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.
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!
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.