything about conditions inside.”

“Thought we couldn’t know what happens inside.”

“Mostly correct, which is why your question is as problematical as you knew it was. Best I can do is lay out possibilities, okay? First possibility is that the outer black hole forms around a pre-existing inner one.”

“Can they do that?”

“In principle. What makes a black hole is having enough mass gathered in close proximity. Suppose you have a black hole floating our there in space, call it Fred, and a neutron star comes sidling by. If the two bodies approach closely enough, the total amount of mass could be large enough to generate a second Event Horizon shell enclosing both of them. How long that’d last is another matter.”

“The outer shell’d go away?”

“No chance of that. Once the shell’s created, the mass is in there and the star is doomed … unless the star’s closest approach matches Fred’s ISCO. That’s Innermost Stable Circular Orbit, about three times Fred’s Event Horizon’s half-diameter if Fred’s not rotating. Then the two bodies might go into orbit around their common center of gravity.”

“How’s rotation come into this?”

“If the mass is spinning, then you’ve got a Kerr black hole, frame-dragging and an ISCO each along and against the spin direction. Oh, wait, I forgot about tidal effects.”

“Like spaghettification, right.”

“Like that but it could be worse. Depending on how tightly neutronium holds itself together, which we don’t know, that close approach might be inside the Roche limit. Fred’s gravity gradient might simply shred the star to grow the black hole’s accretion disk.”

“Grim. You said there’s other possibilities?”

“Sorta like the first one, but suppose the total mass comes from two existing black holes, like the collision that LIGO picked up accidentally back in 2014. Suppose each one is aimed just outside the other’s ISCO. Roche fragmentation wouldn’t happen, I think, because each body’s contents are protected inside its own personal Event Horizon. Uhh … darn, that scheme won’t work and neither will the other one.”

“Why not?”
 ”Why not?”

“Because the diameter of an Event Horizon is proportional to the enclosed mass. The outer horizon’s diameter for the case with two black holes would be exactly the sum of the diameters of the embedded holes. If they’re at ISCO distances apart they’re can’t be close enough to form the outer horizon. For the same reason, I don’t think a neutron star could get close enough, either.”

“No hole in a hole, huh?”

“I’m afraid not.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Alex and Xander, who asked the question.

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