No Black Holes? More Like Grey Holes, Says Hawking
Artist's impression of a spinning supermassive black hole with a surrounding accretion disk and relativistic jets.
How to measure the spin of a black hole: This chart illustrates the basic model for determining the spin rates of black holes. The three artist's concepts represent the different types of spin: retrograde rotation, where the disk of matter falling onto the hole, called an accretion disk, moves in the opposite direction of the black hole; no spin; and prograde rotation, where the disk spins in the same direction as the black hole.
Two models of black hole spin: Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. The light comes from accretion disks that swirl around black holes, as shown in both of the artist's concepts. They use X-ray space telescopes to study these colors, and, in particular, look for a "fingerprint" of iron -- the peak shown in both graphs, or spectra -- to see how sharp it is. Prior to observations with NASA's Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and the European Space Agency's XMM- Newton telescope, there were two competing models to explain why this peak might not appear to be sharp. The "rotation" model shown at top held that the iron feature was being spread out by distorting effects caused by the immense gravity of the black hole. If this model were correct, then the amount of distortion seen in the iron feature should reveal the spin rate of the black hole. The alternate model held that obscuring clouds lying near the black hole were making the iron line appear artificially distorted. If this model were correct, the data could not be used to measure black hole spin.
This chart depicts the electromagnetic spectrum, highlighting the X-ray portion. NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope complement each other by seeing different colors of X-ray light. XMM-Newton sees X-rays with energies between 0.1 and 10 kiloelectron volts (keV), the "red" part of the spectrum, while NuSTAR sees the highest-energy, or "bluest," X- ray light, with energies between 3 and 70 keV.
This image taken by the ultraviolet-light monitoring camera on the European Space Agency's (ESA's) XMM-Newton telescope shows the beautiful spiral arms of the galaxy NGC1365. Copious high-energy X-ray emission is emitted by the host galaxy, and by many background sources. The large regions observed by previous satellites contain so much of this background emission that the radiation from the central black hole is mixed and diluted into it. NuSTAR, NASA's newest X-ray observatory, is able to isolate the emission from the black hole, allowing a far more precise analysis of its properties.
What XMM-Newton saw: The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain the low-energy X-ray emission seen from the galaxy NGC 1365 by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the measurements from XMM-Newton, which are explained equally well by both models.
Two X-ray observatories are better than one: NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has helped to show, for the first time, that the spin rates of black holes can be measured conclusively. It did this, together with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, by ruling out the possibility that obscuring clouds were partially blocking X-ray right coming from black holes. The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain low-energy X-ray emission seen previously from the spiral galaxy NGC 1365 by XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the latest measurements from XMM-Newton, and the yellow circles show the data from NuSTAR. While both models fit the XMM-Newton data equally well, only the disk reflection model fits the NuSTAR data.
On reading a new paper by Stephen Hawking that appeared online this week, you would have been forgiven in thinking the world-renowned British physicist was spoofing us. Hawking’s unpublished work — titled “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes” and uploaded to the arXiv preprint service — declares that “there are no black holes.”
Keep in mind that Hawking’s bedrock theory of evaporating black holes revolutionized our understanding that the gravitational behemoths are not immortal; through a quantum quirk they leak particles (and therefore mass) via “Hawking radiation” over time. What’s more, astronomers are finding new and exciting ways to detect black holes — they are even working on an interferometer network that may, soon, be able to directly image a black hole’s event horizon!
Has Hawking changed his mind? Are black holes merely a figment of our collective imaginations? Are all those crank theories about “alternative” theories of the Cosmos true?!
Stephen Hawking hasn’t changed his mind about the whole black hole thing, but he has thrown a complex physics paradox into the limelight, one that has been gnawing at the heart of theoretical physics for the last 18 months.
Black Hole Fight Club
It all boils down to a conflict between two fundamental ideas in physics that control the very fabric of our Universe; the clash of Einstein’s general relativity and quantum dynamics. And it just so happens that the extreme environment in and around a black hole makes for the perfect “fight club” for the two theories to duke it out. But what’s the first rule of the black hole fight club? Don’t talk about the firewall, lest you get sucked into an argument with a theoretical physicist.
At a California Institute of Technology (Caltech) lecture in April 2013, Hawking and other prominent theoretical physicists had an opportunity to describe the problem at hand. Caltech’s Kip Thorne, for example, described the firewall paradox as “a burning issue in theoretical physics.”
The very basis of this burning issue is the thing that makes black holes black — the event horizon. In its most basic form, the event horizon of a black hole is the point at which even light cannot escape the gravitational clutches of the massive black hole singularity. If light cannot escape, it stands to reason that it will appear as a black sphere in space. It is a cosmic one-way street: everything goes in, nothing comes out.
An Unlucky Astronaut
In the general relativity universe, for an astronaut who had the misfortune to fall toward a black hole, he or she wouldn’t notice anything untoward as they passed across the event horizon. It would be a fairly peaceful event, no drama. “Although later on you’re doomed and you’ll encounter very strong gravitational forces that will pull you apart,” noted Caltech physicist John Preskill at the 2013 Caltech event.
However, the quantum universe contradicts this “no drama” event horizon idea as predicted by general relativity.
In 2012, a group of physicists headed by Joseph Polchinski of the University of California in Santa Barbara revealed their finding that if black holes truly do not destroy information — a standpoint that Hawking himself reluctantly advocates — and that information can escape from the black hole through Hawking radiation, there must be a raging inferno just inside the event horizon they dub the “firewall.”
In this case, rather than falling into a “no drama” event horizon, our unlucky astronaut gets burnt to a crisp before getting ripped apart by tidal shear. This is the very antithesis of “no drama” and, therefore, a paradox.
This apparent conflict between what general relativity predicts and what quantum dynamics predicts — two very established fields in physics — is precisely what theoretical physicists are trying to understand. This appears to be yet another situation where gravity and quantum dynamics don’t play nice, the solution of which may transform the way we view the Universe.
So, when Hawking, one of the key players in the great firewall debate, writes a short paper on the topic (regardless of whether or not it has been published) the world takes note.
Hawking’s solution to the paradox removes the black hole’s event horizon, thereby removing the paradox; no event horizon, no firewall. But we’re told all black holes have event horizons — the line you cannot cross or be forever lost inside the black hole — what gives?
Hawking thinks that the idea behind the event horizon needs to be reworked. Rather than the event horizon being a definite line beyond which even light cannot escape, Hawking invokes an “apparent horizon” that changes shape according to quantum fluctuations inside the black hole — it’s almost like a “grey area” for extreme physics. An apparent horizon wouldn’t violate either general relativity or quantum dynamics if the region just beyond the apparent horizon is a tangled, chaotic mess of information.
“Thus, like weather forecasting on Earth, information will effectively be lost, although there would be no loss of unitarity,” writes Hawking. This basically means that although the information can escape from the black hole, its chaotic nature ensures it cannot be interpreted, sidestepping the firewall paradox all together.
Needless to say, this paper has done little to convince Polchinski. “It almost sounds like (Hawking) is replacing the firewall with a chaos-wall, which could be the same thing,” he told New Scientist.
Much of the theoretical debate is hard to fathom and the result of calculations of physical events that we cannot possibly experience in our day to day lives. But don’t mistake this particular debate as solely a high-brow argument in the theoretical physics community. Its foundations are rooted in the growing discomfort we are feeling with the mismatch of general relativity and quantum dynamics (particularly what role gravity plays in the quantum world), a problem that cannot be solved with our current understanding of the universe.
It is, after all, these science problems that we build multi-billion dollar particle accelerators for.
Source: Nature News