Black hole

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This article is about an object in astrophysics. For other uses, see Black hole (disambiguation).
General relativity
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A black hole is a concentration of mass great enough that the force of gravity prevents anything from escaping from it except through quantum tunneling behavior. The gravitational field is so strong that the escape velocity near it exceeds the speed of light. This implies that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravity, hence the word "black". The term "black hole" is widespread, even though it does not refer to a hole in the usual sense, but rather a region of space from which nothing can return.

Black holes are predicted by general relativity. According to classical general relativity, neither matter nor information can flow from the interior of a black hole to an outside observer. For example, one cannot bring out any of its mass, or receive a reflection back by shining a light source such as a flashlight, or retrieve any information about the material that has entered the black hole. Quantum-mechanical effects may allow matter and energy to radiate from black holes; however, it is thought that the nature of the radiation does not depend on what has fallen into the black hole in the past.

The existence of black holes in the universe is well supported by astronomical observation, particularly from studying supernovae and X-ray emissions from active galactic nuclei.


The concept of a body so massive that not even light could escape it was put forward by the English geologist John Michell in a 1783 paper sent to the Royal Society. At that time, the Newtonian theory of gravity and the concept of escape velocity were well known. Michell computed that a body 500 times the radius of the Sun and of the same density would have, at its surface, an escape velocity equal to the speed of light, and therefore would be invisible. In his words:

If the semi-diameter of a sphere of the same density as the Sun were to exceed that of the Sun in the proportion of 500 to 1, a body falling from an infinite height towards it would have acquired at its surface greater velocity than that of light, and consequently supposing light to be attracted by the same force in proportion to its vis inertiae (inertial mass), with other bodies, all light emitted from such a body would be made to return towards it by its own proper gravity.

Although he thought it unlikely, Michell considered the possibility that many such objects that cannot be seen might be present in the cosmos.

In 1796, the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace promoted the same idea in the first and second edition of his book Exposition du Systeme du Monde. It disappeared in later editions. The whole idea gained little attention in the 19th century, since light was thought to be a massless wave, not influenced by gravity.

In 1915, Einstein developed the theory of gravity called General Relativity. Earlier he had shown that gravity does influence light. A few months later, Karl Schwarzschild gave the solution for the gravitational field of a point mass, showing that something we now call a black hole could theoretically exist. The Schwarzschild radius is now known to be the radius of a non-rotating black hole, but was not well understood at that time. Schwarzschild himself thought it not to be physical.

In the 1920s, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar argued that special relativity demonstrated that a non-radiating body above a certain mass, now known as the Chandrasekhar limit (or Chandra's limit), would collapse since there would be nothing that could stop the collapse. His arguments were opposed by Arthur Eddington, who believed that something would inevitably stop the collapse.

In 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and H. Snyder predicted that massive stars could undergo a dramatic gravitational collapse. Black holes could, in principle, be formed in nature. Such objects for a while were called frozen stars since the collapse would be observed to rapidly slow down and become heavily reddened near the Schwarzschild radius. However, these hypothetical objects were not the topic of much interest until the late 1960s. Most physicists believed that they were a peculiar feature of the highly symmetric solution found by Schwarzschild, and that objects collapsing in nature would not form black holes.

Interest in black holes was rekindled in 1967, due to theoretical and experimental progress. Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose proved that black holes are a generic feature in Einstein's theory of gravity, and cannot be avoided in some collapsing objects. Interest was renewed in the astronomical community with the discovery of pulsars. Shortly thereafter, the use of the expression "black hole" was coined by theoretical physicist John Wheeler [1]. Prior to that time, the term black star was used occasionally. The latter term appears in an early episode of Star Trek, and was still used occasionally after 1967. This is because some people found the term "black hole" obscene when translated into Russian, for example. The older Newtonian objects of Michell and Laplace are often referred to as "dark stars" to distinguish them from the "black holes" of general relativity.



File:Black Hole Milkyway.jpg
A (simulated) Black Hole of ten solar masses as seen from a distance of 600km with the Milky Way in the background (horizontal camera opening angle: 90°).


General relativity (as well as most other metric theories of gravity) not only says that black holes can exist, but in fact predicts that they will be formed in nature whenever a sufficient amount of mass gets packed in a given region of space, through a process called gravitational collapse. For example, if you compressed the Sun to a radius of three kilometers, about four millionths of its present size, it would become a black hole. As the mass inside the given region of space increases, its gravity becomes stronger — or, in the language of relativity, the space around it becomes increasingly deformed. When the escape velocity at a certain distance from the center reaches the speed of light, an event horizon is formed within which matter and energy must inevitably collapse onto a single point, forming a singularity.

A quantitative analysis of this idea led to the prediction that a star remaining about three times the mass of the Sun at the end of its evolution (usually as a neutron star), will almost inevitably shrink to the critical size needed to undergo a gravitational collapse. Once it starts, the collapse cannot be stopped by any physical force, and a black hole is created.

Stellar collapse will generate black holes containing at least three solar masses. Black holes smaller than this limit can only be created if their matter is subjected to sufficient pressure from some source other than self-gravitation. The enormous pressures needed for this are thought to have existed in the very early stages of the universe, possibly creating primordial black holes which could have masses smaller than that of the Sun.

Supermassive black holes containing millions to billions of solar masses could also form wherever a large number of stars are packed in a relatively small region of space, or by large amounts of mass falling into a "seed" black hole, or by repeated fusion of smaller black holes. The necessary conditions are believed to exist in the centers of some (if not most) galaxies, including our own Milky Way .


File:Black hole jet diagram.jpg
Formation of extragalactic jets from a black hole's accretion disk

In theory, no object past the event horizon could ever have enough velocity to escape a black hole, including light; due to this, black holes cannot "emit" any kind of light or evidence that would otherwise confirm their existence. However, black holes can be inductively detected from observation of phenomena near them, such as gravitational lensing and stars that appear to be in orbit around space where there is no visible matter.

The most conspicuous effects are believed to come from matter falling into a black hole, which (like water flowing into a drain) is predicted to collect into an extremely hot and fast-spinning accretion disk around the object before being swallowed by it. Friction between adjacent zones of the disk causes it to become extremely hot and emit large amounts of X-rays. This heating is extremely efficient and can convert about 50% of the mass energy of an object into radiation, as opposed to nuclear fusion which can only convert a few percent of the mass to energy. Other predicted effects are narrow jets of particles at relativistic speeds squirting off along the disk's axis.

However, accretion disks, jets, and orbiting objects are found not only around black holes, but also around other objects such as neutron stars; and the dynamics of bodies near these non-black hole attractors is largely similar to the dynamics of bodies around black holes, and is currently a very complex and active field of research involving magnetic fields and plasma physics. Hence, for the most part, observations of accretion disks and orbital motions merely indicate that there is a compact object of a certain mass, and says very little about the nature of that object. The identification of an object as a black hole requires the further assumption that no other object (or bound system of objects) could be so massive and compact. Most astrophysicists accept that this is the case, since according to general relativity, any concentration of matter of sufficient density must necessarily collapse into a black hole.

One important observable difference between black holes and other compact massive objects is that any infalling matter will eventually collide with the latter, at relativistic speeds, leading to irregular intense flares of X-rays and other hard radiation. Thus the lack of such flare-ups around a compact concentration of mass is taken as evidence that the object is a black hole, with no surface onto which matter can be suddenly dumped.

Have we found them?

Location of the X-ray source Cygnus X-1 which is widely accepted to be a 10 solar mass black hole orbiting a blue giant star

There is now a great deal of indirect astronomical observational evidence for black holes in two mass ranges:

Additionally, there is some evidence for intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs), those with masses of a few thousand times that of the Sun. These black holes may be responsible for the formation of supermassive black holes.

Candidates for stellar-mass black holes were identified mainly by the presence of accretion disks of the right size and speed, without the irregular flare-ups that are expected from disks around other compact objects. Stellar-mass black holes may be involved in gamma ray bursts (GRBs), although observations of GRBs in association with supernovae or other objects that are not black holes [2] [3] have reduced the possibility of a link.

Candidates for more massive black holes were first provided by the active galactic nuclei and quasars, discovered by radioastronomers in the 1960s. The efficient conversion of mass into energy by friction in the accretion disk of a black hole seems to be the only explanation for the copious amounts of energy generated by such objects. Indeed the introduction of this theory in the 1970s removed a major objection to the belief that quasars were distant galaxies — namely, that no physical mechanism could generate that much energy.

From observations in the 1980s of motions of stars around the galactic center, it is now believed that such supermassive black holes exist in the center of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Sagittarius A* is now generally agreed to be the location of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Recent research has shown that black holes may play a part in the birth and creation of galaxies. The orbits of stars within a few AU of Sagittarius A* rule out any object other than a black hole at the centre of the Milky Way assuming the current standard laws of physics are correct.

File:M87 jet.jpg
The jet emitted by the galaxy M87 in this image is thought to be caused by a supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center

The current picture is that all galaxies may have a supermassive black hole in their center, and that this black hole swallows gas and dust in the middle of the galaxies generating huge amounts of radiation — until all the nearby mass has been swallowed and the process shuts off. This picture also nicely explains why there are no nearby quasars. Though the details are still not clear, it seems that the growth of the black hole is intimately related to the growth of the spheroidal component — an elliptical galaxy, or the bulge of a spiral galaxy — in which it lives. Interestingly, there is no evidence for massive black holes in the center of globular clusters, suggesting that these are fundamentally different from galaxies.

Recent discoveries

In 2004 a cluster of black holes was detected, leading to new theories about the distribution of black holes in the universe; scientists now believe that there are close to five times as many black holes as previously predicted.

In July 2004 astronomers found a giant black hole, Q0906+6930, at the center of a distant galaxy in the Ursa Major constellation. The size and presumed age of the black hole has implications that may determine the age of the universe [4].

In November 2004 a team of astronomers reported the discovery of the first intermediate-mass black hole in our Galaxy, orbiting three light-years from Sagittarius A*. This medium black hole of 1,300 solar masses is within a cluster of seven stars, possibly the remnant of a massive star cluster that has been stripped down by the Galactic Centre (Nature News) (original article). This observation may add support to the idea that supermassive black holes grow by absorbing nearby smaller black holes and stars.

In February 2005, a blue giant star SDSS J090745.0+24507 was found to be leaving the Milky Way at twice the escape velocity (0.0022 of the speed of light). The path of the star can be traced back to the galactic core. The high velocity of this star supports the hypothesis of a super-massive black hole in the center of the galaxy.

The formation of micro black holes on Earth in particle accelerators has been tentatively reported, (see, for example, [5]) but not yet confirmed. So far there are no observed candidates for primordial black holes.

Features and issues

Black holes require the general relativistic concept of a curved spacetime: their most striking properties rely on a distortion of the geometry of the space surrounding them.

The event horizon

The "surface" of a black hole is the so-called event horizon, an imaginary surface surrounding the mass of the black hole. Using the Gauss-Bonnet theorem, Stephen Hawking proved that the topology of the event horizon of a (four dimensional) black hole is a 2-sphere. At the event horizon, the escape velocity is equal to the speed of light. Thus, anything inside the event horizon, including a photon, is prevented from escaping across the event horizon by the extremely strong gravitational field. Particles from outside this region can fall in, cross the event horizon, and will never be able to leave.

According to classical general relativity, black holes can be entirely characterized according to three parameters: mass, angular momentum, and electric charge. This principle is summarized by the saying, coined by John Wheeler, "black holes have no hair".

Objects in a gravitational field experience a slowing down of time, called time dilation. This phenomenon has been verified experimentally in the Scout rocket experiment of 1976 [6], and is, for example, taken into account in the GPS system. Near the event horizon, the time dilation increases rapidly. From the point of view of an external observer, it takes an infinite amount of time for an object to approach the event horizon, at which point the light coming from it is infinitely red-shifted. To the distant observer, the object, falling slower and slower, approaches but never reaches the event horizon. The object itself might not even notice the point at which it crosses the event horizon, and will do so in a finite amount of proper time.

The singularity

At the center of the black hole, well inside the event horizon, general relativity predicts a singularity, a place where the curvature of spacetime becomes infinite and gravitational forces become infinitely strong. Spacetime inside the event horizon is peculiar in that the singularity is in every observer's future, so all particles within the event horizon move inexorably towards it (Penrose and Hawking). This means that there is a conceptual inaccuracy in the nonrelativistic concept of a black hole as originally proposed by John Michell in 1783. In Michell's theory, the escape velocity equals the speed of light, but it would still, for example, be theoretically possible to hoist an object out of a black hole using a rope. General relativity eliminates such loopholes, because once an object is inside the event horizon, its time-line contains an end-point to time itself, and no possible world-lines come back out through the event horizon.

It is expected that future refinements or generalizations of general relativity (in particular quantum gravity) will change what is thought about the nature of black hole interiors. Most theorists interpret the mathematical singularity of the equations as indicating that the current theory is not complete, and that new phenomena must come into play as one approaches the singularity. The question may be largely academic, as the cosmic censorship hypothesis asserts that there are no naked singularities in general relativity: Every singularity is hidden behind an event horizon and cannot be probed.

Another school of thought[7] holds that no singularity occurs, because of a bubble-like local inflation in the interior of the collapsing star. Radii stop converging as they approach the event horizon, are parallel at the horizon, and begin diverging in the interior. The solution resembles a wormhole (from the exterior to the interior) in a neighborhood of the horizon, with the horizon as the neck.

Entering a black hole

The effects of a black hole's gravity as described by the Theory of Relativity cause a number of peculiar effects. An object approaching a simple Schwarzschild-type (non-rotating) black hole's center will appear to distant observers as having an increasingly slow descent as the object approaches the event horizon. This is because a photon takes an increasingly long time to escape from the pull of the black hole to allow the distant observer to gain information on the object's fate.

From the object's frame of reference, it will cross the event horizon and reach the singularity, or center of the black hole, all within a finite amount of time. Once the object crosses over the event horizon, light will no longer escape the black hole, and the object can no longer be observed outside of the black hole. As the object continues to approach the singularity, it will elongate, and the parts closest to the singularity will begin to red shift, until they finally become invisible. Nearing the singularity, the gradient of the gravitational field from head to foot (presuming the object to be a human) will become considerable, will stretch and tear because of tidal forces: the parts closest to the singularity feel disproportionatly stronger gravitational force than those parts farther away. This process is known as spaghettification.

Rotating black holes

See the page "rotating black hole" for detailed information

File:Accretion disk.jpg
An artist's impression of a black hole with a closely orbiting companion star that exceeds its Roche limit. In-falling matter forms an accretion disk, with some of the matter being ejected in highly energetic polar jets.

According to theory, the event horizon of a black hole that is not spinning is spherical, and its singularity is (informally speaking) a single point. If the black hole carries angular momentum (inherited from a star that is spinning at the time of its collapse), it begins to drag space-time surrounding the event horizon in an effect known as frame-dragging. This spinning area surrounding the event horizon is called the ergosphere and has an ellipsoidal shape. Since the ergosphere is located outside the event horizon, objects can exist within the ergosphere without falling into the hole. However, because space-time itself is moving in the ergosphere, it is impossible for objects to remain in a fixed position. Objects grazing the ergosphere could in some circumstances be catapulted outwards at great speed, extracting energy (and angular momentum) from the hole, hence the name ergosphere ("sphere of work") because it is capable of doing work.

Entropy and Hawking radiation

In 1971, Stephen Hawking showed that the total area of the event horizons of any collection of classical black holes can never decrease. This sounded remarkably similar to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with area playing the role of entropy. Classically, one could violate the second law of thermodynamics by material entering a black hole disappearing from our universe and resulting in a decrease of the total entropy of the universe. Therefore, Jacob Bekenstein proposed that a black hole should have an entropy and that it should be proportional to its horizon area. Since black holes do not classically emit radiation, the thermodynamic viewpoint was simply an analogy. However, in 1974, Hawking applied quantum field theory to the curved spacetime around the event horizon and discovered that black holes can emit thermal radiation, known as Hawking radiation. Using the first law of black hole mechanics, it follows that the entropy of a black hole is one quarter of the area of the horizon. This is a universal result and can be extended to apply to cosmological horizons such as in de Sitter spacetime. It was later suggested that black holes are maximum-entropy objects, meaning that the maximum entropy of a region of space is the entropy of the largest black hole that can fit into it. This led to the holographic principle.

Hawking radiation originates just outside the event horizon and, so far as it is understood, does not carry information from its interior since it is thermal. However, this means that black holes are not completely black: the effect implies that the mass of a black hole slowly evaporates with time. Although these effects are negligible for astronomical black holes, they are significant for hypothetical very small black holes where quantum-mechanical effects dominate. Indeed, small black holes are predicted to undergo runaway evaporation and eventually vanish in a burst of radiation. Hence, every black hole that cannot consume new mass has a finite life that is directly related to its mass.

Black hole unitarity

An open question in fundamental physics is the so-called information loss paradox, or black hole unitarity paradox. Classically, the laws of physics are the same run forward or in reverse. That is, if the position and velocity of every particle in the universe were measured, we could (disregarding chaos) work backwards to discover the history of the universe arbitrarily far in the past. In quantum mechanics, this corresponds to a vital property called unitarity which has to do with the conservation of probability.

Black holes, however, violate this rule. Because of the no hair theorem, we can never determine what went into the black hole. Information is apparently destroyed, as there is no way to reconstruct what went into the black hole. This is an important unsolved conceptual problem in quantum gravity.

On 21 July 2004 Stephen Hawking presented a new argument that black holes do eventually emit information about what they swallow, reversing his previous position on information loss. He proposed that quantum perturbations of the event horizon could allow information to escape from a black hole, where it can influence subsequent Hawking radiation [8]. The theory has not yet been reviewed by the scientific community, and if it is accepted it is likely to resolve the black hole information paradox. In the meantime, the announcement has attracted a lot of attention in the media.

Mathematical theory


Black holes are predictions of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. In particular, they occur in the Schwarzschild metric, one of the earliest and simplest solutions to Einstein's equations, found by Karl Schwarzschild in 1915. This solution describes the curvature of spacetime in the vicinity of a static and spherically symmetric object, where the metric is

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where Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "":): {\displaystyle d\Omega^2 = d\theta^2 + \sin^2\theta\; d\phi^2} is a standard element of solid angle.

According to Schwarzschild's solution, a gravitating object will collapse into a black hole if its radius is smaller than a characteristic distance, known as the Schwarzschild radius. Below this radius, spacetime is so strongly curved that any light ray emitted in this region, regardless of the direction in which it is emitted, will travel towards the center of the system. Because relativity forbids anything from travelling faster than light, anything below the Schwarzschild radius – including the constituent particles of the gravitating object – will collapse into the center. A gravitational singularity, a region of theoretically infinite density, forms at this point. Because not even light can escape from within the Schwarzschild radius, a classical black hole would truly appear black.

The Schwarzschild radius is given by

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where G is the gravitational constant, m is the mass of the object, and c is the speed of light. For an object with the mass of the Earth, the Schwarzschild radius is a mere 9 millimeters — about the size of a marble.

The mean density inside the Schwarzschild radius decreases as the mass of the black hole increases, so while an earth-mass black hole would have a density of 2 × 1030 kg/m3, a supermassive black hole of 109 solar masses has a density of around 20 kg/m3, less than water! The mean density is given by

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "":): {\displaystyle \rho=\frac{3\,c^6}{32\pi m^2G^3}}

Since the Earth has a mean radius of 6371 km, its volume would have to be reduced 4 × 1026 times to collapse into a black hole. For an object with the mass of the Sun, the Schwarzschild radius is approximately 3 km, much smaller than the Sun's current radius of about 700,000 km. It is also significantly smaller than the radius to which the Sun will ultimately shrink after exhausting its nuclear fuel, which is several thousand kilometers. More massive stars can collapse into black holes at the end of their lifetimes.

More general black holes are also predicted by other solutions to Einstein's equations, such as the Kerr metric for a rotating black hole, which possesses a ring singularity. Then we have the Reissner-Nordström metric for charged black holes. Last the Kerr-Newman metric is for the case of a charged and rotating black hole.

There is also the Black Hole Entropy formula:

Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "":): {\displaystyle S = \frac{Akc^3}{4\hbar G}}

Where A is the area of the event horizon of the black hole, Failed to parse (MathML with SVG or PNG fallback (recommended for modern browsers and accessibility tools): Invalid response ("Math extension cannot connect to Restbase.") from server "":): {\displaystyle \hbar} is Dirac's constant (the "reduced Planck constant"), k is the Boltzmann constant, G is the gravitational constant, c is the speed of light and S is the entropy.

Alternative models

Several alternate models, which behave like a black hole but avoid the singularity, are considered. But most researchers judge these concepts artificial, as they are more complicated but don't give near term observable differences from black holes (see Occam's razor). The most prominent theory is the Gravastar.

In March 2005, physicist George Chapline at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California proposed that black holes do not exist, and that objects currently thought to be black holes are actually dark-energy stars. He draws this conclusion from some quantum mechanical analyses. Although his proposal currently has little support in the physics community, it was widely reported by the media (report in Nature News) (original article).

Among the alternate models are clusters of elementary particles (e.g., boson stars), fermion balls, self-gravitating, degenerate heavy neutrinos, and even clusters of very low mass ( <~0.04 Msolar) BHs.

Related topics

External links


Popular reading

  • Hawking, Stephen (1998). A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, Inc. ISBN 0553380168.
  • Pickover, Clifford (1998). Black Holes: A Traveler's Guide, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0471197041.
  • Ferguson, Kitty (1991). Black Holes in Space-Time, Watts Franklin. ISBN 0531125246.
  • Thorne, Kip S. (1994). Black Holes and Time Warps, Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. ISBN 0393312763.

University textbooks and monographs

  • Wald, Robert M. (1992). Space, Time, and Gravity: The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226870294.
  • Chandrasekhar, Subrahmanyan (1999). Mathematical Theory of Black Holes, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198503709.
  • Thorne, Kip S.; Misner, Charles; Wheeler, John (1980). Gravitation, W. H. Freeman Company. ISBN 0716703440.
  • Carter, B. (1973). Black hole equilibrium states, in Black Holes, eds. DeWitt B. S. and DeWitt C.
  • Frolov, V. P. and Novikov, I. D. (1998), Black hole physics.
  • Hawking, S. W. and Ellis, G. F. R. (1973), The large-scale structure of space-time, Cambridge University Press.

Research papers

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