Fuzzballs: A Softer, Fuzzier Way to Destroy the Space-Time Continuum

yet another bar joke

Contrary to popular opinion, a neutrino is a subatomic particle, not a jocular Italian nickname.

I distinctly remember when I did the math as a small child:  black holes are formed from the gravitational collapse of a dying star + the Sun is a star = FUCK.  Thankfully the book I’d read that in anticipated this, so the visions of Earth being devoured by cold blackness only lasted like maybe one second.  Later I’d discover less dramatic but more relevant astronomical terrors, such as the myriad asteroids that narrowly miss smashing into Earth every now and then, but nothing would ever arouse that same sense of dread and futility that a black hole’s gravitational pull could evoke.  It would at least be somewhat feasible to deflect or destroy an incoming asteroid, of course.  Difficult, yes.  Plus we’d probably fuck it up and some poor hapless physicist would briefly be the most hated man in the world until we all died.  Still doable though.

A black hole is another matter entirely, however.  It has an infinitely intense gravity emanating from a zero dimensional, zero volume core; the human mind can’t even truly comprehend its nature in any way beyond the abstract.  Even light – completely massless and literally the fastest thing in existence – can’t escape it.  As you might know, gravity acts upon an object’s mass, so the fact that a black hole can ensnare light is one of those holy fuck kind of things.  There’s also something vaguely poetic, even spiritual, about the only sources of light in the universe collapsing into themselves and becoming a dark and ravening void that is literally impossible to see because light can never reach you from it.  It’s like in death stars begin to steal back the light they once freely gave.  Of course, not all stars become black holes, only really big ones, so that pretty much ruins my romantic rendition of it.  Thanks science.  Either way, though, contemplating black holes is some pretty (infinitely) heavy shit.

There’s a problem in those infinities, though.  The zeroes too.  Nevermind the fact that black holes are by their nature literally impossible to see; nevermind the fact that beyond a bunch of mindbending math and the observation of the effects of their immense gravity that there’s no evidence that they exist (to the point where Hawking relates that it’s as though the universe actively “censors” any singularity so that they can never be directly witnessed), it’s those zeroes and sidelong eights.  They’ve both come up before in prior physics models, and traditionally they’ve always indicated a gap in knowledge.  When those gaps are filled, the infinities and zeroes go away.  Perhaps I’m just a gigantic nerd, but I find that profoundly disappointing.  Then again, physicists can be a bit of a killjoy; when they all but confirmed the existence of Higg’s boson a little while back, Stephen Hawking publicly stated that he was kind of disappointed and was hoping something really weird and unexpected would have happened instead.  Not that my feelings about the implausibility of current black hole theory is much different; I appreciated the mystery of an invisible, zero dimensional, zero volume non-object hiding out in space and inexorably drawing even galaxies toward them.  Yes, the possibility exists that black holes so powerful that they can pull entire galaxies is quite likely.  They just (probably) work in a much more mundane way than is presented now.  Besides, if regular black holes worried me a little back in my childhood, I’m actually pretty glad I wasn’t aware of the existence of supermassive black holes until much later.

All this talk of zero dimensionality and volume might make you think the term size is irrelevant here, and you’d be right:  it’s that the singularity isn’t what gives them their “size”, but rather the event horizon, which is the furthest point from the center that light begins to be unable to escape its gravity.  It’s referred to as an event horizon because of a model in physics called a light cone.  It’s complex, and I’ll just hit the points relevant to the event horizon.  A light cone is a model that takes a point in space and depicts the spread of light from that point.  Sounds simple; it’s not, but for our purposes here it’s not so bad.  Recall that light is the fastest thing in existence, so literally anything that happens at our reference point cannot ever leave the light cone because it would have to outrun light.  Thusly, relative to anything outside the light cone, no events that occur at our reference point exist in any way because our fastest way to perceive them would be light hitting our eyes, and we’re outside the light cone, so it hasn’t reached us to carry the witness of those events to us.  Now light can’t escape the event horizon, meaning for all intents and purposes, things that take place within it are basically happening in a entirely different reality that we will never directly see, hence the term horizon; they can’t cross it anymore than we can cross earthly horizons, because they just move as you approach them.  Even if this wasn’t true, light is the only perceptual medium available in outer space.  We certainly can’t touch or taste, say, Jupiter.  There’s no air to carry sound or smell.  This is what makes black holes so interesting:  light normally reigns over the universe like a fleet yet iron-fisted Minister of Propaganda/dictator, yet black holes are able to overpower and restrain it.  And if this is half as fascinating to you as it is to me, go read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time right now.  This is the least of light’s seemingly magical and supernatural quirks.

And before you militant internet atheists have a psychotic break:  I said seemingly.  Calm down.  There are a variety of relaxation techniques just a Google search away.

Another brief aside:  much like the Higg’s boson, there is another hypothesized particle that is thought to be the force carrier of the otherwise mysterious force known as gravity, which is termed the graviton.  Scientists have long had ideas on how to eventually detect and confirm the existence of both, but unlike Higg’s Goddamn particle, physicists also deem it potentially impossible that we’ll ever actually “see” a graviton.  Of course, these people are capable of making such educated guesses that they routinely confirm their stabs in the dark to be nearly perfectly accurate, but this does mean we may never fully understand gravity works, or that if we do, we’ll never have confirmation of it.  To give you some perspective, it’s thought that a graviton detector the size of Jupiter operating at 100% efficiency would detect one (1) graviton every 10 years.  Couple this uncertainty with the fact that gravity seems to be the only thing that can reach out past an event horizon, and can do so powerfully, and you’re looking at a pretty cryptic force of nature right there, as well as another rebel against light’s unrelenting tyranny.

So whatever, this is all bullshit, right?  You just want your sons and daughters to grow up and invent flying cars and pills that instantly cure cancer and all that whatnot, and in the meantime it’d be nice if they didn’t keep you up all night crying about how Earth will be swallowed up into an unknowable void, right?  It’s a dilemma seemingly without an answer…until now.

Frustrated parents of the world, I give you the fuzzball, the infinity-free and far more soothing answer to particle theory’s black hole, brought to you courtesy of the renegade of physics: string theory.  The fuzzball has all of the black hole’s godlike power to bat around solar systems like a gigantic bored cat, a pleasing kid-friendly name and no troublesome mathematical anomalies whatsoever.  What’s more, the math concerning fuzzballs calculates event horizons at a value very close to the Schwarzschild Radius, which gives you the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole, so there’s “concrete” evidence that string theorists may be onto something with this.  Just tell your children that instead of the horrific and incomprehensible mutilation of space and time that occurs within the event horizon of a black hole, being pulled into a fuzzball takes you to a place full of puppies that you can pet forever and ever, and that’s why it’s called a fuzzball.  They won’t know, the little idiots.

yo momma

You can’t even understand his Your Momma jokes.

I’ll not try to explain fuzzballs like I did black holes for two reasons:  firstly, they pretty much match up uncannily with the characteristics of black holes, and secondly, I am fairly convinced that string theory is only for psychotically brilliant geniuses who are losing touch with their humanity/sanity because they are on the verge of transcending their disgusting meat bodies and becoming pure energy.  Really, don’t even try.  You know why they call them d-branes?  It stands for dumb-branes because string theory itself is calling you stupid.  You know why they misspell the word brain?  Because fuck you, that’s why.  It’s the same for p-branes as well.  I’ll let your pea-sized monkey minds work that one out.

So anyway, the fuzzball:  helping your kids to realize the immense scope of the universe and thusly our futile and worthless place within it as well as ensuring that they don’t have all those goddamn nightmares about it since 2002.  I mean come on, it’s just a wittle fuzzball!  Don’t you just want to pet it?  Go on, it’s okay!  Who’s my wittle devourer of light and space and time??  You are!  Yes, you!  Look, he likes it when you pet his wittle ears!

D’awww.

At least until you realize it won’t afford you even the slight mercy of ripping off what was once your hand before it distends its very form and the spacetime it once occupied into a gory atrocity of meaninglessness before your soon-to-burst eyes, which will spare you from witnessing the blasphemous perversion of light and time itself in the grip of the mighty fuzzball, in which hope cannot exist.

And by the way, I write these little science essays as much to help myself understand the concepts as much as I do to make people laugh; at no point am I trying to actually teach people anything, I entirely lack the expertise for it.  That said, take from my work what you will, knowing it’s the work of an utter layman.

EDIT:  Changed the title to match up with Freshly Pressed; it’s not mine, but I wish it were.  Thanks again, Michelle, for that and FP.  I’m truly grateful.  Thanks also to everyone who’s taken the time to comment and recommend books and give me so many other blogs to check out.  Today’s been crazy, but I’ll take the time too as soon as I can find some.

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36 thoughts on “Fuzzballs: A Softer, Fuzzier Way to Destroy the Space-Time Continuum

  1. Brilliant article. A brief History of Space and Time was a headache but worth the read. You should write a chaos theory article about carrots and turnips hitting a car windshield at 46mph…I have no idea why but it would be a good read 🙂

  2. Well there…I believe I got more from this one article than I did from an entire semester in high school science. Plus I got a laugh or two at the same time. Thanks.

  3. Well said! It baffles me how some people can NOT be interested in space/physics/black holes/our imminent destruction by exploding matter. Also, for those people who check out Hawking’s book and enjoy it, also check out Brian Greene’s books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe. Time travel and dimension-jumping are not that far off, but at the same time they infinitely far off.

    • Thank you, and I agree, this stuff is riveting. I think a lot of people sell themselves short and assume they won’t be able to understand. That’s what makes Hawking’s book so special, it was so accessible. Who knew light was so weird? Thanks too for the book recommendations, I will immediately check those out. Also thanks for reminding me about that eye exam I need to get!

  4. Thanks to your blog image I was being taught by a cat. If all my science classes had been conducted by a cat I’d understand so much more.

  5. In three hours, it has already been on of ‘those’ mornings in which I’m ready for the Black Hole to suck us all in and end our existance. I’m sorry, despite years of science fiction stories, I still can’t accept that there is another universe inside that Black Hole. If there is, I’m sure it is much more like Event Horizon.

  6. Please let me know when you discover the particle currently AWOL from my brain that will help me understand any of this. Congrats on fresh press. The particles remaining in my brain enjoyed the read.

  7. So pretty much the logic behind physics is, if you cannot detect something, then you must make up complex mathematical equations so the general public can’t understand the subject enough to argue against it’s validity, and thus prove it’s existence? Physics has always been a neat field to me, and I enjoyed your post. However, I believe the Universe is too vast and incomprehensible to theorize about with our pathetic brains.

  8. Who knew laughter could be so educational. My favorite way to confound these superstring promoters, is to point out that black holes prove the existence of karma. As the star gave light in the past now it shall recieve it back. Therefore cause and effect, proving that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I know it doesn’t work this way, but leaves them speechless long enough for me to wander off in search of more laughter.

  9. this may-or-may-not be pertinent to the subject at hand. i hadn’t thought of this for years, but back when (sa a a y — remember the 1900’s?) i actually was studying fizzyx (in college, no less) — a very tenuous suggestion of a theory involved TACHYONS. i know YOU KNOW what that is supposed to be. a FTL particle/thingy. about as soon as i read about that, i came up with my theory of BULBYONS. a particle/thingy/wave which is absolutely motionless, FIXED, with respect to everything else. the corollary, as it were, to tachyons.
    why did i post/spew this? it just might give you yet another crazy idea !

      • LOL Hey I can’t talk. I write about anything and everything that comes to mind. Though I should say most of my posts are about my interactions with people. I am always having some sort of weird interaction. My aim is mainly to make people laugh. I don’t get to use fuck much because I am already being blocked from work websites as the words “verbal ejaculations” appear in my intro. Oh well…I have fun. Now the guest writers…sigh. Great blog!

  10. “When those gaps are filled, the infinities and zeroes go away. Perhaps I’m just a gigantic nerd, but I find that profoundly disappointing.”

    Consider that an actual, material, in-practice infinity is not constructible due to the numerous contradictions entailed (e.g., the number of odd-numbered items in the infinity is equal to the number of items in the infinity). Because contradictories can’t exist, infinities can never consist of a material substance. Does this make you even more disappointed? Not me, it makes me feel more secure. I think string theory and its consequences, such as fuzzballs, is great, too, in that it seems to take us past insoluble contradictions and inconsistencies in the standard quantum theory.

  11. I think I understood most of that :-S How I wish I had payed attention at school!
    Speaking as a lay person in the world of physics could you recommend a beginners guide to read? I am a big fan of space exploration etc and would love to understand more of the ‘known unknowns’.
    -Congrats on making freshly pressed 🙂

    • Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is easily the best one that I’m aware of. You think it’s gonna be incomprehensible because Hawking’s such a genius, but he really manages to get it across to people without twelve hundred doctorates. Not that I didn’t have to re-read a few dozen pages, but most of that was some of the weirder recent findings in physics; you think you must have misunderstood, but you didn’t, the universe is just really really weird. Tim also recommended Brian Greene’s books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe. I’ve heard good things about them, but haven’t read them myself. So many books to read, not near enough life to read them all.

      And thank you. Surprised the hell out of me for sure.

  12. you got me thinking about the things that used to keep me up at night, frightened, as a child. mostly it was knowing that our human bodies were so fragile and anything could kill us. i mirror your sentiment here.. FUCK!
    the other thing that kept me up were the shadow people who played in my room and followed me if i ever needed to get up and pee or get a drink of water..
    3. dang, you’re funny and smart and i like you.

    • You know, I know that logically speaking incomprehensible stellar death should be scarier, but I’m pretty sure shadow people of any kind would have pretty much ended any possibility of sleep for the rest of my life.

      And thank you, you stroked my rampaging ego and thus I like you too.

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