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article imageOp-Ed: Gigantic black holes raise bigger questions

By Paul Wallis     Dec 8, 2011 in Science
Astronomy is now ablaze with the news of a monster black hole, ten times the size of the solar system, with the mass of 21 billion suns. The questions this monster raises are bigger than it is, and science needs some answers.
The New York Times on the recent discoveries:
One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.
The theory is that the bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole at its centre. Like most cosmological theories, this one has been undergoing a lot of panel beating lately. The search for answers keeps tripping over new facts.
What’s known about black holes has an unholy element of theory mixed with some fascinating facts and what can only be described as “irritating” terminology.
The theory
The New York Times explains the basic starting point of black hole physics theories, with a few qualifiers:
Black holes, regions of space where gravity is so intense that not even light can escape from it, are among the weirdest of the predictions of Albert Einstein’s curved-space theory of gravity, general relativity — so weird that Einstein himself did not believe it. He once wrote to a friend that there ought to be a law of nature forbidding such a thing.
But he was wrong. And some of his successors, like Dr. Rees and a colleague at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, have spent their careers studying the implications for physics of objects that can wrap spacetime around themselves like a magician’s cloak and disappear.
When black holes were first positively identified, the “Ooh, ah” factor was pretty noticeable. Black holes were the new big thing. The awe is understandable, but the logic is to put it mildly a bit less than useful in some cases. Even the idea of spacetime is a bit of a pretzel. Einstein described time as “the fourth dimension”. It isn’t, mathematically, any more than a square is a cube. Space and time may coexist, but they’re not the same things- They’re related things.
The known facts about black holes
Black holes are known to have been common in the early universe- They’re apparently natural developments of physical space and matter.
Black holes form in the centre of galaxies- This is the baseline fact, but freestanding, micro and even paired, black holes, probably the product of colliding galaxies, are also known or theorized to exist.
Many more questions than answers
If you’re starting to think that a few trillion galaxies equals a pretty similar number of black holes, more or less, your guess is as good as anyone else’s. The questions about black holes outnumber both known facts and theories, and with good reason. These things are well outside the normal states of matter, space and energy, and trying to make facts or theories fit observations only works to a point.
The fact is that we’re probably lacking the right equipment to make effective studies of the nature of black holes. One of the theories isn’t helping much- If you ask someone what a black hole is, you’ll get the same “gravity is so intense that not even light can escape from it”- and that’s more or less it, with or without gamma ray bursts and events around the horizons of black holes, followed by a silence.
The physical nature of black holes isn’t exactly well defined by the most tolerant standards. Their history, however, is better organized and documented in terms of the history of the universe.
Black holes look to be very much a tertiary process in cosmic evolution:
If you assume a cosmic history as follows:
Primary process:
1. Big Bang
2. Quantum soup
3. Heat
4. Proto-matter
Secondary process:
1. Matter
2. Gases
3. Stars
4. Galaxies
Tertiary process:
1. Black holes
2. Hyper matter?
3. Further evolved forms of matter/energy?
4. Recycling of universal mass?
Hyper matter is a conjectural form of matter which is by definition different from its original form because normal matter, energy and even subatomic forces can’t exist in a black hole environment. There’s a working possibility that the hyper matter either evolves into different states of matter or simply breaks down matter into its quantum forms.
This type of matter can’t be created in “normal” space, and doesn’t even relate directly to normal physics. In theory, hyper matter created in black holes would be something much more like quantum materials, but at gigantic levels of density. Big quantum soup cubes, if you like, but nevertheless, composed of properties which physics needs to think about.
With this theory comes another few million more questions- What happens when a black hole runs out of inputs? Does it simply unravel? Does it explode, creating a new Big Bang? Does it create a “white hole” and transfer energies across space? Does it create that very unsatisfactory thing, a singularity, and produce cosmic strings, or just sit there being one dimensional and smug and annoying mathematicians?
The classic black hole image is of a constantly fed, bottomless “something”, but that’s incorrect by definition. It can only be as big as the forces and inputs that created it. Black holes are finite, by definition. That said, “finite” can be gigantic, containing fantastic amounts of mass.
That’s the big question- What role do black holes have in the evolution of the universe? Everything else has a role, why not them? The newly discovered supergiant black hole, if it decided to try an encore of the Big Bang, would do a respectable job of it, on whatever scale. If it follows the script, it would produce, (yes, isn’t it obvious), more black holes.
There’s nothing much new about the idea of a proto-universe, either. If black holes are super quantum collectors, creating embryonic universes or would-be universes, nobody would be totally surprised. Given the ability of quantum matter to provide a range of options nobody had ever before considered, until faced with the blunt facts of quantum states, it’d make sense. A quantum-based Big Bang, followed by quantum soup, would also make a lot of sense. The high incidence of black holes in the early universe may also indicate that this is a natural state of large amounts of quantum materials when gravity applies the right forces.
Black holes could also be the long-overdue death of another idea- Entropy. The “heat death of the universe”, never a great idea if you remember Newton, doesn’t stack up or account for black holes and their huge energy potentials.
My view is that we need to start looking at black holes as something a lot more complex and advanced than some sort of cosmic trash disposal system and place to put theories that otherwise don’t have much going for them. We may well be staring a fundamental answer to the existence of the universe in the face. Pity we can’t see the face very well, but we could at least take the hint that these black holes have functions in the existence of matter, time, space and perhaps even research grants.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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