Imagine A Skyrocket Inside A Black Hole

Vinnie’s never been a patient man. “We’re still waiting, Sy. What’s the time-cause-effect thing got to do with black holes and information?”

“You’ve got most of the pieces, Vinnie. Put ’em together yourself.”

“Geez, I gotta think? Lessee, what do I know about black holes? Way down inside there’s a huge mass in a teeny singularity space. Gravity’s so intense that relativity theory and quantum mechanics both give up. That can’t be it. Maybe the disk and jets? No, ’cause some holes don’t have them, I think. Gotta be the Event Horizon which is where stuff can’t get out from. How’m I doing, Sy?”

“You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

“Okay, so we just talked about how mass scrambles spacetime, tilts the time axis down to point towards where mass is so axes stop being perpendicular and if you’re near a mass then time moves you even closer to it unless you push away and that’s how gravity works. That’s part of it, right?”

“As rain. So mass and gravity affect time, then what?”

“Ah, Einstein said that cause‑and‑effect runs parallel with time ’cause you can’t have an effect before what caused it. You’re saying that if gravity tilts time, it’ll tilt cause‑and‑effect?”

“So far as we know.”

“That’s a little weasel-ish.”

“Can’t help it. The time‑directed flow of causality is a basic assumption looking for counter‑examples. No‑one’s come up with a good one, though there’s a huge literature of dubious testimonials. Something called a ‘closed timelike curve‘ shows up in some solutions to Einstein’s equations for extreme conditions like near or inside a black hole. Not a practical concern at our present stage of technology — black holes are out of reach and the solutions depend on weird things like matter with negative mass. So anyhow, what happens to causality where gravity tilts time?”

“I see where you’re going. If time’s tilted toward the singularity inside a black hole, than so is cause‑and‑effect. Nothing in there can cause something to happen outside. Hey, bring up that OVR graphics app on Old Reliable, I’ll draw you a picture.”

“Sure.”

“See, way out in space here this circle’s a frame where time, that’s the red line, is perpendicular to the space dimensions, that’s the black line, but it’s way out in space so there’s no gravity and the black line ain’t pointing anywhere in particular. Red line goes from cause in the middle to effect out beyond somewhere. Then inside the black hole here’s a second frame. Its black line is pointing to where the mass is and time is tilted that way too and nothing’s getting away from there.”

“Great. Now add one more frame right on the border of your black hole. Make the black line still point toward the singularity but make the red line tangent to the circle.”

“Like this?”

“Perfect. Now why’d we put it there?”

“You’re saying that somewhere between cause-effect going wherever and cause-effect only going deeper into the black hole there’s a sweet spot where it doesn’t do either?”

“Exactly, and that somewhere is the Event Horizon. Suppose we’re in a mothership and you’re in our shuttlecraft in normal space. You fire off a skyrocket. Both spacecraft see sparks going in every direction. If you dive below an Event Horizon and fire another skyrocket, in your frame you’d see a normal starburst display. If we could check that from the mothership frame, we’d see all the sparks headed inward but we can’t because they’re all headed inward. All the sparkly effects take place closer in.”

“How about lighting a firework on the Horizon?”

“Good luck with that. Mathematically at least, the boundary is infinitely thin.”

“So bottom line, light’s trapped inside the black hole because time doesn’t let the photons have an effect further outward than they started. Do I have that right?”

“For sure. In fact, you can even think of the hole as an infinite number of concentric shells, each carrying a causality sign reading ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here‘. So what’s that say about information?”

“Hah, we’re finally there. Got it. Information can generate effects. If time can trap cause‑effect, then it can trap information, too.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Tilting at Black Holes

“What’s the cause-effect-time thing got to do with black holes and information?”

“We’re getting there, Al. What happens to spacetime near a black hole?”

“Everybody knows that, Sy, spacetime gets stretched and squeezed until there’s infinite time dilation at the Event Horizon.”

“As usual, Vinnie, what everybody knows isn’t quite what is. Yes, Schwarzschild’s famous solution includes that Event Horizon infinity but it’s an artifact of his coordinate system. Al, you know about coordinate systems?”

“I’m a star-watcher, Sy. Sure, I know about latitude and longitude, declination and right ascension, all that stuff no problem.”

“Good. Well, Einstein wrote his General Relativity equations using generalized coordinates, like x,y,z but with no requirement that they be straight lines or at right angles. Schwarzschild solved the equations for a non‑rotating sphere so naturally he used spherical coordinates — radius, latitude and longitude. Since then other people have solved the equations for more complicated cases using more complicated coordinate systems. Their solutions don’t have that infinity.”

“No infinity?”

“Not that one, anyhow. The singularity at the hole’s geometric center is a real thing, not an artifact. So’s a general Event Horizon, but it’s not quite where Schwarzschild said it should be and it doesn’t have quite the properties that everybody thinks they know it has. It’s still weird, though.”

“How so?”

“First thing you have to understand is that when you get close to a black hole, you don’t feel any different. Except for the spaghettification, of course.”

“It’s frames again, ain’t it?”

“With black holes it’s always frames, Vinnie. If you’re living in a distorted space you won’t notice it. Whirl a meter‑long sword around, you’d always see it as a meter long. A distant observer would see you and everything around you as being distorted right along with your space. They’ll see that sword shrink and grow as it passes through different parts of the distortion.”

“Weird.”

“We’re just getting started, Al. Time’s involved, too. <grabbing a paper napkin and sketching> Here’s three axes, just like x,y,z except one’s time, the G one points along a gravity field, and the third one is perpendicular to the other two. By the way, Al, great idea, getting paper napkins printed like graph paper.”

“My location’s between the Physics and Astronomy buildings, Sy. Gotta consider my clientele. Besides, I got a deal on the shipment. What’s the twirly around that third axis?”

“It’s a reminder that there’s a couple of space dimensions that aren’t in the picture. Now suppose the red ball is a shuttlecraft on an exploration mission. The blue lines are its frame. The thick vertical red line shows it’s not moving because there’s no spatial extent along G. <another paper napkin, more sketching> This second drawing is the mothership’s view from a comfortable distance of the shuttlecraft near a black hole.”

“You’ve got the time axis tilted. What’s that about?”

“Spacetime being distorted by the black hole. You’ve heard Vinnie and me talk about time dilation and space compression like they’re two different phenomena. Thing is, they’re two sides of the same coin. On this graph that shows up as time tilted to mix in with the BH direction.”

“How about those twirly directions?”

“Vinnie, you had to ask. In the simple case where everything’s holding still and you’re not too close to the black hole, those two aren’t much affected. If the big guy’s spinning or if the Event Horizon spans a significant amount of your sky, all four dimensions get stressed. Let’s keep things simple, okay?”

“Fine. So the time axis is tilted, so what?”

“We in the distant mothership see the shuttlecraft moving along pure tilted time. The shuttlecraft doesn’t. The dotted red lines mark its measurements in its blue‑line personal frame. Shuttlecraft clocks run slower than the mothership’s. Worse, it’s falling toward the black hole.”

“Can’t it get away?”

“Al, it’s a shuttlecraft. It can just accelerate to the left.”

“If it’s not too close, Vinnie. The accelerative force it needs is the product of both masses, divided by the distance squared. Sound familiar?”

“That’s Newton’s Law of Gravity. This is how gravity works?”

“General Relativity cut its teeth on describing that tilt.”

~~ Rich Olcott

A Star’s Tale

It’s getting nippy outside so Al’s moved his out‑front coffee cart into his shop. Jeremy’s manning the curbside take‑out window but I’m walking so I step inside. Limited seating, of course. “Morning, Al. Here’s my hiking mug, fill ‘er up with high‑test and I’ll take a couple of those scones — one orange, one blueberry. Good news that the Governor let you open up.”

“You know it, Sy. Me and my suppliers have been on the phone every day. Good thing we’ve got long‑term relationships and they’ve been willing to carry me but it gets on my conscience ’cause they’re in a crack, too, ya know?”

“Low velocity of money hurts everybody, Al. Those DC doofuses and their political kabuki … but don’t get me started. Hey, you’ve got a new poster over the cash register.”

“You noticed. Yeah, it’s a beaut. Some artist’s idea of what it’d look like when a star gets spaghettified and eaten by a black hole. See, it’s got jets and a dust dusk and everything.”

“Very nice, except for a few small problems. That’s not spaghettification, the scale is all wrong and that tail-looking thing … no.”

Artist’s impression of AT2019qiz. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

“Not spaghettification? That’s what was in the headline.”

“Sloppy word choice. True spaghettification acts on solid objects. Gravity’s force increases rapidly as you approach the gravitational center. Suppose you’re in a kilometer-long star cruiser that’s pointing toward a black hole from three kilometers away. The cruiser’s tail is four kilometers out. Newton’s Law of Gravity says the black hole pulls almost twice as hard on the nose as on the tail. If the overall field is strong enough it’d stretch the cruiser like taffy. Larry Niven wrote about the effect in his short story, Neutron Star.”

“The black hole’s stretching the star, right?”

“Nup, because a star isn’t solid. It’s fluid, basically a gas held together by its own gravity. You can’t pull on a piece of gas to stretch the whole mass. Your news story should have said ‘tidal disruption event‘ but I guess that wouldn’t have fit the headline space. Anyhow, an atom in the star’s atmosphere is subject to three forces — thermal expansion away from any gravitational center, gravitational attraction toward its home star and gravitational attraction toward the black hole. The star breaks up atom by atom when the two bodies get close enough that the black hole’s attraction matches the star’s surface gravity. That’s where the scale problem comes in.”

Al looks around — no waiting customers so he strings me along. “How?”

“The supermassive black hole in the picture, AT2019qiz, masses about a million Suns‑worth. The Sun‑size star can barely hold onto a gas atom at one star‑radius from the star’s center. The black hole can grab that atom from a thousand star‑radii away, about where Saturn is in our Solar System. The artist apparently imagined himself to be past the star and about where Earth is to the Sun, 100 star‑radii further out. Perspective will make the black hole pretty small.”

“But that’s a HUGE black hole!”

“True, mass‑wise, not so much diameter‑wise. Our Sun’s about 864,000 miles wide. If it were to just collapse to a black hole, which it couldn’t, its Event Horizon would be about 4 miles wide. The Event Horizon of a black hole a million times as massive as the Sun would be less than 5 times as wide as the Sun. Throw in the perspective factor and that black circle should be less than half as wide as the star’s circle.”

“What about the comet‑tail?”

“The picture makes you think of a comet escaping outward but really the star’s material is headed inward and it wouldn’t be that pretty. The disruption process is chaotic and exponential. The star’s gravity weakens as it loses mass but the loss is lop‑sided. Down at the star’s core where the nuclear reactions happen the steady burn becomes an irregular pulse. The tail should flare out near the star. The rest should be jagged and lumpy.”

“And when enough gets ripped away…”

“BLOOEY!”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to T K Anderson for suggesting this topic.
  • Link to Technical PS — Where Do Those Numbers Come From?.

Breaking Up? Not So Hard

<transcript of smartphone dictation by Sy Moire, hard‑boiled physicist>
Day 173 of self‑isolation….
Perfect weather for a brisk solitary walk, taking the park route….
There’s the geese. No sign of Mr Feder, just as well….

Still thinking about Ms Baird and her plan for generating electric power from a black hole named Lonesome….
Can just hear Vinnie if I ever told him about this which I can’t….
“Hey, Sy, nothin’ gets out of a black hole except gravity, but she’s using Lonesome‘s magnetic field to generate electricity which is electromagnetic. How’s that happen?”
Good question….

Hhmph, that’s one angry squirrel….
Ah, a couple of crows pecking the ground under its tree. Maybe they’re too close to its acorn stash….

We know a black hole’s only measurable properties are its mass, charge and spin….
And maybe its temperature, thanks to Stephen Hawking….
Its charge is static — hah! cute pun — wouldn’t support continuous electrical generation….
The Event Horizon hides everything inside — we can’t tell if charge moves around in there or even if it’s matter or anti‑matter or something else….
The no‑hair theorem says there’s no landmarks or anything sticking out of the Event Horizon so how do we know the thing’s even spinning?

Ah, we know a black hole’s external structures — the jets, the Ergosphere belt and the accretion disk — rotate because we see red- and blue-shifted radiation from them….
The Ergosphere rotates in lockstep with Lonesome‘s contents because of gravitational frame-dragging….
Probably the disk and the jets do, too, but that’s only a strong maybe….
But why should the Ergosphere’s rotation generate a magnetic field?

How about Newt Barnes’ double‑wheel idea — a belt of charged light‑weight particles inside a belt of opposite‑charged heavy particles all embedded in the Ergosphere and orbiting at the black hole’s spin rate….
Could such a thing exist? Can simple particle collisions really split the charges apart like that?….

OK, fun problem for strolling mental arithmetic. Astronomical “dust” particles are about the size of smoke particles and those are about a micrometer across which is 10‑6 meter so the volume’s about (10‑6)3=10‑18 cubic meter and the density’s sorta close to water at 1 gram per cubic centimeter or a thousand kilograms per cubic meter so the particle mass is about 10‑18×103=10‑15 kilogram. If a that‑size particle collided with something and released just enough kinetic energy to knock off an electron, how fast was it going?

Ionization energy for a hydrogen atom is 13 electronvolts, so let’s go for a collision energy of at least 10 eV. Good old kinetic energy formula is E=½mv² but that’s got to be in joules if we want a speed in meters per second so 10 eV is, lemme think, about 2×10‑18 joules/particle. So is 2×2×10‑18/10‑15 which is 4×10‑3 or 40×10‑4, square root of 40 is about 6, so v is about 6×10‑2 or 0.06 meters per second. How’s that compare with typical speeds near Lonesome?

Ms Baird said that Lonesome‘s mass is 1.5 Solar masses and it’s isolated from external gravity and electromagnetic fields. So anything near it is in orbit and we can use the circular orbit formula v²=GM/r….
Dang, don’t remember values for G or M. Have to cheat and look up the Sun’s GM product on Old Reliable….
Ah-hah, 1.3×1020 meters³/second so Lonesome‘s is also near 1020….
A solar‑mass black hole’s half‑diameter is about 3 kilometers so Lonesome‘s would be about 5×103 meters. Say we’re orbiting at twice that so r‘s around 104 meters. Put it together we get v2=1020/104=1016 so v=108 meters/sec….
Everything’s going a billion times faster than 10 eV….
So yeah, no problem getting charged dust particles out there next to Lonesome….

Just look at the color in that tree…
Weird when you think about it. The really good color is summertime chlorophyll green when the trees are soaking up sunlight and turning CO2 into oxygen for us but people get excited about dying leaves that are red or yellow…

Well, now. Lonesome‘s Event Horizon is the no-going-back point on the way to its central singularity which we call infinity because its physics are beyond anything we know. I’ve just closed out another decade of my life, another Event Horizon on my own one‑way path to a singularity…

Hey! Mr Feder! Come ask me a question to get me out of this mood.

Author’s note — Yes, ambient radiation in Lonesome‘s immediate vicinity probably would account for far more ionization than physical impact, but this was a nice exercise in estimation and playing with exponents and applied physical principles.

~~ Rich Olcott

Engineering A Black Hole

<bomPAH-dadadadaDEEdah> That weird ringtone on Old Reliable again. Sure enough, the phone function’s caller-ID display says 710‑555‑1701.  “Ms Baird, I presume?”

A computerish voice, aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation. “Commander Baird will be with you shortly, Mr Moire. Please hold.”

A moment later, “Hello, Mr Moire.”

“Ms Baird. Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Thank you, Mr Moire. I owe you for that.”

“How so?”

“Your posts about phase-based weaponry got me thinking. I assembled a team, we demonstrated a proof of concept and now Federation ships are being equipped with the Baird‑Prymaat ShieldSaw. Works a treat on Klingon and Romulan shielding. So thank you.”

“My pleasure. Where are you now?”

“I’m on a research ship called the Invigilator. We’re orbiting black hole number 77203 in our catalog. We call it ‘Lonesome‘.”

“Why that name?”

“Because there’s so little other matter in the space nearby. The poor thing barely has an accretion disk.”

“Sounds boring.”

“No, it’s exciting, because it’s so close to a theoretical ideal. It’s like the perfectly flat plane and the frictionless pulley — in real life there are always irregularities that the simple equations can’t account for. For black holes, our only complete solutions assume that the collapsed star is floating in an empty Universe with no impinging gravitational or electromagnetic fields. That doesn’t happen, of course, but Lonesome comes close.”

“But if we understand the theoretical cases and it nearly matches one, why bother with it at all?”

“Engineering reasons.”

“You’re engineering a black hole?”

“In a way, yes. Or at least that’s what we’re working on. We think we have a way to extract power from a black hole. It’ll supply inexhaustible cheap energy for a new Star Fleet anti‑matter factory. “

“I thought the only thing that could escape a black hole’s Event Horizon was Hawking radiation, and it cheats.”

“Gravity escapes honestly. Its intense field generates some unexpected effects. Your physicist Roger Penrose used gravity to explain the polar jets that decorate so many compact objects including black holes. He calculated that if a comet or an atom or something else breakable shatters when it falls into a spinning compact object’s gravitational field, some pieces would be trapped there but under the right conditions other pieces would slingshot outward with more energy than they had going in. In effect, the extra energy would come from the compact object’s angular momentum.”

“And that’s what you’re planning to do? How are you going to trap the expelled pieces?”

“No, that’s not what we’re planning. Too random to be controlled with our current containment field technology. We’re going pure electromagnetic, turning Lonesome into a giant motor‑generator. We know it has a stable magnetic field and it’s spinning rapidly. We’ll start by giving Lonesome some close company. There’s enough junk in its accretion disk for several Neptune‑sized planets. The plan is to use space tugs to haul in the big stuff and Bussard technology for the dust, all to assemble a pair of Ceres-sized planetoids. W’re calling them Pine and Road. We’ll park them in a convenient equatorial orbit in a Lagrange‑stable configuration so Pine, Road and Lonesome stay in a straight line.”

“Someone’s been doing research on old cinema.”

“The Interstellar Movie Database. Anyhow, when the planetoids are out there we string conducting tractor beams between them. If we locate Pine and Road properly, Lonesome’s rotating magnetic field lines will cross the fields at right angles and induce a steady electric current. Power for the anti‑matter synthesizers.”

“Ah, so like Penrose’s process you’re going to drain off some of Lonesome‘s rotational kinetic energy. Won’t it run out?”

Lonesome‘s mass is half again heavier than your Sun’s, Mr Moire. It’ll spin for a long, long time.”

“Umm … that ‘convenient orbit.’ Lonesome‘s diameter is so small that orbits will be pretty speedy. <calculating quickly with Old Reliable> Even 200 million kilometers away you’d circle Lonesome in less than 15 minutes. Will the magnetic field that far out be strong enough for your purposes?”

“Almost certainly so, but the gravimagnetodynamic equations don’t have exact solutions. We’re not going to know until we get there.”

“That’s how research works, all right. Good luck.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Jet and The Plane

“OK, Sy, I get your point about a black hole being more than a mystical event horizon hiding whatever’s inside it. I’ll give you it’s a structure with a trapped-light shell and a pumpkin-donut belt around that –“

“… if it’s rotating, Vinnie…”

“– if it’s rotating, but what does all that have to do with those huge jets coming out of the poles instead of the equator where they belong?”

Suddenly Newt Barnes, astrophysicist in training, is standing by our table. “You guys are talking my research topic, just the hottest thing in astrophysics these days. Those jets were the subject of over a thousand papers last year. Mind if I sit in?”

“Of course not.” “We’re all ears.”

“Well, there’s a couple more layers to peel before we can make a maybe connection. Vinnie, what’s the weirdest thing about those jets?”

“Like I said, they’re huge — millions of lightyears long.”

“True, but other structures are huge, too — galaxy superclusters, for instance. The real weirdness is how narrow the jets are — less than a degree wide, and they’ve maintained that tight geometry while they’ve grown for millions of years. We still don’t know what’s in a jet. If it’s a beam of charged particles you’d think they’d repel each other and spread out almost immediately. If the particles are uncharged they’d bang into each other and into the prevailing interstellar medium. Random collisions would spread the beam out maybe a little slower than a charged-particle beam but still. A photon beam would be more stable but you’d need a really good collimating mechanism at the jet’s base to get the waves all marching so precisely.”

“What’s left, dark matter?”

“Almost certainly not. Many jets emit huge quantities of electromagnetic radiation at all frequencies from radio up through X-rays and beyond. Dark matter doesn’t do electromagnetism. No, jets are somehow created from normal stuff. The question is, how is it kept under such tight control?”

“The other question is, where’s all that stuff coming from if nothing can escape outta the event horizon?”

“Ah, that has to do with yet another part of the structure — the accretion disk.”

“What they got that orange picture of, right? Big ring like Saturn’s.”

“Well, similar shape, but different origin, different composition and very different dynamics. Saturn’s rings are mostly water-ice, built up from the debris of ice-moons that collided or were pulled apart by tidal forces. A black hole’s accretion disk is made up of planets, dust particles, atoms, whatever junk was unfortunate enough to be too close when the black hole passed by. Pick any incoming object and call it Freddie. Unless Freddie and the event horizon’s core are on an exact collision course, Freddie gets swept up by the disk.”

“Then what happens?”

“Freddie collides with something already in the disk. Lots of somethings. Each collision does two things. One, Freddie and the something break into smaller pieces. Two, some of Freddie’s gravitational potential energy relative to the core is converted to heat, making the collision debris package hotter than Freddie and the something were to begin with. After a while, Freddie gets ground down to atoms or smaller and they’re all really hot, radiating intensely just like Planck and Einstein said they would.”

“So we got a ring like Saturn’s, like I said.”

“Only sort of. Saturn has half-a-dozen distinct rings. They shine by reflected sunlight, the middle ring is brightest and broadest, and the innermost ring is dark and skinny. Our only direct accretion disk image so far is a one blurry view, but the object shines with its own light and in theory the disk isn’t segmented. There should be just one ring and it’d be brightest at a sharp inner edge.”

“Why’s that?”

“The light’s produced by hot particles. Heat generation’s most intense where the gravity well is steepest. That’s nearest the core. For a non-spinning black hole the threshold is one-sixth of the horizon’s diameter. If Freddie gets knocked the slightest bit closer than that it’s doomed to fall the rest of the way in. The edge is closer-in if the hole’s rotating but then Freddie has an interesting time. Relatively.”

“Gonna be frames again, right?”

“Yeah.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Beyond The Shadow of A…?

“Alright, Vinnie, what’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what, Sy?”

“You wouldn’t have hauled that kid’s toy into Al’s shop here just to play spitballs with it. You’re building up to something and what is it?”

“My black hole hobby, Sy. The things’re just a few miles wide but pack more mass than the Sun. A couple of my magazines say they give off jets top and bottom because of how they spin. That just don’t fit. The stuff ought to come straight out to the sides like the paper wads did.”

“Well, umm… Ah. You know the planet Saturn.”

“Sure.”

“Are its rings part of the planet?”

“No, of course not, they go around it. I even seen an article about how the rings probably came from a couple of collided moons and how water from the Enceladus moon may be part of the outside ring. Only thing Saturn does for the rings is supply gravity to keep ’em there.”

“But our eyes see planet and rings together as a single dot of light in the sky. As far as the rest of the Solar System cares, Saturn consists of that big cloudy ball of hydrogen and the rings and all 82 of its moons, so far. Once you get a few light-seconds away, the whole collection acts as a simple point-source of gravitational attraction.”

“I see where you’re going. You’re gonna say a black hole’s more than just its event horizon and whatever it’s hiding inside there.”

“Yup. That ‘few miles wide’ — I could make a case that you’re off by trillions. A black hole’s a complicated beast when we look at it close up.”

“How can you look at a thing like that close up?”

“Math, mostly, but the observations are getting better. Have you seen the Event Horizon Telescope’s orange ring picture?”

“You mean the one that Al messed with and posted for Hallowe’en? It’s over there behind his cash register. What’s it about, anyway?”

“It’s an image of M87*, the super-massive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. Not the event horizon itself, of course, that’s black. The orange portion actually represents millimeter-radio waves that escape from the accretion disk circling the event horizon. The innermost part of the disk is rotating around the hole at near-lightspeed. The arc at the bottom is brighter because that’s the part coming toward us. The photons get a little extra boost from Special Relativity.”

Frames again?”

“With black holes it’s always frames. You’ll love this. From the shell’s perspective, it spits out the same number of photons per second in every direction. From our perspective, time is stretched on the side rotating away from us so there’s fewer photons per one of our seconds and it’s dimmer. In the same amount of our time the side coming toward us emits more photons so it’s brighter. Neat demonstration, eh?”

“Cute. So the inner black part’s the hole ’cause it can’t give off light, right?”

“Not quite. That’s a shadow. Not a shadow of the event horizon itself, mind you, but of the photon sphere. That’s a shell about 1½ times the width of the event horizon. Any photon that passes exactly tangent to the sphere is doomed to orbit there forever. If the photon’s path is the slightest bit inward from that, the poor particle heads inward towards whatever’s in the center. The remaining photons travel paths that look bent to a distant observer, but the point is that they keep going and eventually someone like us could see them.”

“The shadow and the accretion disk, that’s what the EHT saw?”

“Not exactly.”

“There’s more?”

“Yeah. M87* is a spinning black hole, which is more complicated than one that’s sitting still. Wrapped around the photon sphere there’s an ergosphere, as much as three times wider than the event horizon except it’s pumpkin-shaped. The ergosphere’s widest at the rotational equator, but it closes in to meet the event horizon at the two poles. Anything bigger than a photon that crosses its boundary is condemned to join the spin parade, forever rotating in sync with the object’s spin.”

“When are you gonna get to the jets, Sy?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Shades of Dark

The guy’s got class, I’ll give him that. Astronomer-in-training Jim and Physicist-in-training Newt met his challenges so Change-me Charlie amiably updates his sign.

But he’s not done. “If dark matter’s a thing, how’s it different from dark energy? Mass and energy are the same thing, right, so dark energy’s gotta be just another kind of dark matter. Maybe dark energy’s what happens when real matter that fell into a black hole gets squeezed so hard its energy turns inside out.”

Jim and Newt just look at each other. Even Cap’n Mike’s boggled. Someone has to start somewhere so I speak up. “You’re comparing apples, cabbages and fruitcake. Yeah, all three are food except maybe for fruitcake, but they’re grossly different. Same thing for black holes, dark matter and dark energy — we can’t see any of them directly but they’re grossly different.”

EHT's image of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy
Black hole and accretion disk, image by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Vinnie’s been listening off to one side but black holes are one of his hobbies. “A black hole’s dark ’cause its singularity’s buried inside its event horizon. Whatever’s outside and somehow gets past the horizon is doomed to fall towards the singularity inside. The singularity itself might be burn-your-eyes bright but who knows, ’cause the photons’re trapped. The accretion disk is really the only lit-up thing showing in that new EHT picture. The black in the middle is the shadow of the horizon, not the hole.”

Jim picks up the tale. “Dark matter’s dark because it doesn’t care about electromagnetism and vice-versa. Light’s an electromagnetic wave — it starts when a charged particle wobbles and it finishes by wobbling another charged particle. Normal matter’s all charged particles — negative electrons and positive nuclei — so normal matter and light have a lot to say to each other. Dark matter, whatever it is, doesn’t have electrical charges so it doesn’t do light at all.”

“Couldn’t a black hole have dark matter in it?”

“From what little we know about dark matter or the inside of a black hole, I see no reason it couldn’t.”

“How about normal matter falls in and the squeezing cooks it, mashes the pluses and minuses together and that’s what makes dark matter?”

“Great idea with a few things wrong with it. The dark matter we’ve found mostly exists in enormous spherical shells surrounding normal-matter galaxies. Your compressed dark matter is in the wrong place. It can’t escape from the black hole’s gravity field, much less get all the way out to those shells. Even if it did escape, decompression would let it revert to normal matter. Besides, we know from element abundance data that there can’t ever have been enough normal matter in the Universe to account for all the dark matter.”

Newt’s been waiting for a chance to cut in. “Dark energy’s dark, too, but it works in the opposite direction from the other two. Gravity from normal matter, black holes or otherwise, pulls things together. So does gravity from dark matter which is how we even learned that it exists. Dark energy’s negative pressure pulls things apart.”

“Could dark energy pull apart a black hole or dark matter?”

Big Cap’n Mike barges in. “Depends on if dark matter’s particles. Particles are localized and if they’re small enough they do quantum stuff. If that’s what dark matter is, dark energy can move the particles apart. My theory is dark matter’s just ripples across large volumes of space so dark energy can change how dark matter’s spread around but it can’t break it into pieces.”

Vinnie stands up for his hobby. “Dark energy can move black holes around, heck it moves galaxies, but like Sy showed us with Old Reliable it’s way too weak to break up black holes. They’re here for the duration.”

Newt pops him one. “The duration of what?”

“Like, forever.”

“Sorry, Hawking showed that black holes evaporate. Really slowly and the big ones slower than the little ones and the temperature of the Universe has to cool down a bit more before that starts to get significant, but not even the black holes are forever.”

“How long we got?”

“Something like 10106 years.”

“That won’t be dark energy’s fault, though.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Rhythm Method

A warm Summer day.  I’m under a shady tree by the lake, watching the geese and doing some math on Old Reliable.  Suddenly a text-message window opens up on its screen.  The header bar says 710-555-1701.  Old Reliable has never held a messaging app, that’s not what I use it for.  The whole thing doesn’t add up.  I type in, Hello?

Hello, Mr Moire.  Remember me?

Suddenly I do.  That sultry knowing stare, those pointed ears.  It’s been a yearHello, Ms Baird.  What can I do for you?

Another tip for you, Mr Moire.  One of my favorite star systems — the view as you approach it at near-lightspeed is so ... meaningful.  Your astronomers call it PSR J0337+1715.

So of course I head over to Al’s coffee shop after erasing everything but that astronomical designation.  As I hoped, Cathleen and a few of her astronomy students are on their mid-morning break.  Cathleen winces a little when she sees me coming.  “Now what, Sy?  You’re going to ask about blazars and neutrinos?”

I show her Old Reliable’s screen.  “Afraid not, Cathleen, I’ll have to save that for later.  I just got a message about this star system.  Recognize it?”

“Why, Sy, is that a clue or something?  And why is the lettering in orange?”

“Long story.  But what can you tell me about this star system?”

“Well, it’s probably one of the most compact multi-component systems we’re ever going to run across.  You know what compact objects are?”

“Sure.  When a star the size of our Sun exhausts most of its hydrogen fuel, gravity wins its battle against heat.  The star collapses down to a white dwarf, a Sun-full of mass packed into a planet-size body.  If the star’s a bit bigger it collapses even further, down to a neutron star just a few miles across.  The next step would be a black hole, but that’s not really a star, is it?”

“No, it’s not.  Jim, why not?”

“Because by definition a black hole doesn’t emit light.  A black hole’s accretion disk or polar jets might, but not the object itself.”

“Mm-hm.  Sy, your ‘object’ is actually three compact objects orbiting  around each other.  There’s a neutron star with a white dwarf going around it, and another white dwarf swinging around the pair of them.  Vivian, does that sound familiar?”

“That’s a three-body system, like the Moon going around the Earth and both going around the Sun.  Mmm, except really both white dwarfs would go around the neutron star because it’s heaviest and we can calculate the motion like we do the Solar System.”

“Not quite.  We can treat the Sun as motionless because it has 99% of the mass.  J0337+1715’s neutron star doesn’t dominate its system as much as the Sun does ours.  That outermost dwarf has 20% of its system’s mass.  Phil, what does that suggest to you?”

“It’d be like Pluto and Charon.  Charon’s got 10% of their combined mass and so Pluto and Charon both orbit a point 10% of the way out from Pluto.  From Earth we see Pluto wobbling side to side around that point.  So the neutron star must wobble around the point 20% outward towards the heavy dwarf.  Hey, star-wobble is how we find exoplanets.  Is that what this is about, Mr Moire?  Did someone measure its red-shift behavior?”PSR J0337+1715Cathleen saves me from answering.  “Not quite.  The study Sy’s chasing is actually a cute variation on red-shift measurements.  That ‘PSR‘ designation means the neutron star is a pulsar.  Those things emit electromagnetic radiation pulses with astounding precision, generally regular within a few dozen nanoseconds.  If we receive slowed-down pulses then the object’s going away; sped-up and it’s approaching, just like with red-shifting.  The researchers  derived orbital parameters for all three bodies from the between-pulse durations.  The heavy dwarf is 200 times further out than the light one, for instance.  Not an easy experiment, but it yielded an important result.”

My ears perk up.  “Which was…?”

“The gravitational force between the pulsar and each dwarf was within six parts per million of what Newton’s Laws prescribe.  That observation rules out whole classes of theories that tried to explain galaxies and galaxy clusters without invoking dark matter.”

Cool, huh?

Uh-huh.

~~ Rich Olcott

A Perspective on Gravity

“I got another question, Moire.”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.”

“When someone’s far away they look smaller, right, and when someone’s standing near a black hole they look smaller, too.  How’s the black hole any different?”

“The short answer is, perspective depends on the distance between the object and you, but space compression depends on the distance between the object and the space-distorting mass.  The long answer’s more interesting.”

“And you’re gonna tell it to me, right?”

“Of course.  I never let a teachable moment pass by.  Remember the August eclipse?”

“Do I?  I was stuck in that traffic for hours.”

“How’s it work then?”

“The eclipse?  The Moon gets in front of the Sun and puts us in its shadow. ‘S weird how they’re both the same size so we can see the Sun’s corundum and protuberances.”

“Corona and prominences.  Is the Moon really the same size as the Sun?”

“Naw, I know better than that.  Like they said on TV, the Moon’s about ¼ the Earth’s width and the Sun’s about 100 times bigger than us.  It’s just they look the same size when they meet up.”

“So the diameter ratio is about 400-to-1.  Off the top of your head, do you know their distances from us?”

“Millions of miles, right?”

“Not so much, at least for the Moon.  It’s a bit less than ¼ of a million miles away.  The Sun’s a bit less than 100 million miles away.”

“I see where you’re going here — the distances are the same 400-to-1 ratio.”

“Bingo.  The Moon’s actual size is 400 times smaller than the Sun’s, but perspective reduces the Sun’s visual size by the same ratio and we can enjoy eclipses.  Let’s try another one.  To keep the arithmetic simple I’m going to call that almost-100-million-mile distance an Astronomical Unit.  OK?”

“No problemo.”

“Jupiter’s diameter is about 10% of the Sun’s, and Jupiter is about 5 AUs away from the Sun.  How far behind Jupiter would we have to stand to get a nice eclipse?”

“Oh, you’re making me work, too, huh?  OK, I gotta shrink the Sun by a factor of 10 to match the size of Jupiter so we gotta pull back from Jupiter by the same factor of 10 times its distance from the Sun … fifty of those AUs.”

“You got it.  And by the way, that 55 AU total is just outside the farthest point of Pluto’s orbit.  It took the New Horizons spacecraft nine years to get there.  Anyhow, perspective’s all about simple ratios and proportions, straight lines all the way.  So … on to space compression, which isn’t.”

“We’re not going to do calculus, are we?”

“Nope, just some algebra.  And I’m going to simplify things just a little by saying that our black hole doesn’t spin and has no charge, and the object we’re watching, say a survey robot, is small relative to the black hole’s diameter.  Of course, it’s also completely outside the event horizon or else we couldn’t see it.  With me?”

“I suppose.”

“OK, given all that, suppose the robot’s as-built height is h and it’s a distance r away from the geometric center of an event horizon’s sphere.  The radius of the sphere is rs.  Looking down from our spaceship we’d see the robot’s height h’ as something smaller than h by a factor that depends on r.  There’s a couple of different ways to write the factor.  The formula I like best is h’=h√[(r-rs)/r].”

“Hey, (r-rs) inside the brackets is the robot’s distance to the event horizon.”

“Well-spotted, Mr Feder.  We’re dividing that length by the distance from the event horizon’s geometric center.  If the robot’s far away so that r>>rs, then (r-rs)/r is essentially 1.0 and h’=h.  We and the robot would agree on its height.  But as the robot closes in, that ratio really gets small.  In our frame the robot’s shrinking even though in its frame its height doesn’t change.”

“We’d see it getting smaller because of perspective, too, right?”

“Sure, but toward the end relativity shrinks the robot even faster than perspective does.”

“Poor robot.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Carol, who inspired this post by asking Mr Feder’s question but in more precise form.