Five Surprising Truths About Black Holes From LIGO
“1.) The largest merging black holes are the easiest to see, and they don’t appear to get larger than about 50 solar masses. One of the best things about looking for gravitational waves is that it’s easier to see them from farther away than it is for a light source. Stars appear dimmer in proportion to their distance squared: a star 10 times the distance is just one-hundredth as bright. But gravitational waves are dimmer in direct proportion to distance: merging black holes 10 times as far away produce 10% the signal.
As a result, we can see very massive objects to very great distances, and yet we don’t see black holes merging with 75, 100, 150, or 200+ solar masses. 20-to-50 solar masses are common, but we haven’t seen anything above that yet. Perhaps the black holes arising from ultra-massive stars truly are rare.”
Well, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations have put their head together to re-analyze the full suite of their scientific data, and guess what they found: a total of 11 merger events, including ten black hole-black hole mergers. Now that we’re in the double digits, we can actually start to say some incredibly meaningful things about what’s present in the Universe, what we’ve seen, and what that means for what comes next. Which black holes are the most common? How frequently do these mergers occur? What’s the highest-mass black hole binary that LIGO could detect? And how many black holes do we expect to find when run III starts up in 2019?
The answers are coming! Come see what we know so far, and learn five surprising truths about black holes, courtesy of our findings from LIGO!
Ask Ethan: When Do Black Holes Become Unstable?
“Is there a critical size for black hole stability? [A] 1012 kg [black hole] is already stable for a couple of billion years. However, a [black hole] in the range of 105 kg, could explode in a second, thus, definitely not stable… I guess there is a critical mass for a [black hole] where the flow of gained matter will equal to the Hawking evaporation?”
Wherever you have a black hole in the Universe, you have two competing processes. On the one hand, anything that crosses the event horizon, whether it’s normal matter, dark matter, or even pure energy, can never escape. If you fall in, you just add to the overall mass of the black hole, and grow it in size, too. But on the other hand, all black holes radiate away energy in the form of Hawking radiation, and that subtracts mass over time, shrinking your black hole. For all realistic-mass black holes, the rate-of-growth far outstrips the rate of mass loss, meaning they’ll grow for a very long time before they start to shrink.
But eventually, they will shrink. And although we think they don’t exist, a low-enough mass black hole would start shrinking today. Find out when black holes become unstable today!
Ask Ethan: How Do Black Holes Actually Evaporate?
“[J]ust what is Hawking radiation? The science press articles keep referring to the electron-positron virtual pair production at the event horizon, which makes a lay person think that the Hawking radiation consists of electrons and positrons moving away from the black hole.”
Halloween may be over now, so you are free to return to your regularly scheduled existential crises instead of being scared by ghouls and goblins. To help you with that, let’s think about the fact that everything in the Universe, given enough time, will eventually die and decay away. The longest-lived entities, as far as we know, are the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. While stars will burn out after billions or trillions of years, and white dwarfs will cool down after quadrillions, and galaxies will gravitationally dissociate after perhaps 10^24 years, black holes will stick around for far longer: up to 10^100 years. But even they don’t live forever. Hawking radiation ensures that they will decay away, eventually, too.
But if you learned about Hawking radiation from Hawking’s explanation itself, you were lied to. Come find out how black holes actually evaporate today!
Ask Ethan: Why Is The Black Hole Information Loss Paradox A Problem?
“Why do physicists all seem to agree that the information loss paradox is a real problem? It seems to depend on determinism, which seems incompatible with QM.”
There are a few puzzles in the Universe that we don’t yet know the answer to, and they almost certainly are the harbingers of the next great advances. Solving the mysteries of why there’s more matter than antimatter, what dark matter and dark energy are, or why the fundamental particles have the masses they do will surely bring physics to the next level when we figure them out. One much less obvious puzzle, though, is the black hole information loss paradox. It’s true that we don’t yet have a theory of quantum gravity, but we don’t need one to see why this is a problem. When matter falls into a black hole, something ought to happen to keep it from simply losing its information; entropy must not go down. Similarly, when black holes evaporate, a la Hawking radiation, that information can’t just disappear, either.
So where does it go? Are we poised to violate the second law of thermodynamics? Come find out what the black hole information paradox is all about, and why it compels us to find a solution!
What Was It Like When The First Stars Died?
“It’s theorized that this is the origin of the seeds of the supermassive black holes that occupy the centers of galaxies today: the deaths of the most massive stars, which create black holes hundreds or thousands of times the mass of the Sun. Over time, mergers and gravitational growth will lead to the most massive black holes known in the Universe, black holes that are millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun by today.
It took perhaps 100 million years to form the very first stars in the Universe, but just another million or two after that for the most massive among them to die, creating black holes and spreading heavy, processed elements into the interstellar medium. As time goes on, the Universe, at long last, will begin to resemble what we actually see today.”
Our Universe, shortly after the Big Bang, proceeded in a number of momentous steps. The first atomic nuclei formed just minutes after the Big Bang, while neutral atoms took hundreds of thousands of years. It took another 50 to 100 million years for the very first star to be created, but only, perhaps, a million or two years for the most massive among the first stars to die. They may have been short-lived, but the first stars were truly spectacular, and their deaths set up the first steps in a changing Universe that would take us from a pristine set of materials to, eventually, the Universe as we know it today.
Take a major step in the cosmic journey of how we got to today by looking at what it was like when the first stars died!
Ask Ethan: Could The Energy Loss From Radiating Stars Explain Dark Energy?
“What happens to the gravity produced by the mass that is lost, when it’s converted by nuclear reactions in stars and goes out as light and neutrinos, or when mass accretes into a black hole, or when it’s converted into gravitational waves? […] In other words, are the gravitational waves and EM waves and neutrinos now a source of gravitation that exactly matches the prior mass that was converted, or not?”
For the first time in the history of Ask Ethan, I have a question from a Nobel Prize-winning scientist! John Mather, whose work on the Cosmic Microwave Background co-won him a Nobel Prize with George Smoot, sent me a theory claiming that when matter gets converted into radiation, it can generate an anti-gravitational force that might be responsible for what we presently call dark energy. It’s an interesting idea, but there are some compelling reasons why this shouldn’t work. We know how matter and radiation and dark energy all behave in the Universe, and converting one into another should have very straightforward consequences. When we take a close look at what they did, we can even figure out how the theory’s proponents fooled themselves.
Radiating stars and merging black holes do change how the Universe evolves, but not in a way that can mimic dark energy! Come find out how on this week’s Ask Ethan.
6 Facts You Never Imagined About The Nearest Stars To Earth
“4.) There are no neutron stars or black holes within 10 parsecs. And, to be honest, you have to go out way further than 10 parsecs to find either of these! In 2007, scientists discovered the X-ray object 1RXS J141256.0+792204, nicknamed “Calvera,” and identified it as a neutron star. This object is a magnificent 617 light years away, making it the closest neutron star known. To arrive at the closest known black hole, you have to go all the way out to V616 Monocerotis, which is over 3,000 light years away. Of all the 316 star systems identified within 10 parsecs, we can definitively state that there are none of them with black hole or neutron star companions. At least where we are in the galaxy, these objects are rare.”
In the mid-1990s, astronomy was a very different place. We had not yet discovered brown dwarfs; exoplanet science was in its infancy; and we had discovered 191 star systems within 10 parsecs (32.6 light years) of Earth. Of course, low-mass stars have been discovered in great abundance now, exoplanet science has thousands of identified planets, and owing to projects like the RECONS collaboration, we’ve now discovered a total of 316 star systems within 10 parsecs of Earth. This has huge implications for what the Universe is actually made of, which we can learn just by looking in our own backyard. From how common faint stars are to planets, lifetimes, multi-star systems and more, there’s a huge amount of information to be gained, and the RECONS collaboration just put out their latest, most comprehensive results ever.
We’ve now confidently identified over 90% of the stars that are closest to us, and here’s what we’ve learned so far. Come get some incredible facts today!
Ask Ethan: Could The Universe’s Missing Antimatter Be Found Inside Black Holes?
“It is a mystery why we see matter without corresponding antimatter. Some remote and old super massive black holes evolved much faster than current theory is able to predict. Could the missing antimatter be hiding inside those primordial black holes? Does the total mass of super massive black holes come even close to the amount of missing anti matter?”
When we look out at the Universe today, we see that everything is made of matter and not antimatter. This is a puzzle, because the laws of physics appear to be symmetric between matter and antimatter: you can’t create or destroy either one without creating or destroying an equal amount of the other. Is it possible that we actually created equal amounts of both, and that the antimatter collapsed into black holes, which might be responsible for either supermassive black holes or primordial black holes as dark matter? While, on the other hand, the normal matter didn’t collapse, and became the stars, gas, galaxies, and more that we observe today?
It’s a fascinating alternative to the standard picture that our Universe is fundamentally asymmetric, but does it hold up? Find out on this week’s Ask Ethan!
The Milky Way Is Hiding Tens Of Thousands Of Black Holes
“This study is of tremendous importance, since it provides us with the first real evidence of what LISA will be looking for, further motivating us to look for these events that, as we now know, must exist. Unlike LIGO’s black holes, these inspiraling events will give us weeks, months, or even years of lead-up time, allowing us to pinpoint exactly where and when we’ll need to look to see these mergers coming. This is the first confirmation of the theory that tens of thousands of black holes ought to exist around supermassive ones at the centers of galaxies, and allows us to better predict how many gravitational wave events we’re likely to see coming from them.“
At the center of our Milky Way, our galaxy houses a supermassive black hole: Sagittarius A*. At four million solar masses, it’s the most massive object in our entire galaxy, while orbiting around it are stars, gas, dust, and many other astrophysical objects. This is a region where new star formation is rampant, and so, in theory, there ought to be many thousands of black holes within just a few light years of Sagittarius A*, some of which ought to be detectable through their emission of X-rays from binary companions. For nearly 20 years, such a detection was elusive, since the flares that occur when black holes absorb large amounts of matter are too rare. But now, using the full suite of archival data from the Chandra X-ray observatory, scientists have found the steady, low-level X-ray emission these systems give off, revealing a population of approximately 10,000 black holes within 3 light years of Sagittarius A*.
The Milky Way is hiding tens of thousands of black holes near the galactic center, and for the first time, we’ve just revealed the surefire signs that they exist.
The Black Hole Information Paradox, Stephen Hawking’s Greatest Puzzle, Is Still Unsolved
“Despite our best efforts, we still don’t understand whether information leaks out of a black hole when it radiates energy (and mass) away. If it does leak information away, it’s unclear how that information is leaked out, and when or where Hawking’s original calculations break down. Hawking himself, despite conceding the argument more than a decade ago, continued to actively publish on the topic, often declaring that he had finally solved the paradox. But the paradox remains unresolved, without a clear solution. Perhaps that’s the greatest legacy one can hope to achieve in science: to uncover a new problem so complex that it will take multiple generations to arrive at the solution. In this particular case, most everyone agrees on what the solution ought to look like, but nobody knows how to get there. Until we do, it will remain just another part of Hawking’s incomparable, enigmatic gifts that he shared with the world.”
When anything falls into a black hole, it adds to the black hole’s mass, electric charge, and angular momentum, which is what General Relativity predicts. But there’s also quantum information encoded in what falls in, and that information can’t be destroyed. There’s a neat solution for that: information can be encoded on the event horizon of a black hole, getting “smeared out” from the perspective of an outside observer. But then, what happens to this information when the black hole evaporates via Hawking radiation? Hawking himself predicted that information was lost, which is now thought to be wrong. But the question of exactly how that information gets encoded onto the outgoing radiation is still a matter of massive uncertainty. Despite declarations by many (including Hawking) that the paradox has been resolved, the fact is that the black hole information paradox is still an open area of study.
Come find out what the greatest problem in black hole physics, the one that plagued Hawking all his life (and continues to plague him even posthumously) is all about!