Of all the amazing and varied phenomena in the cosmological zoo, black holes are among the most mysterious. They are zombies—the all-devouring corpses of dead stars, made of trillions of tons of stellar ash compressed into an infinitely dense point called a “singularity.” The gravity exerted by the singularity is so intense that it warps space-time, preventing even light from escaping.
In many ways, to look at a black hole is to look at the inevitable future of our Universe, because there will come a time—many trillions of trillions of years from now, but inevitable nonetheless—where all the sky’s stars will have gone out, and black holes will be the Universe’s main attraction, still gobbling down any remaining free clumps of matter and acting as the only sources of light left. And perhaps most creepily of all, if proton decay turns out to be a thing, this future black hole era will be how our cosmos spends the majority of its life—dark, silent, and forbiddingly empty.
But before we all descend into a pit of existential dread, we’ve invited our astrophysicist pal Dr. Paul Sutter to shed some light on these visions of darkness. Because, in addition to being harbingers of the state of the Universe to come, black holes are fascinating, and as we understand more about them, we understand more about the fundamental laws that make the Universe work.
The Information Paradox
Black holes are freaky enough if you just consider them to be shambling star-zombies that eat anything that gets close to them. But they’re also freaky in an entirely more fundamental way, because at first glance, black holes appear to be capable of actually destroying information itself—something that our current understanding of quantum mechanics says should be impossible. Any object that falls into a black hole’s singularity appears to be fundamentally erased and ends up becoming part of the black hole in ways that don’t appear to retain any hint of the object’s previous state of existence.
This area of research is where theoretical physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking made some of his most important contributions, by first defining and then attacking the information paradox problem (and also predicting the way by which even seemingly immortal black holes eventually bleed to death). As it turns out, things aren’t necessarily that simple, and it’s possible that black holes do retain information about the things they consume—just not in the manner that normal three-dimensional beings like you or I might expect.
And here’s about where I reach the limit of my (mostly pop-sci and fiction-based) black hole knowledge and turn the reins over to Paul for a journey into weirdness. Black holes are awesome, and I hope you enjoy this video on what they might be and how they might work.
But if black holes aren’t your thing, fear not—we have a whole bunch more episodes of “Edge of Knowledge” still on tap!