by Larry Leonard (An update of a piece published here in 1998)
August 7, 2011 -- just posted related OrMag piece: Hawkings excommunicates God
"I mean, why not? All you're talking about is the mathematical equivalent of parallel mirror image Hawking/Gnikwah universes which interchange Dilbert-mass for Frohmm-energy and vice versa at an infinite number of identical but sign-opposite pointillistic cosmic quantum-duality intersections!"
There was this toy car lurching across
the surface of mars.
We'll start with the "why."
Some years back, a
multi-university group of astronomers working with the
88" reflector telescope on Mauna Kea (a mountain in
Hawaii) were studying space when they found a strange
object that wasn't Al Gore. It is circling two
colliding galaxies at two million miles per hour, and
is sizeable. What does "sizable" mean? God
only knows, at present. I'll say somewhere
between 10 and 100 million times the mass of our
sun. It may even weigh in a thousand times
bigger than that and so have the same mass as our
entire galaxy, the Milky Way!
The problem you run into on jobs like these is that the envelope of gasses around our planet acts a lot like the cigar smoke in an old-west cardroom, God Bless both. It distorts some kinds of radiation, and even flat stops some other kinds. (If it didn't, you'd be dead.) That's one reason why we have to get out there. Orbiting astronomical devices like the Hubble Space Telescope (modified in February, 1997 to, among other things, make it into a black-hole-a-scope) are by definition far above the madding clouds. Look at the shot it got of M-16's stellar anthills !!
Not that we've given up
trying to get a better look from down here.
The idea may hold great promise. We're even planning on experimenting with this technique in space, which offers the potential of RLBI, or Ridiculously Long Baseline Interferometry. (For a comparison, the best optical scopes we've got have the theoretical capability to see, from Los Angeles, a man waving in San Francisco. Think of the Hubble as being able to see the same guy in Moscow. Earth-based VLBI has the potential to see him waving from the moon. A VLBI in space may be able to see him standing on, for example, Saturn's moon, Titan. It could observe planets circling stars ten light years distant.)
Besides the already
else will we be looking for?
Another task will be that of taking a long look at the beginning of the universe. Telescopes, according to every astronomy program ever produced, are time machines. The farther out you look, the farther back in time you're looking. (Indians called astronomers "the men with long eyes.")
This is true, but misleading. Telescopes don't "look out." They collect light or some other kind of radiation. The best ones are the best at collecting light, and so manage to "see" the faintest objects. The faintest objects are the farthest away, and so the light has taken longer to get here. It began to come towards us at an earlier time than the light from nearer objects, and so represents a source from deeper in our past. Our sun is nine "light minutes" away. The object you see in the sky is the sun that existed nine minutes in the past. If it blew up as you are reading this sentence, you wouldn't know it, nobody would know it, for that length of time. This is what astrophysicists mean when they talk about the "event horizon."
(A nice side effect of
this bit of science is that you can now understand why
you think you are the center of the universe.
The fact is: you are! Everything around you
started sending its light to you in your past.
You are the only "present" item, anywhere.)
Whatever it is, the astronomers have named this mass we can't see: cold dark matter. (Sounds like a medieval romance novel, doesn't it?) A friend of Cambridge University Lucasian Professor, Stephen Hawking, a fellow working in the state of Washington, proposed that this stuff might be floating around in clumps he called MACHOs, or MAssive Cosmic Halo Objects. Relativity theory, which we will get into in more depth later, says that if there are such things they would make a kind of light-lens in space-time. (Photo:M82, the exploding galaxy. A galactic cluster gravity lens is shown, later.)
Stars behind them would appear to flare up, get brighter, until they passed by. The fellow, named Stubb, actually discovered that MACHOs exist, but, sadly, came to the conclusion that there can't be enough of them to account for the galactic spin problem. These days, some folks are down in the bottom of mile-deep mine shafts, looking for WIMPs, a name that stands for Weakly Interactive Massive Particles.
But, because of Kamioka, muons
-- the subatomic particle from which black cats are
made -- are now the best bet. They can't be seen
when they don't want to be seen because they flit in
and out of the light. They're charged, as you
know if you've ever petted one. And, they're
Over a certain number, the universe
will stop expanding, begin contracting and finally end
up in a Big Crunch -- a nice symmetry when matched
with the original Big Bang. Under the critical
mass number, the universe will continue expanding,
cooling and decaying until it's just a mass of
subatomic particles with nothing to do but watch
reruns of Sixties television sitcoms. (For the
non-atheists, the first version needed God to kick it
into gear, but runs without Him afterwards.)
But, the answer, in the end, might be all of the above and more. And, what might tip the scale one way or the other (to the frozen eternal damnation of universal heat death or, joy of joys, the eternal recreation of worlds without end) is the number of black holes. Stellar Sumo Objects, I calls them, since a teaspoonful of black hole material can weigh a billion tons.. Even without the galactic missing mass problem, though, they'd study these babies. Black holes, sometimes referred to as "iron suns," are definitely fascinating "things." You'll understand soon why I put quotes around that word. Black holes are strange.
Disney did a movie on the subject about the time the Beatles discovered universal consciousness, books have been written about it -- in fact, it's probably one of the few astronomical topics of which the general populace is even aware. (Especially since Stephen Hawking's Universe mini-series ran on PBS.) Most people can't even name the nearest star, which happens to be the Sun. Most people think the Dog Star is Lassie. (Or Benji.) Most people think Planck's Constant is slivers. And, you could spend your life walking the streets of New York looking for someone who could name a famous observational astronomer who had a metal nose, or a legendary theoretical astronomer whose mother was tried as a witch.* (Answers at the end of this article.)
So, since you have
personally hocked your future by financing the space
program you might as well know a little about what the
machines that you didn't know you were paying for are
going to observe about what you didn't know you were
looking for, which, by the way, can't be seen because
as every physicist knows, Relativity-ly speaking, it
(Well, sort of. Nothing,
unfortunately, can escape a black hole.
And, if you ever actually understand what I just said,
you'll be put in either a university physics lab or a
home for the mentally deranged. There is no real
difference between the two these days.)
(It will, in any event, become a problem in some four or five billion years, when the sun's atmosphere expands to envelop all of our solar system's inner, or terrestrial, planets. This event may, as well, be abetted by the collision of our galaxy with another galaxy. There is, in other words, trouble ahead for our descendants.)
The history of interest in black holes is inextricably tied to some very special people. Most important of these is Albert Einstein. Because of his Special (1905) and General (1916) Theories of Relativity, we may both need and be able to understand black holes. This is not to say Einstein first proposed them, however. Some two hundred years ago, a fellow named, Laplace, leaping from Newton's shoulders, conjectured the existence of stars so large that their gravity denies even the escape of light itself. This, of course, had to be based on the supposition that light has mass; an opinion widely supported at that time because it was the opinion of the Greatest Scientist Who Ever Lived, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
But, it was Einstein's
thought-experiments and equations about
beyond-Newtonian stuff that kicked the modern interest
in these things into gear. Einstein himself
rejected the idea even though his own theory demanded
its "reality." Hawking (the famous
Cambrige fellow in the wheelchair) bet his friend Skip
that they didn't "exist," even though his own studies
clearly told him that they did. (He thought of
it as theoretical astrophysical insurance, but it was
really superstition on his part -- which makes him,
unlike most physicists, human.)
Hubble astrophysicists thought it might be easer to
find one in a binary (two star) system. The
Mauna Kea find mentioned at the top of this article
stirred some hopes. It has to do with measuring
orbital irregularities. (Large objects going
around other large objects cause them.) This
wobble can be identified by a shift in spectral
What's a spectral
identity? And, how does this identity
As mentioned, only nearby
companions of classical mass can make that
happen. One star out there has something going
around it every four of our days. You read that
right. A planet with a year four days
even though we now know there are planets out there,
for reasons described below, we may need a black hole
to get to most of them.
Whatever it is, it's too
big to be a planet and too dark to be a normal
star. Binary, or double, star systems seem to be
quite common in the universe, and they shift each
other's spectral lines as they go around each other.
But HDE 226868's companion isn't visible. It
could be a black hole.
book shown was written by the genius, Hawking. It
was just one of the books I drew from in the
process of writing this text, but it is one of the
best. Another one, written decades ago by Adrian
Berry is titled The Next Ten Thousand Years. In
some respects, this 1974 work is mildly out of date,
now, but I believe it to be still the finest
predictive work ever on the future of man in
Don't worry. It'll
be as easy to grasp as the aforementioned U.S. tax
To say it another way
(with a tip of the hat to Arthur C. Clarke) if you,
yourself, were on an escalator that was ripping along
at the speed of light, whether you stood still, ran
back down or leaped forward, you'd get to the top at
the same instant from the point of view of an
imaginary (and stationary) outside observer.
This happens, incidentally, anytime anything with mass goes anywhere. It becomes wider at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, thinner (has less depth) in the line of travel, and grows in mass. You don't notice it in your car because the effect doesn't get really going until you're whipping along at a serious chunk of the speed of light.
point about Relativity #2: Light "curves" in the
presence of a gravitational "field." (Photo
shows gravity-distorted light images due to to galaxy
cluster -- a "gravity lens.") That was tested during
an eclipse, and also found to be true. Things
that were behind other things were visible. The
light from the first things, therefore, was bending
around the second things. Which suggests to many
people that light has mass.
This is known as UDST
(Ultimate Daylight Savings Time), and the principle
has been tested. Two atomic clocks (timepieces
that count the decaying particles in Cesium atoms,
which can't be an exciting job) were used. One
was put on a speeding jet, the other nailed to the
ground. The airborne clock lost time with
respect to the other one. When the plane landed,
its clock was "younger" than the ground-bound
chronometer. (Had recorded less time.)
Now, back to the iron
Important point about
Relativity #3: (from the General Theory of
Relativity) Space (the nothing between things)
exists only because the things exist. No things,
no space. And (get ready for this) it is
affected by "gravity" just like light and time!
But, insane or not, this
stuff we've been discussing might have a use. It
might open the door for extremely long distance space
travel. This is important, because all space
travel is extremely long distance.
Our galaxy, the Milky
Way, is a hundred thousand light years across.
So, to walk from one side to the other, we would have
to cover six hundred thousand trillion miles.
And, the most distant objects we know of are (twelve
to fifteen) billions of light years distant.
It's impossible to express that kind of journey in
miles because there are not enough zeros to do
But, space offers
alternative off-season destinations. Our galaxy,
the Milky Way, has a hundred billion suns, and there
are at least half that many other galaxies. We
already know that some other stars have planets.
Some of these planets may be uninhabitable, like North
Dakota. Others may be veritable Edens, like
Washington, D.C. No doubt there are some nice
places out there.
(Apollo 11 launch. These ships are
(Space ships that don't operate in an atmosphere don't have to be aerodynamic. They can look like the Gamma Ray Observatory.)
If you would care to
divide fifty thousand miles per hour into a hundred
trillion miles, which would get you around the
galactic neighborhood, so to speak, you will see why
some people have suggested making giant "colony"
ships. These rigs would be inside-out worlds
with a completely enclosed, recycling ecosystem.
A spaceship that big
would have a lot of mass. Even using the
slingshot method of stealing velocity from a planetary
mass in a near flyby wouldn't do the job.
(Actually, if we're
talking about "nearby" stars, we're probably no more
then twenty years from sending an unmanned ship.
The problem is mostly engineering, and will probably
be solved with an engine that uses hydrogen, the most
commen element in the universe. When we can come
up with a one G (one earth gravity) accelleration for
a hundred days, we can get to Proxima Centauri and
back in nine years or so, ship time.)
(Remember when I said "nothing
can exceed the velocity of light"?)
It goes like this.
You are standing in Astoria, Oregon near the mouth of
the Columbia River, and you want to visit a friend who
lives over on the Washington side. How do you
get there if you don't have a boat and if the bridge
just fell down, and you can't swim, and you don't know
anybody who owns an airplane?
First, a black hole was a
star. Probably even used to shine, just like our
own sun. But it was bigger. At a minimum
from three to seven times bigger, at least. Ten
times is more likely. Using the less likely
smaller figure, we'll put it in nice round numbers
that anybody can grasp. Since our sun has a mass
of 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons, a black
hole must start out as a star of at least
But, you see, I said it
had to be that big to start with. Just because
it is at least three solar masses doesn't mean it's a
black hole. There are lots of stars out there
that are a hundred, a thousand times bigger than our
sun, and they shine just fine.
You could run fast enough to get off the smallest planetary moons in our solar system. Our astronauts have to poke along at 25,000 mph to get away from Earth. If they were trying to break free of Jupiter's grasp (see photo), they'd have to kick in the afterburners and pedal like crazy, since that planet's escape velocity is more than 135,000 mph.
That escape velocity is
determined by the object's mass, of course.
Jupiter's mass is greater than every other object in
our solar system combined--excluding the sun. It
"weighs" more than all the other planets, moons,
comets, asteroids and 1953 Buicks combined.
our seventh planet, is a gas giant. It's much
larger than earth, yet has a density less than that of
water. Uranus should float, as should Neptune,
shown in this photo!)
A sun starts out as a
massive hydrogen bomb surrounded by a big hot air
balloon; Sagan's gigantic glowing glob of gas.
Its size is determined by the balancing act between
elastic forces, the expanding hot gases, and
gravity. When, inevitably, the fuel is
exhausted, the sun comes to a point where, unlike
politicians, it runs out of gas.
Jam the population
of Tokyo into a Honda ash tray and you're getting
there. Compress the Earth into an object the
size of a marble and you are there.
Right, except, possibly,
for Hawking particles/radiation, whatever they/that
is/are or isn't/aren't. (They could be merely
particles that appear to be coming from the
In 1963, a mathematician
named Roy Kerr got to mathematizing about these
collapsars. One thought he had was really
interesting. Black holes, he postulated, like most
other celestial objects, must rotate. Figuring
that out might not seem like much to you, but it would
impress the Galileo/Copernicus Crowd. (Even the fans
of Aristarchus of Samos, who was probably the first
guy to suggest we live in a sun-centered
"universe.") Kerr wasn't hied to the
house-arrest slammer by the church like Galileo, but
his suggestion set some scientific folks on their
ears. To those who understood the implications,
it meant, among other things, that we might not be
doomed in four billion years, after all.
What caused that?
(The speedier spin, not the blur.)
Here's how it
works. The great mass of a black hole warps
(bends, curves) space and time the way it does
light. So those things are turned back upon
themselves to varying degrees in the vicinity, like
the southern bank of the Columbia River goes all the
way to Canada and bends back on itself to become the
A space ship, if it could skim by the event horizon -- which it must not cross since the vehicle and occupants would be stretched into infinitely long threads that would fall, screaming, towards the center of gravity of the collapsar, never reaching the bottom because Max Planck won't let it, yet instantly reaching the bottom, probably due to "spooky action at a distance" or simultaneity, which has recently, impossibly, been experimentally proven, depending on one's perspective -- might be able to scoot through this ("window" some people call it) and so would benefit from a geodesic (the shortest distance between two points) that is a fraction of the geodesic it would traverse going to the same destination (planet, star, galaxy) via a route farther away from the collapsar that would utilize a path in "normal" space-time where the geodesics are, as viewed from the perspective near the collapsar, longer.
When the ship popped out,
it would be a long way off from the entry spot,
additionally placing us, the passengers, from
the perspective of those we left on Earth, ten million
years in their future or, from our perspective,
placing them ten million years in our past. .
Anyway, one author claims
that the double-stacked-frisbee theory says there's a
slot about six hundred feet wide that you might be
able to use. One problem most physicists have
with that comes out of their belief that anything on
the "in" side would be pulled into the black hole at a
different rate than anything on the "out" side.
Your left side would wish to leave your right side, in
other words. Think of it as a split personality,
in spades. So, the scientists believe it would
I think we'll figure it out, eventually. Moon bases, Martian robot vehicles and space telescopes will not, in the end, be enough. Even before the sun turns the Earth into a charcoal briquette, we'll put our itchy foot on a superluminal gas pedal and head out. By utilizing brilliant scientific deduction, spectacular engineering and plenty of duct tape, we will yet get the opportunity to spread our wonderful species throughout this galaxy and beyond. The only problem I can forsee is the fact that we don't have any black holes in this neck of the cosmic woods. The nearest possibility I've run across during my research, and which I mentioned an eternally long time ago at the top of this article, is 6,000 light years (35,400 trillion miles) away.
Which is why some people
have suggested we might just go ahead and build our
own, somehow, near Los Angeles or out past Pluto where
it won't suck up anything important. It might
work, at that. Let's see, now ... one
dump truck holds four 1953 Buicks, and we need, say
(to be safe) at least, ten solar masses ... so
that's four, carry the six ...
(This piece in slightly different form was originally published late in the last century in the Sunday Oregonian's now defunct Northwest Magazine. Photo and graphic credits go to NASA, the folks at Mt. Wilson, the Johnson Space Flight Center and linked sources.)
Don't believe what's in this article? Click here. (NASA page link)
Original text © 2007 Oregon Magazine