Schrödinger’s Elephant

Al’s coffee shop sits right between the Astronomy and Physics buildings, which is good because he’s a big Science fan.  He and Jeremy are in an excited discussion when Anne and I walk in.  “Two croissants, Al, and two coffees, black.”

“Comin’ up, Sy.  Hey, you see the news?  Big days for gravitational astronomy.”

Jeremy breaks in.  “There’s a Nobel Prize been announced —”

“Kip Thorne the theorist and Barry Barish the management guy —”

“and Rainer Weiss the instrumentation wizard —”

“shared the Physics prize for getting LIGO to work —”

“and it saw the first signal of a black hole collision in 2015 —”

“and two more since —”

“and confirmed more predictions from relativity theory —”

“and Italy’s got their Virgo gravitational wave detector up and running —”

“And Virgo and our two LIGOs, —”

“Well, they’re both aLIGOs now, being upgraded and all —”

“all three saw the same new wave —”

“and it’s another collision between black holes with weird masses that we can’t account for.  Who’s the lady?”

“Al, this is Anne.  Jeremy, close your mouth, you’ll catch a fly.”  (Jeremy blushes, Anne twinkles.)  “Anne and I are chasing an elephant.”

“Pleased to meetcha, Anne.  But no livestock in here, Sy, the Health Department would throw a fit!”

I grin.  “That’s exactly what Eddie said.  It’s an abstract elephant, Al.  We’ve been discussing entropy. Which is an elephant because it’s got so many aspects no-one can agree on what it is.  It’s got something to do with heat capacity, something to do with possibilities you can’t rule out, something to do with signals and information.  And Hawking showed that entropy also has something to do with black holes.”

“Which I don’t know much about, fellows, so someone will have to explain.”

Jeremy leaps in.  “I can help with that, Miss Anne, I just wrote a paper on them.”

“Just give us the short version, son, she can ask questions if she wants a detail.”

“Yessir.  OK, suppose you took all the Sun’s mass and squeezed it into a ball just a few miles across.  Its density would be so high that escape velocity is faster than the speed of light so an outbound photon just falls back inward and that’s why it’s black.  Is that a good summary, Mr Moire?”

“Well, it might be good enough for an Internet blog but it wouldn’t pass inspection for a respectable science journal.  Photons don’t have mass so the whole notion of escape velocity doesn’t apply.  You do have some essential elements right, though.  Black holes are regions of extreme mass density, we think more dense than anywhere else in the Universe.  A black hole’s mass bends space so tightly around itself that nearby light waves are forced to orbit its region or even spiral inward.  The orbiting happens right at the black hole’s event horizon, its thin shell that encloses the space where things get really weird.  And Anne, the elephant stands on that shell.”white satin and black hole“Wait, Mr Moire, we said that the event horizon’s just a mathematical construct, not something I could stand on.”

“And that’s true, Jeremy.  But the elephant’s an abstract construct, too.  So abstract we’re still trying to figure out what’s under the abstraction.”

“I’m trying to figure out why you said the elephant’s standing there.”

“Anne, it goes back to the event horizon’s being a mathematical object, not a real one.  Its spherical surface marks the boundary of the ultimate terra incognita.  Lightwaves can’t pass outward from it, nor can anything material, not even any kind of a signal.  For at least some kinds of black hole, physicists have proven that the only things we can know about one are its mass, spin and charge.  From those we can calculate some other things like its temperature, but black holes are actually pretty simple.”


“So there’s a collision with Quantum Theory.  One of QT’s fundamental assumptions is that in principle we can use a particle’s current wave function to predict probabilities for its future.  But the wave function information disappears if the particle encounters an event horizon.  Things are even worse if the particle’s entangled with another one.”

“Information, entropy, elephant … it’s starting to come together.”

“That’s what he said.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Three Perils for a Quest(ion), Part 3

“Things are finally slowing down.  You folks got an interesting talk going, mind if I join you?  I got biscotti.”

“Pull up a chair, Eddie.  You know everybody?”

“You and Jeremy, yeah, but the young lady’s new here.”

“I’m Jennie, visiting from England.”

“Pleased to meetcha.  So from what I overheard, we got Jeremy on some kinda Quest to a black hole’s crust.  He’s passed two Perils.  There’s a final one got something to do with a Firewall.”

“One minor correction, Eddie.  He’s not going to a crust, because a black hole doesn’t have one.  Nothing to stand on or crash into, anyway.  He’s headed to its Event Horizon, which is the next best thing.  If you’re headed inward, the Horizon marks the beginning of where it’s physically impossible to get out.”

“Hotel California, eh?”

“You could say that.  The first two Perils had to do with the black hole’s intense gravitational field.  The one ahead has to do with entangled virtual particles.”

“Entangled is the Lucy-and-Ethel thing you said where two particles coordinate instant-like no matter how far apart they are?”

“Good job of overhearing, there, Eddie.  Jeremy, tell him abut virtual particles.”

“Umm, Mr Moire and I talked about a virtual particle snapping into and out of existence in empty space so quickly that the long-time zero average energy isn’t affected.”

“What we didn’t mention then is that when a virtual pair is created, they’re entangled.  Furthermore, they’re anti-particles, which means that each is the opposite of the other — opposite charge, opposite spin, opposite several other things.  Usually they don’t last long — they just meet each other again and annihilate, which is how the average energy stays at zero.  Now think about creating a pair of virtual particles in the black hole’s intense gravitational field where the creation event sends them in opposite directions.”Astronaut and semi-biscotto
“Umm… if they’re on opposite paths then one’s probably headed into the Horizon and the other is outbound. Is the outbound one Hawking radiation?  Hey, if they’re entangled that means the inbound one still has a quantum connection with the one that escaped!”

“Wait on.  If they’re entangled and something happening to one instantaneously affects its twin, but the gravity difference gives each a different rate of time dilation, how does that work then?”

“Paradox, Jennie!  That’s part of what the Firewall is about.  But it gets worse.  You’d think that inbound particle would add mass to the black hole, right?”


“But it doesn’t.  In fact, it reduces the object’s mass by exactly each particle’s mass.  That ‘long-time zero average energy‘ rule comes into play here.  If the two are separated and can’t annihilate, then one must have positive energy and the other must have negative energy.  Negative energy means negative mass, because of Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence.  The positive-mass twin escapes as Hawking radiation while the negative-mass twin joins the black hole, shrinks it, and by the way, increases its temperature.”

“Surely not, Sy.  Temperature is average kinetic energy.  Adding negative energy to something has to decrease its temperature.”

“Unless the something is a black hole, Jennie.  Hawking showed that a black hole’s temperature is inversely dependent on its mass.  Reduce the mass, raise the temperature, which is why a very small black hole radiates more intensely than a big one.  Chalk up another paradox.”

“Two paradoxes.  Negative mass makes no sense.  I can’t make a pizza with negative cheese.  People would laugh.”

“Right.  Here’s another.  Suppose you drop some highly-structured object, say a diamond, into a black hole.  Sooner or later, much later really, that diamond’s mass-energy will be radiated back out.  But there’s no relationship between the structure that went in and the randomized particles that come out.  Information loss, which is totally forbidden by thermodynamics.  Another paradox.”

“The Firewall resolves all these paradoxes then?”

“Not really, Jennie.  The notion is that there’s this thin layer of insanely intense energetic interactions, the Firewall, just outside of the Event Horizon.  That energy is supposed to break everything apart — entanglements, pre-existing structures, quantum propagators (don’t ask), everything, so what gets through the horizon is mush.  Many physicists think that’s bogus and a cop-out.”

“So no Firewall Peril?”

“Wanna take the chance?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Perils for a Quest(ion), Part 1

Eddie makes great pizzas but Jeremy thinks they stay in the oven just a little too long.  As he crunched an extra-crispy wedge-edge he mused, “Gravity aside, I wonder what it’d be like to land on a black hole.  I bet it’d be real slippery if it’s as smooth as Mr Moire says.”

Jennie cut in.  “Don’t be daft, lad.  Everyone’s read about the spaceman sliding through the event horizon unaware until it’s too late.  Someone far away sees the bloke’s spacetime getting all distorted but in his local frame of reference everything’s right as rain.  Right, Sy?”

“As rain, Jennie, if all you’re concerned about is relativity.  But Spaceman Jeremy has lots of other things to be concerned about on his way to the event horizon.  Which he couldn’t stand on anyway.”

“Why not, Mr Moire?  I mean, I said ‘gravity aside’ so I ought to be able to stand up.”

“Nothing to stand on, Jeremy.  It’d be like trying to stand on Earth’s orbit.”

“Pull the other one, Sy.  How can they be alike?”

“Both of them are mathematical constructs rather than physical objects.  An orbit is an imaginary line that depicts planet or satellite locations.  An event horizon is an imaginary figure enclosing a region with such intense spacetime curvature that time points inward.  They’re abstract objects, not  concrete ones.  But let’s get back to Jeremy’s black hole evaporation quest.  He’ll have to pass three perils.”

“Ooo, a Quest with Perils —  loverly.  What are the Perils then?”

“The Roche Radius, the Photon Sphere and the Firewall.  Got your armor on, Jeremy?”Astronaut and 3xBlack hole

“Ready, Mr Moire.”

“Stand up.  The Roche effect is all about gravitational discrepancy between two points.  The two meter distance between your head and feet isn’t enough for a perceptible difference in downward pull.  However, when we deal with astronomical distances the differences can get significant.  For instance, ocean water on the day side of Earth is closer to the Sun and experiences a stronger sunward pull than water on the night side.”

“Ah, so that’s why we get tides.”

“Right.  Sit, sit, sit.  So in 1849 Édouard Roche wondered how close two objects could get until tidal forces pulled one of them apart.  He supposed the two objects were both just balls of rocks or fluid held together by gravity.  Applying Newton’s Laws and some approximations he got a formula for threshold distance in terms of the big guy’s mass and the little guy’s density.  Suppose you’re held together only by gravity and you’re nearing the Sun feet-first.  Its mass is 2×1030 kg/m³.  Even including your space armor, your average density is about 1.5 kg/m³.  According to Roche’s formula, if you got closer than 8.6×106 kilometers your feet would break away and fall into the Sun before the rest of you would.  Oh, that distance is about 1/7 the radius of Mercury’s orbit so it’s pretty close in.”

“But we’re talking black holes here.  What if the Sun collapses to a black hole?”

“Surprisingly, it’s exactly the same distance.  The primary’s operative property is its mass, not its diameter.  Good thing Jeremy’s really held together by atomic and molecular electromagnetism, which is much stronger than gravity.  Which brings us to his second Peril, the dreaded Photon Sphere.”

“Should I shudder, Sy?”

“Go ahead, Jennie.  The Sphere is another mathematical object, not something physical you’d collide with, Jeremy.  It’s a zero-thickness shell representing where electromagnetic waves can orbit a massive object like a black hole or a neutron star.  Waves can penetrate the shell easily in either direction, but if one happens to fly in exactly along a tangent, it’s trapped on the Sphere.”

“That’s photons.  Why is it a peril to me?”

“Remember that electromagnetism that holds you together?  Photons carry that force.  Granted, in a molecule they’re standing waves rather than the free waves we see with.  The math is impossible, but here’s the Peril.  Suppose one of your particularly important molecules happens to lie tangent to the Sphere while you’re traversing it.  Suddenly, the forces holding that molecule together fly away from you at the speed of light.  And that disruption inexorably travels along your body as you proceed on your Quest.”

[both shudder]

~~ Rich Olcott

Another slice of π, wrapped up in a Black Hole crust

Last week a museum visitor wondered, “What’s the volume of a black hole?”  A question easier asked than answered.

Let’s look at black hole (“BH”) anatomy.  If you’ve seen Interstellar, you saw those wonderful images of “Gargantua,” the enormous BH that plays an essential role in the plot.  (If you haven’t seen the movie, do that.  It is so cool.)

A BH isn’t just a blank spot in the Universe, it’s attractively ornamented by the effects of its gravity on the light passing by:

Gargantua 2c

adapted from Dr Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of “Interstellar”

Working from the outside inward, the first decoration is a background starfield warped as though the stars beyond had moved over so they could see us past Gargantua.  That’s because of gravitational lensing, the phenomenon first observed by Sir Arthur Eddington and the initial confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

No star moved, of course.  Each warped star’s light comes to us from an altered angle, its lightwaves bent on passing through the spatial compression Gargantua imposes on its neighborhood.  (“Miles are shorter near a BH” — see Gravitational Waves Are Something Else for a diagrammatic explanation.)

Moving inward we come to the Accretion Disc, a ring of doomed particles destined to fall inward forever unless they’re jostled to smithereens or spat out along one of the BH’s two polar jets (not shown).  The Disc is hot, thanks to all the jostling.  Like any hot object it emits light.

Above and below the Disc we see two arcs that are actually images of the Accretion Disc, sent our way by more gravitational lensing.  Very close to a BH there’s a region where passing light beams are bent so much that their photons go into orbit.  The disc’s a bit further out than that so its lightwaves are only bent 90o over (arc A) and under (arc B) before they come to us.

By the way, those arcs don’t only face in our direction.  Fly 360o around Gargantua’s equator and those arcs will follow you all the way.  It’s as though the BH were embedded in a sphere of lensed Disclight.

Which gets us to the next layer of weirdness.  Astrophysicists believe that most BHs rotate, though maybe not as fast as Gargantua’s edge-of-instability rate.  Einstein’s GR equations predict a phenomenon called frame dragging — rapidly spinning massive objects must tug local space along for the ride.  The deformed region is a shell called the Ergosphere.

Frame dragging is why the two arcs are asymmetrical and don’t match up.  We see space as even more compressed on the right-hand side where Gargantua is spinning away from us.  Because the effect is strongest at the equator, the shell should really be called the Ergospheroid, but what can you do?

Inside the Ergosphere we find the defining characteristic of a BH, its Event Horizon, the innermost bright ring around the central blackness in the diagram.  Barely outside the EH there may or may not be a Firewall, a “seething maelstrom of particles” that some physicists suggest must exist to neutralize the BH Information Paradox.  Last I heard, theoreticians are still fighting that battle.

The EH forms a nearly spherical boundary where gravity becomes so intense that the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light.  No light or matter or information can break out.  At the EH, the geometry of spacetime becomes so twisted that the direction of time is In.  Inside the EH and outside of the movies it’s impossible for us to know what goes on.

Finally, the mathematical models say that at the center of the EH there’s a point, the Singularity, where spacetime’s curvature and gravity’s strength must be Infinite.  As we’ve seen elsewhere, Infinity in a calculation is Nature’s was of saying, “You’ve got it wrong, make a better model.”

So we’re finally down to the volume question.  We could simply measure the EH’s external diameter d and plug that into V=(πd3)/6.  Unfortunately, that forthright approach misses all the spatial twisting and compression — it’s a long way in to the Singularity.  Include those effects and you’ve probably got another Infinity.

Gargantua’s surface area is finite, but its volume may not be.

~~ Rich Olcott