Why Physicists Say Everything We Know about Black Holes Is about to Change

By Anthony Smith on August 3, 2012 2:36 PM EDT

Black Hole
Why everything we know about black holes is about to be rocked to the core. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In a series of Reviews and Perspectives currently featured in Science, the golden standard by which all hopeful science journals should measure themselves, expert astronomers are holding court over the accepted truths and credible speculations in regards to everything we know about black holes. Here's why all the scientific dogma we've been accumulating about them over the last forty years or so is about to be rocked to the core.

Some of the conversation between the leading astrophysicists concerned itself with what they believe would happen if two black holes were ever to collide (it wouldn't be pretty, but it would probably be beautiful to look at). Others conversed about what would happen when binary stars are swallowed whole by black holes. And though these experts acknowledged that the jury was still out on whether or not intermediately sized black holes are really out there, somewhere in our universe (or if they ever could be), they also acknowledged that new evidence was coming in that may usher said jury more conclusively towards the affirmative.

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But perhaps the most compelling voice in the conversation came from Edward Witten, a researcher and theoretical physicist working with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In his article, he confronts the most basic of the Einstein-popularized accepted beliefs about black holes which dictates that nothing can ever escape its gravitational pull. After confronting the famous genius's claim, he contends that Einstein was dead wrong.

Or as dead wrong as Einstein can be when his theory of relativity implied that because the sheer gravity of a black hole is so massive, it would be categorically impossible for any amount of matter to escape once it passes through the hole's event horizon. While Witten postulates that the theory is correct in elementary ways, he then uses the laws of thermodynamics to apply some well-needed pressure.

In short: if to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, then if something can be eaten by a black hole, then the possibility exists that it can be un-eaten and maybe even reformed as well. While this may seem in equal parts remedial, hypothetical, and even extraordinary at the same time, it's not even terribly novel. In 1974, Stephen Hawking implied that specific quantum particles should be able to escape from the clutches of the black hole's event horizon, but that such particles would be too infinitesimally small for anyone to locate or detect. He called this immeasurable matter Hawking radiation. No one has been able to prove it exists, which, wonderfully enough, could be proof enough that it exists.

Witten's theorem goes as far as to marry the seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints. Up close, a black hole could slip up and allow a particle or an atom to escape on occasion. But from where we're standing, looking at the hugeness of the black hole, it's nothing if not all-consuming and awe-inspiring.

If something's hungry for photons, you can bet it's going to lick its plate clean.

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