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more on Einstein, black holes and other cosmic stuff

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Einstein in 1931 staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Einstein at Mount Wilson in 1931, staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Jacinta: Well Canto I’d like to get back to Einstein and space and time and the cosmos, just because it’s such a fascinating field to inhabit and explore.

Canto: Rather a big one.

Jacinta: I’ve read, or heard, that Einstein’s theory, or one of them, predicted black holes, though he didn’t necessarily think that such entities really existed, but now black holes are at the centre of everything, it seems.

Canto: Including our own galaxy, and most others.

Jacinta: Yes, and there appears to be a correlation between the mass of these supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies and the mass of the galaxies themselves, indicating that they appear to be the generators of galaxies. Can you expand on that?

Canto: Well the universe seems to be able to expand on that better than I can, but I’ll try. Black holes were first so named in the 1960s, but Einstein’s theory of general relativity recast gravity as a distortion of space and time rather than as a Newtonian force, with the distortion being caused by massive objects. The greater the mass, the greater the distortion, or the ‘geodetic effect’, as it’s called. The more massive a particular object, given a fixed radius, the greater is the velocity required for an orbiting object to escape its orbit, what we call its escape velocity. That escape velocity will of course, approacher closer and closer to the speed of light, as the object being orbited becomes more massive. So what happens when it reaches the speed of light? Then there’s no escape, and that’s where we enter black hole territory.

Jacinta: So, let me get this. Einstein’s theory is about distortions of space-time (and I’m not going to pretend that I understand this), or geodetic effects, and so it has to account for extreme geodetic effects, where the distortion is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape, and everything kind of gets sucked in… But how do these massive, or super-massive objects come into being, and won’t they eventually swallow all matter, so that all is just one ginormous black hole?

Canto: Okay I don’t really get this either but shortly after Einstein published his theory it was worked out by an ingenious astrophysicist, Karl Schwarzschild – as a result of sorting out Einstein’s complex field equations –  that if matter is severely compressed it will have weird effects on gravity and energy. I was talking a minute ago about increasing the mass, but think instead of decreasing the radius while maintaining the mass as a constant…

Jacinta: The same effect?

Karl Schwarzschild

Karl Schwarzschild

Canto: Well, maybe, but you’ll again reach a point where there’s zero escape, so to speak. In fact, what you have is a singularity. Nothing can escape from the object’s surface, whether matter or radiation, but also you’ll have a kind of internal collapse, in which the forces that keep atoms and sub-atomic particles apart are overcome. It collapses into an infinitesimal point – a singularity. It was Schwarzschild too who described the ‘event horizon’, and provided a formula for it.

Jacinta: That’s a kind of boundary layer, isn’t it? A point of no return?

Canto: Yes, a spherical boundary that sort of defines the black hole.

Jacinta: So why haven’t I heard of this Schwarzschild guy?

Canto: He died in 1916, shortly after writing a paper which solved Einstein’s equations and considered the idea of ‘point mass’ – what we today would call a singularity. But both he and Einstein, together with anyone else in the know, would’ve considered this stuff entirely theoretical. It has only become significant, and very significant, in the last few decades.

Jacinta: And doesnt this pose a problem for Einstein’s theory? I recall reading that this issue of ‘point mass’, or a situation where gravity is kind of absolute, like with black holes and the big bang, or the ‘pre-big bang’ if that makes sense, is where everything breaks down, because it seems to bring in the mathematical impossibility of infinity, something that just can’t be dealt with mathematically. And Einstein wasn’t worried about it in his time because black holes were purely theoretical, and the universe was thought to be constant, not expanding or contracting, just there.

Canto: Well I’ve read – and I dont know if it’s true – that Einstein believed, at least for a time, that black holes couldn’t actually exist because of an upper limit imposed on the gravitational energy any mass can produce – preventing any kind of ‘infinity’ or singularity.

Jacinta: Well if that’s true he was surely wrong, as the existence of black holes has been thoroughly confirmed, as has the big bang, right?

Canto: Well of course knowledge was building about that in Einstein’s lifetime, as Edwin Hubble and others provided conclusive evidence that the universe was expanding in 1929, so if this expansion was uniform and extended back in time, it points to an early much-contracted universe, and ultimately a singularity. And in fact Einstein’s general relativity equations were telling him that the universe wasn’t static, but he chose to ignore them, apparently being influenced by the overwhelming thinking of the time – this was 1917 – and he introduced his infamous or famous cosmological constant, aka lambda.

Jacinta: And of course 1917 was an early day in the history of modern astronomy, we hardly knew anything beyond our own galaxy.

Canto: Or within it. One of the great astrophysicists of the era, Sir Arthur Eddington, believed at the time that the sun was at the centre of the universe, while admitting his calculations were ‘subject to large uncertainties’.

Jacinta: Reminds me of Lord Kelvin on the age of the Earth only a few generations before.

Canto: Yes, how quickly our best speculations can become obsolete, but that’s one of the thrills of science. And it’s worth noting that the work of Hubble and others on the expansion of the universe depended entirely on improved technology, namely the 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson, California.

Jacinta: Just as the age of the Earth problem was solved through radiometric dating, which depended on all the early twentieth century work on molecular structure and isotopes and such.

Canto: Right, but now this lambda (λ) – which Einstein saw as a description of some binding force in gravity to counteract the expansion predicted by his equations – is very much back in the astrophysical frame. The surprising discovery made in 1998 that the universe’s expansion is accelerating rather than slowing has, for reasons I can’t possibly explain, brought Einstein’s lambda in from the cold as an explanatory factor in that discovery, which is also somehow linked to dark energy.

Jacinta: So his concept, which he simply invented as a ‘fix-it’ sort of thing, might’ve had more utility than he knew?

Canto: Well the argument goes, among some, that Einstein was a scientist of such uncanny insight that even his mistakes have proved more fruitful than others’ discoveries. Maybe that’s hero worship, maybe not.

Jacinta: So how does lambda relate to dark energy, and how does dark energy relate to dark matter, if you please?

Canto: Well the standard model of cosmology (which is currently under great pressure, but let’s leave that aside) has been unsuccessful in trying to iron out inconsistent observations and finding with regard to the energy density of the universe, and so dark energy and what they call cold dark matter (CDM) have been posited as intellectual placeholders, so to speak, to make the observations and equations come out right.

Jacinta: Sounds a bit dodgy.

Canto: Well, time will tell how dodgy it is but I don’t think anyone’s trying to be dodgy, there’s a great deal of intense calculation and measurement involved, with so many astrophysicists looking at the issue from many angles and with different methods. Anyway, to quickly summarise CDM and dark energy, they together make up some 96% of the mass-energy density of our universe according to the most currently accepted calculations, with dark energy accounting for some 69% and CDM accounting for about 27%.

Jacinta: Duhh, that does sound like a headachey problem for the standard model. I mean, I know I’m only a dilettanty lay-person, but a model of universal mass-energy that only accounts for about 4% of the stuff, that doesn’t sound like much of a model.

Canto: Well I can assure they’re working on it…

Jacinta: Or working to replace it.

Canto: That too, but let me try to explain the difference between CDM and dark energy. Dark energy is associated with lambda, because it’s the ‘missing energy’ that accounts for the expansion of the universe, against the binding effects of gravity. As it happens, Einstein’s cosmological constant pretty well perfectly counters this expansive energy, so that if he hadn’t added it to his equations he would’ve been found to have predicted an expanding universe decades before this was confirmed by observation. That’s why it was only in the thirties that he came to regret what he called the greatest mistake of his career. Cold dark matter, on the other hand, has been introduced to account for a range of gravitational effects which require lots more matter than we find in the observed (rather than observable) universe. These effects include the flat shapes of galaxies, gravitational lensing and the tight clustering of galaxies. It’s described as cold because its velocity is considerably less than light-speed.


the lambda- cold dark matter model

Jacinta: Okay, so far so bad, but let’s get back to black holes. Why are they so central?

Canto: Well, that’s perhaps the story of supermassive black holes in particular, but I suppose I should try to tell the story of how astronomers found black holes to be real. As I’ve said, the term was first used in the sixties, 1967 to be precise, by John Wheeler, at a time when their actual existence was being considered increasingly likely, and the first more or less confirmed discovery was made in 1971 with Cygnus x-1. You can read all about it here. It’s very much a story of developing technology leading to increasingly precise observational data, largely in the detecting and measuring of X-ray emissions, stuff that was undetectable to us with just optical instruments.

Jacinta: Okay, go no further, I accept that there’s been a lot of data from a variety of sources that have pretty well thoroughly confirmed their existence, but what about these supermassive black holes? Could they actually be the creators of matter in the galaxies they’re central to? That’s what I’ve heard, but my reception was likely faulty.

Canto: Well astrophysicists have been struggling with the question of this relationship – there clearly is a relationship between supermassive black holes and their galaxies, but which came first? Now supermassive black holes can vary a lot – our own ‘local’ one is about 4 million solar masses, but we’ve discovered some with billions of solar masses. But it was found almost a decade ago that there is correlation between the mass of these beasties and the mass of the inner part of the galaxies that host them – what they call the galactic bulge. The ratio is always about 1 to 700. Obviously this is highly suggestive, but it requires more research. There are some very interesting examples of active super-feeding black holes emitting vast amounts of energy and radiation, which is both destructive and productive in a sense, creating an active galaxy. Our own Milky Way, or the black hole at its centre, is currently quiescent, which is just as well.

Jacinta: You mean if it starts suddenly feeding, we’re all gonna die?

Canto: No probably not, the hole’s effects are quite localised, relatively speaking, and we’re a long way from the centre.

Jacinta: Okay thanks for that, that’s about as much about black holes as I can stand for now.

Canto: Well I’m hoping that in some future posts we can focus on the technology, the ground-based and space-based telescopes and instruments like Hubble and Kepler and James Webb and so many others that have been enhancing our knowledge of black holes, other galaxies, exoplanets, all the stuff that makes astrophysics so rewarding these days.

Jacinta: You’re never out of work if you’re an astrophysicist nowadays, so I’ve heard. Halcyon days.

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole - artist's impression

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole – artist’s impression


Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

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