Astronomy

Black Holes



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There is a force in outer space that is even more amazing than the task of trying to conceptualize the size or age of the universe itself.  It is a phenomenon that boggles the mind with its sheer immensity and powerful qualities.  It is a phenomenon called the black hole.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Astronomy, a black hole is a “region of space where the gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape from it” and that they are formed when “matter collapses on itself catastrophically so that more than a critical quantity of mass is concentrated into a particularly small region” (Mitton 51).  But what exactly does this mean?  It takes input from the human imagination to draw upon this information and create the true fascinating image of the black hole.

Though the term “black hole” was coined very recently – in 1969 by an American scientist named John Wheeler to be exact – the idea of a huge gravitational force in space effecting light has been floated for at least two hundred years (Hawking 81).  In fact, it was as long ago as 1783 that the English cleric named John Mitchell pondered the concept of objects in space so massive that they had escape velocities that exceeded the speed of light (Arny 430).  The real challenge, though, is to paint a picture of what a black hole actually is.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Astronomy has what I found to be the best description yet.  It states that a black hole is the ultimate end, claiming that: “incredible though it seems, if a star is massive enough it will continue to collapse on itself.  Forever” (De Pree/Axelrod 284).  This occurs when an extremely massive star (20 to 30 times larger than our sun) is ripped apart in a supernova explosion.  The core collapse from the supernova remnant may be so extreme that nothing can escape it – not even light.  To put this in perspective, the Earth would have to be compressed into the size of a pea and retain the same mass in order to generate an escape velocity greater than the speed of light.(De Pree/Axelrod 284-285).

Because there is no way to see non-light in the universe, the proof of the existence of black holes is still primarily theoretical.   However, many scientists believe that the effects of a black hole can be observed.  This concept is much like the wind.  Though we can’t actually “see” the wind, we can see leaves and dust being blown about. 

Some of the effects a black hole may have on its nearby astrological neighbors could be in the form of gas that is drawn from a companion star into the hole itself by the sheer force of the collapsed star’s gravity.   This gas, which would then cause a phenomenon known as the Schwarzschild radius, would begin to move near the speed of light, causing turbulence and friction which would be released as X rays and gamma rays.  Other phenomena would include gravitational waves, the emission of Hawking radiation – a phenomenon based on the temperatures of black holes – and the bending or distorting of light and other particles near the event horizon.

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