The Thin Edge of Infinity

Late in the day, project’s half done but it’s hungry time.  I could head home for a meal and drive back, but instead I board the elevator down to Eddie’s Pizza on the second floor.  The door opens on 8 and Jeremy gets on, with a girl.

“Oh, hi, Mr. Moire.  Didja see I hit a triple in the last game?  What if the Sun became a black hole?  This is that English girl I told you about.”

“Hello, Jennie.”

“Wotcha, Sy.”

“You know each other?”

“Ra-ther.  He wrote me into his blog a year ago.  You were going on about particles then, right, Sy?”

“Right, Jennie, but that was particles confined in atoms.  Jeremy’s interested in larger prey.”

“So I hear.”

The elevator lets us out at Eddie’s place.  We luck into a table, order and resume talking.  I open with, “What’s a particle?”

“Well, Sy, your post with Jeremy says it’s an abstract point with a minimal set of properties, like mass and charge, in a mathematical model of a real object with just that set of properties.”

“Ah, you’ve been reading my stuff.  That simplifies things.  So when can we treat a black hole like a particle?  Did you see anything about that in my archives, Jennie?”

“The nearest I can recall was Professor ‘t Hooft’s statement.  Ermm… if the Sun’s so far away that we can calculate planetary orbits accurately by treating it as a point, then we’re justified in doing so.”

“And if the Sun were to suddenly collapse to a black hole?”

“It’d be a lot smaller, even more like a point.  No change in gravity then.  But wouldn’t Earth be caught up in relativity effects like space compression?’

“Not unless you’re really close.  Space compression around a non-rotating (Schwarzchild) black hole scales by a factor that looks like Schwarzchild scaling, where D is the object’s diameter and d is your distance from it.  Suppose the Sun suddenly collapsed without losing any mass to become a Schwarzchild object.  The object’s diameter would be a bit less than 4 miles.  Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun so the compression factor here would be [poking numbers into my smartphone] 1.000_000_04.  Nothing you’d notice.  It’d be 1.000_000_10 at Mercury.  You wouldn’t see even 1% compression until you got as close as 378 miles, 10% only inside of 43 miles.  Fifty percent of the effect shows up in the last 13 miles.  The edge of a black hole is sharper than this pizza knife.”Knife-edges

“How about if it’s spinning?  Ms Plenum referred me to a reading about frame-dragging.”

“Ah, Jeremy, you’re thinking of Gargantua, the Interstellar movie’s strangely lopsided black hole.  I just ran across this report by Robbie Gonzalez.  He goes into detail on why the image is that way, and why it should have looked more like this picture.  Check out the blueshift on the left and the shift into the infra-red on the right.”

better Gargantua

A more accurate depiction of Gargantua.  Image from
James, et al., Class. Quantum Grav. 32 (2015) 065001 (41pp),
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

[both] “Awesome!”

“So it’s the spin making the weirdness then, Sy?”

“Yes, ma’am.  If Gargantua weren’t rotating, then the space around it would be perfectly spherical.  As Gonzalez explains, the movie’s plotline needed an even more extreme spacetime distortion than they could get from that.  Dr Kip Thorne, their physics guru, added more by spinning his mathematical model nearly up to the physical limit.”

“I’ll bite, Mr Moire.  What’s the limit?”

“Rotating so fast that points on the equator would be going at lightspeed.  Can’t do that.  Anyhow, extreme spin alters spacetime distortion, which goes from spherical to pumpkin-shaped with a twist.  The radial scaling changes form, too, from Schwarzchild scaling to Kerr scalingA is proportional to spin.  When A is small (not much spin) or the distance is large those A/d² terms essentially vanish relative to the others and the scaling looks just like the simple almost-a-point Schwarzchild case.  When A is large or the distance is small the A/d² terms dominate top and bottom, the factor equals 1 and there’s dragging but no compression.  In the middle, things get interesting and that’s where Dr Thorne played.”

“So no relativity jolt to Earth.”


“Here’s your pizzas.”

“Thanks, Eddie.”

[sounds of disappearing pizza]

~~ Rich Olcott

No-hair today, grown tomorrow

It was a classic May day, perfect for some time by the lake in the park.  I was watching the geese when a squadron of runners stampeded by.   One of them broke stride, dashed my way and plopped down on the bench beside me.  “Hi, Mr Moire. <pant, pant>”

“Afternoon, Jeremy.  How are things?”

“Moving along, sir.  I’ve signed up for track, I think it’ll help my base-running,  I’ve met a new girl, she’s British, and that virtual particle stuff is cool but I’m having trouble fitting it into my black hole paper.”

“Here’s one angle.  Nobelist Gerard ‘t Hooft said, ‘A particle is fundamental when it’s useful to think of it as fundamental.‘  In that sense, a black hole is a fundamental particle.  Even more elementary than atoms, come to think of it.”


“It has to do with the how few numbers you need to completely specify the particle.  You’d need a gazillion terabytes for just the temperatures in the interior and oceans and atmosphere of Earth.  But if you’re making a complete description of an isolated atom you just need about two dozen numbers — three for position, three for linear momentum, one for atomic number (to identify which element it represents), one for its atomic weight (which isotope), one for its net charge if it’s been ionized, four more for nuclear and electronic spin states, maybe three or four each for the energy levels of its nuclear and electronic configuration.  So an atom is simpler than the Earth”

“And for a black hole?”

“Even simpler.  A black hole’s event horizon is smooth, so smooth that you can’t distinguish one point from another.  Therefore, no geography numbers.  Furthermore, the physics we know about says whatever’s inside that horizon is completely sealed off from the rest of the universe.  We can’t have knowledge of the contents, so we can’t use any numbers to describe it.  It’s been proven (well, almost proven) that a black hole can be completely specified with only eleven numbers — one for its total mass-energy, one for its electric charge, and three each for position, linear momentum and angular momentum.  Leave out the location and orientation information and you’ve got three numbers — mass, charge, and spin.  That’s it.”

“How about its size or it temperature?”

“Depends how you measure size.  Event horizons are spherical or nearly so, but the equations say the distance from an event horizon to where you’d think its center should be is literally infinite.  You can’t quantify a horizon’s radius, but its diameter and surface area are both well-defined.  You can calculate both of them from the mass.  That goes for the temperature, too.”

“How about if it came from antimatter instead of matter?”

“Makes no difference because the gravitational stresses just tear atoms apart.”

“Wait, you said, ‘almost proven.’  What’s that about?”no hair 1

“Believe it or not, the proof is called The No-hair Theorem.  The ‘almost’ has to do with the proof’s starting assumptions.  In the simplest case, zero change and zero spin and nothing else in the Universe, you’ve got a Schwarzchild object.  The theorem’s been rigorously proven for that case — the event horizon must be perfectly spherical with no irregularities — ‘no hair’ as one balding physicist put it.”

“How about if the object spins and gets charged up, or how about if a planet or star or something falls into it?”

“Adding non-zero spin and charge makes it a Kerr-Newman object.  The theorem’s been rigorously proven for those, too.  Even an individual infalling mass has only a temporary effect.  The black hole might experience transient wrinkling but we’re guaranteed that the energy will either be radiated away as a gravitational pulse or else simply absorbed to make the object a little bigger.  Either way the event horizon goes smooth and hairless.”

“So where’s the ‘almost’ come in?”

“Reality.  The region near a real black hole is cluttered with other stuff.  You’ve seen artwork showing an accretion disk looking like Saturn’s rings around a black hole.  The material in the disk distorts what would otherwise be a spherical gravitational field.  That gnarly field’s too hairy for rigorous proofs, so far.  And then Hawking pointed out the particle fuzz…”

~~ Rich Olcott

Questions, Meta-questions and Answers

<We rejoin Sy and Vinnie in the library stacks…> “Are you boys discussing me?”

<unison> “Oh, hi, Ramona.”

“Actually no, Ramona, we were discussing relativistic time dilation.”

“I know that, Sy, I’ve been reading your posts. Now I’ve got a question.”

“But how…?  Never mind.  Guess I’d better watch my writing.  What can I do for you?”

“You and Vinnie have been going on about kinetic time dilation and gravitational time dilation like they’re two separate things, right?”

“That’s how we’ve treated them, right, but the textbooks do the same.  The velocity-dependent time-stretch equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(v²/c²)], comes out of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The gravity-dependent equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)], came from his General Theory of Relativity.”

“But there’s no rule that says an object can’t be moving rapidly while it’s in a gravitational field, is there?  That Endurance spacecraft orbiting the black hole in the Interstellar movie certainly seemed to be in that situation.”

“No question, Ramona.  General Relativity’s just more, er, general.”

“Fine, but shouldn’t they work together?”

That got Vinnie started.  “Yeah, Sy, I started this with LIGO and gravity but you and those space shuttles got me into this speed thing.  How do you bridge ’em?”

“Not easily.  Einstein set the rules of the game when he wrote down his fundamental equations.  Physicists and mathematicians have been trying to solve them ever since.  Schwarzchild found the first solution within a year after the equations hit the streets, but he did the simplest possible system — a non-rotating spherical object with no electrical charge and alone in the Universe.  It took another half-century before Kerr and friends figured out how to handle rotating spheres with an electric charge, but even those objects are assumed to be isolated from all other masses.  Mm … how do you figure velocity, Vinnie?”

“Distance divided by time, easy.”

“Not quite that easy.  The equations say that if you’re close to a massive object, space gets compressed, time gets stretched, and the time and space dimensions get scrambled.  Literally.  Time near a Schwarzchild object points inward as you approach the sphere’s center, and don’t ask me how to visualize that.  A Kerr object has a belt around its equator where time runs backwards.  Craziness.”

“Well, how about if I’m not that close?”

“That’s easier to answer, Ramona.  Suppose the three of us are each flying at safe distances from some heavy object with mass M.  I’m farthest away so I’m holding the fastest clock.  We’ll compare Vinnie’s and your clocks to mine.  OK?”3-clocks

“Sure, why not?”

“Fine.  Now, Vinnie, you’re closer in, resting on the direct line between me and the object.  You’re at distance r from it.  How fast does your clock run?”

“Uhhh…  We’re both on that same radial line so we’re in the same inertial frame, no kinetic effect.  I suppose you see it ticking slower because of the gravitational effect.”

“M-hm, and my clock ticks how often between ticks of yours?”

“You want the equation, huh?  All right, it’s tvinnie/tsy = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)].”

“You’re reading my mind with those subscripts.  Now, Ramona, you’re at that same distance from the object but you’re in orbit around it.  Measured against Vinnie’s position you’ve got velocity v.  How fast is his clock ticking compared to yours?”

“Mmm…  We’re at the same level in the gravity field, so the gravitational thing makes no difference.  So … tramona/tvinnie = √[1-(v²/c²)].  Aaand, he’d see my clock running slow by the same amount. That’s weird.”

“Weird but true.  Last step — Ramona, you’re deeper in the gravitational field and you’re speeding away from me, so tramona/tsy=(tramona/tvinnie)*(tvinnie/tsy)=√[1-(2G·M/r·c²)]*√[1-(v²/c²)] covers both.”

“OK, that’s settled.  Back to Vinnie’s original question.  LIGOs are set in concrete, their velocities are zero so LIGO signals are all about gravity, right?”


Ramona links arms with him.  “Let’s go dancing.”  Then she gives me the eye.  “Sugarlumps, Sy?  Really?”

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott