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

The Shape of π and The Universe

This square pi are rounded.

There’s no better way to celebrate 3/14/16 than chatting about how π is a mess but it’s connected to the shape of the Universe, all  while enjoying a nice piece of pie.  I’ll have a slice of that Neil Gaiman Country Apple, please.

The ancient Greeks didn’t quite know what to do about π.  For the Pythagoreans it transgressed a basic tenet of their religious faith — all numbers are supposed to be  integers or at least ratios of integers.  Alas for the faithful, π misbehaves.  The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter just refuses to match the ratio of any pair of integers.

The best Archimedes could do about 250 BCE was determine that π is somewhere between 22/7 (0.04% too high) and 223/71 (0.024% too low).  These days we know of many different ways to calculate π exactly.  It’s just that each of them would take an infinite number of steps to come to a final result.  Nobody’s willing to wait that long, much less ante up the funding for that much computer time.  After all, most engineers are happy with 3.1416.

pi digitsNonetheless, mathematicians and cryptographers have forged ahead, calculating π to more than a trillion digits.  Here for your enjoyment are the 99 digits that come after digit million….

Why cryptographers ?  No-one has yet been able to prove it, but mathematicians are pretty sure that π’s digits are perfectly random.  If you’re given a starting sequence of decimal digits in π, you’ll be completely unable to predict which of the ten possible digits will be the next one.  Cryptographers love random numbers and they’re in π for the picking.

Another π-problem the Greeks gave us was in Euclid’s Geometry.  Euclid did a great job of demonstrating Geometry as an axiomatic system.  He built his system so well that everyone used it for millennia.  The problem was in his Fifth Postulate.  It claimed that parallel lines never meet, or equivalently, that the angles in every triangle add up to 180o.

Neither “fact” is necessarily true and Euclid knew that — he’d even written a treatise (Phaenomena) that used spherical geometry for astronomical calculations.  On our sweetly spherical Earth, a narwhale can swim a mile straight south from the North Pole, turn left and swim straight east for a mile, then turn left again and swim north a mile to get back to the Pole.  That’s a 90o+90o+90o=270o triangle no problem.  Euclid’s 180o rule works only on a flat plane.

cap areaBack to π.  The Greeks knew that the circumference of a circle (c) divided by its diameter (d) is π.  Furthermore they knew that a circle’s area divided by the square of its radius (r) is also π. Euclid was too smart to try calculating the area of the visible sky in his astronomical work.  He had two reasons — he didn’t know the radius of the horizon, and he didn’t know the height of the sky.  Later geometers worked out the area of such a spherical cap.  I was pleased to learn that π is the ratio of the cap’s area to the square of its chord, s2=r2+h2.

The Greeks never had to worry about that formula while figuring our how many tiles to buy for a circular temple floor.  The Earth’s curvature is so small that h is negligible relative to r.  Plain old πr2 works just fine.

CurvaturesAstrophysicists and cosmologists look at much bigger figures, ones so large that curvature has to be figured in.  There are three possibilities

  • Positive curvature, which you get when there’s more growth at the center than at the edges (balloons and waistlines)
  • Zero curvature, flatness, where things expand at the same rate everywhere
  • Negative curvature, which you get when most of the growth is at the edges (curly-leaf lettuce or a pleated skirt)

Near as the astronomers can measure, the overall curvature of the Universe is at most 10-120.  That positive but miniscule value surprised everyone because on theoretical grounds they’d expected a large positive value.  In 1980 Alan Guth explained the flatness by proposing his Inflationary Universe theory.  Dark energy may well  figure into what’s happening, but that’s another story.

Oh, that was tasty pie.

~~ Rich Olcott