Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI Science Center. Sutter is also host of Ask a Spaceman, RealSpace, and COSI Science Now.
There are some things in the universe that you simply can't escape. Death. Taxes. Black holes. If you time it right, you can even experience all three at once.
Black holes are made out to be uncompromising monsters, roaming the galaxies, voraciously consuming anything in their path. And their name is rightly deserved: once you fall in, once you cross the terminator line of the event horizon, you don't come out. Not even light can escape their clutches.
But in movies, the scary monster has a weakness, and if black holes are the galactic monsters, then surely they have a vulnerability. Right? [Images: Black Holes of the Universe]
Hawking to the rescue
In the 1970s, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking made a remarkable discovery buried under the complex mathematical intersection of gravity and quantum mechanics: Black holes glow, ever so slightly, and, given enough time, they eventually dissolve.
Wow! Fantastic news! The monster can be slain! But how? How does this so-called Hawking Radiation work?
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Well, general relativity is a super-complicated mathematical theory. Quantum mechanics is just as complicated. It's a little unsatisfying to respond to "How?" with "A bunch of math," so here's the standard explanation: the vacuum of space is filled with virtual particles, little effervescent pairs of particles that pop into and out of existence, stealing some energy from the vacuum to exist for the briefest of moments, only to collide with each other and return to nothingness.
Every once in a while, a pair of these particles pops into existence near an event horizon, with one partner falling in and the other free to escape. Unable to collide and evaporate, the escapee goes on its merry way as a normal non-virtual particle.
Voila: The black hole appears to glow, and in doing so - in doing the work to separate a virtual particle pair and promote one of them into normal status - the black hole gives up some of its own mass. Subtly, slowly, over the eons, black holes dissolve. Not so black anymore, huh?
[Video: The strange relationship between black holes and particles.]
Here's the thing: I don't find that answer especially satisfying, either. For one, it has absolutely nothing to do with Hawking's original 1974 paper, and for another, it's just a bunch of jargon words that fill up a couple of paragraphs but don't really go a long way to explaining this behavior. It's not necessarily wrong, just...incomplete.
Let's dig into it. It'll be fun.
WATCH VIDEO: Do Black Holes Ever Die?