If you’ve ever done any studying of modern physics or simply existed in a Western civilization, you will undoubtedly have encountered the concept of a black hole (here’s an interesting fact: in French ‘black hole’ is Trous Noir, which is slang for anus, ho ho what). Physicists love to talk about black holes. Perhaps even too much you might have thought? I mean, they’re terrifying and neat - but surely they are no more than exotic trivialities, like a two-headed cow fetus at the state fair.
Not so! Black holes are important because A) we know they exist (we can see stars being eaten by or orbiting invisible massive objects) and B) they break our most current scientific theories. Break with ‘em with a big ol’ black hammer of infinite space-time curvature. And so does the Big Bang, y’know that whole origin of the universe theory. We lack the physics to fully describe either one: both break the theory of relativity and we’ve been trying to patch it up with quantum mechanics in a grand quest for a “Theory of Everything” or “Unified Theory.” That is why, in fact, that physicists will often say: “Time began at the Big Bang” or “Time ends in a black hole” and they do, genuinely, mean that. Before the Big Bang, time did not exist; inside a black hole, time does not flow.
And therein lies an interesting connection: If it’s true that time ends in a black hole and time began in the Big Bang, would it be inaccurate to say that the Big Bang is a time-reversed black hole (aka a ‘white hole’)?
To think about this, let us undertake a journey into the creation of a black hole:
It begins as a big cloud of gas. Over-time, gravity pulls these distant atoms together, much like cosmic Eskimos huddling together for warmth. As these atoms are pulled together, they jostle one another until eventually the star ignites. Nuclear fusion begins, turning hydrogen into helium. At this point, the star is very heavy, enough to bend - but not break - space-time curvature. Think of a bowling ball resting on a large cotton sheet. It’s heavy but its weight is distributed over a large area and so it does not break the sheet. As long as the star can fuel its nuclear fusion, this will remain so: thermal pressure will provide an outward force to balance the inward pressure of gravity (thermal pressure is the same thing that causes your car engine to work, the gas combusting to push pistons up and down). Now, depending on the size of the star, it will often expand, becoming a supergiant or giant star. Eventually, however, the star runs out of fuel and must rely on reactions between heavier elements, reactions that don’t create as much thermal pressure. The star slowly condenses on itself, growing smaller and smaller.
At a certain volume, the further collapse of gravity is prevented by something called electron degeneracy pressure, which is a result of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle (think back to chemistry!), which in turn describes the fact that electrons don’t want to be in the same place and the same state at the same time. Which - basically - you can think of as a form of magnetism: the two poles of a magnet don’t want to touch, do they? Neither do electrons! We all want to be beautiful unique snowflakes and electrons are no exception. At this point, electrons are so compressed that their position is highly known and therefore their velocity is highly variable (that’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). They’re going around wild and crazy, little children with too much energy, refusing to even be contained by the Parental Protons or even Grandfather Gravity. The star at this point is called a white dwarf. A white dwarf is roughly the size of the earth.
However, if Grandfather Gravity is strong enough. It can overcome electron degeneracy pressure, providing enough energy so that Parental Protons ‘capture’ electrons, thereby becoming neutrons. If this happens, the resulting astronomical body is called a neutron star. A neutron star is roughly the size of Manhattan (12 km).
Now if the mass of the star is big enough, gravity will be able to overcome what’s called neutron degeneracy pressure. Neutrons are a lot bigger and therefore pack a lot more punch: colliding with an electron is like being pegged by a tennis ball, colliding with a neutron is like having a skyscraper fall on top of you. Yet, if the star is massive enough, its gravity can overcome even that!
At this point, it’s somewhat unclear what happens. Some theorize that there’s another type of star, called a quark star, even smaller than a neutron star, and barely held up by what we might call “quark degeneracy pressure” whatever that might be.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s skip and jump to our grand, glorious celebrity: The Black Hole! If you’ll recall, I earlier made the analogy of a star as a bowling ball held on the ‘sheet’ of time curvature. Because its weight is spread throughout, it bends but cannot puncture the space-time curvature. Now imagine you were to take that bowling ball and ‘squeeze’ it down, until it’s a big NEEDLE. Same weight, same mass, but much smaller. I’m sure you know what’ll happen: the needle will punch right through the sheet, essentially tearing space-time curvature.
And that’s what a black hole is: an area of infinite spacetime curvature. Time dies, slain by the Massive Bowling Ball Needle of Death: A photon of light in a black hole is trapped -> therefore it moves 0 meters in an infinite period of time yet by the theory of relativity, the speed of light is a constant: 300 million meters per second, regardless of the relative velocity of an observer. Yet if that speed is constant but here we have a photon moving 0 meters at 300 million meters per second… well how much time has elapsed? ZERO. Time must cease to exist in a black hole.
Now cosmic Eskimos and thousand-count cotton spacetime sheets and all that was hopefully fun, but let’s return to our original idea. The notion of the Big Bang / our universe as a time-reversed black hole. I want you to don your Cosmological Detective Fedora and have a gander at that first image I posted and start from the right and see if it doesn’t correspond to the process we just talked about:
Let us say that the Big Rip theory of our universe is correct; matter will be spread out and very cool, much like a low density gas cloud, you might say. Step back from there to our current time, and you can find galaxies, and stars and, before that, the formation of said galaxies and stars. That’s the universe we know, the night sky all a-shiny like a child having too much fun with a jar of glitter. Let’s continue on. Before these large structures could form, electrons had to combine with protons and neutrons to form atoms. Sound anything like what happens in a white dwarf - electrons free of their Parent Proton? The universe at this point is much more compact, and much hotter (like, say, a neutron star…). 3 mins after the big bang, electrons and protons are so hot that light isn’t even emitted. The universe is ‘dark.’ Dark universe, black hole, eh, eh, eh? Before this, electrons and protons can’t even be formed; it’s just a matter of quarks - no pun intended. Similar in nature, to what we might call a quark star, a very… quirky astrological body. All this time, our universe is getting smaller, smaller, smaller and that last jump, from quark star or what have you to singularity occurs rapidly, nigh instantly, a interval of rapid delation into a single point of infinite density, like that single point of infinite density in a black hole.
Is this place we call the universe simply a black hole travelling backwards in time? Or is the similarity an artifact, resulting from the fact that similar theories have been used to describe and predict both black holes and the big bang?
Let us hope that we may know, sooner rather than later!
Yesterday I took a rummage through the little bits and pieces accrued from forays into bric-a-brac-tat land. Here’s a miniature face I extracted from a miniature album. Who is this lassie, caught in a tiny scrap stiff sepia-tinged paper. Did she have a nice life? Who’s necklace is she wearing? Where did she go on holiday? Let’s wonder while we look at her.
Wearing away, gently.
Poetry Is Like Music to the Mind, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Reveals
Oct. 9, 2013 — New brain imaging technology is helping researchers to bridge the gap between art and science by mapping the different ways in which the brain responds to poetry and prose.
Scientists at the University of Exeter used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which allows them to visualise which parts of the brain are activated to process various activities.
No one had previously looked specifically at the differing responses in the brain to poetry and prose.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: There’s no law in physics to prevent us from doing that. But we’re still running away from tornadoes and hurricanes and volcanoes on earth, to say let us wield the energy density necessary to warp space. That’s really wishful thinking given the current state of our engineering. It’s an engineering problem, not a physics problem.
A portion of the salt and pepper you see on an analog television actually comes from the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The radiation, known as the cosmic microwave background, permeates all of space and gives the universe an average temperature of 2.7 K (-455 degrees F), just slightly above absolute zero.
The first detection of the microwave background was made in 1964 at AT&T Bell labs where physicists initially thought that an accumulation of bird poop on their 20-foot antenna was the source of the unwanted noise signals. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the accidental discovery which supported the now prevailing Big Bang Theory.
-Thomas Jefferson: in letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813