Who is Afraid of the Big Black Hole3 min read

Black holes are violent phenomenon, and there is an element of respect when we consider them, certainly there would be fear if we had to approach one. There’s no name for fear of black holes; astraphobia is fear of stars. But there are in fact people who take black holes seriously, and experience real anxiety when reading about them. Is this fear justified?

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We can’t control black holes but we can be thankful for three things:

1. It is possible for black holes to evaporate?

Hawking’s theory of radiation means that eventually they shrink and evaporate [Unfortunately big ones emit less radiation and will evaporate much slower, but let’s not be too concerned about that…].



2. There are no black holes in our immediate vicinity.

Well, there could be.  So the nearest big one is right in our back yard, in the center of the Milky Way. That’s still about 26,000 light years away, so we’re good. Sort of. If the theories of high-energy collisions are correct, then there could be micro black holes created in the LHC particle accelerator at CERN all the time. We’re still ok, though, because as said above, small black holes emit more radiation. Tiny ones emit so much radiation they’ll evaporate in an infinitesimal fraction of a second (10-25 seconds).

3. There seems to be a limit to their size.

Scientists now agree that statistically the mass of a super-massive black hole found at the center of a galaxy would be generally about 15% of the mass of the surrounding concentration of stars, gas, and cosmic material.  The theory explaining this is that black holes started small when galaxies were young, maybe even helping them form from clouds of gas, condensing into stars, while some of the material was feeding the black hole. The process released enormous amounts of energy that pushed away some of the infalling gas. This limits the growth of the black hole and also the ability of the galaxy to make more stars, so a balance is achieved.

Interestingly, events in the past 2 years make this last statement outdated:

  • On December 5th 2011 astronomers discovered the largest super massive black hole ever found at the galaxy NGC 4889, estimated weight 21 billion solar masses, in the Coma constellation – 336 million light-years away.
  • On November 28th 2012 astronomers measured the mass of an extraordinarily large black hole estimated at 17 billion Suns, which might have the largest black hole mass to galaxy mass ratio, far exceeding the 15%.  It has been found in the galaxy NGC 1277, in the constellation Perseus – 220 million light-years away.

So with awareness of these lurking giants, some of us might consider ignorance is bliss. As for the rest of us – we’ll just have to remember to be careful next time we’re hyperlooping or warp-driving in the area.

[Image Source: NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet]  [fbshare]

 

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