So you’ve fallen into a black hole. Oh dear! The gravitational pull of these collapsed stars is so fierce that not even light can escape—hence the name, black. And the further you fall, the fiercer it gets.
If you’ve slipped in feet-first, the exponential suck of gravity will be pulling on your toes at forces millions of times stronger than your shins, hips, arms and eyebrows. Before the rest of you can keep up you’ll be stretched out to one lone atom-wide strand—an effect physicists call ‘spaghettification.’ Then, slurped up wildly into the lips of the menace: the singularity. The vicious core of a black hole and a freak anomaly in modern physics. A point of zero volume and infinite density.
At the singularity, all semblance of your existence will be obliterated, squeezed into this single point of oblivion for which the fabric of spacetime has itself abandoned. In the skin of the universe, you have been pushed into a cut that does not bleed.
Unpleasant, yes. So you do want to be careful.
And there’s no better way to stay prepared than with Lapsus’ comprehensive black hole survival guide. From light speed to bananas, time dilation and antimatter—even wormholes. Follow these easy steps and Lapsus can honestly guarantee your prompt and thorough survival.
Step 1: Travel faster than the speed of light.
That’s right, 299 792 458 m/s. About 300,000 kilometres per second.
As with all massive objects, the closer you get to a black hole the more powerful becomes its force of gravity. At a certain distance, even light speed isn’t good enough—thus, the beginning of darkness. The radius at which light’s only choice is to curve inwards and into the black hole is known as the ‘event horizon’.
So! If you do cross the event horizon, before falling any further you’ll want to immediately accelerate yourself to supra-light speed. Lapsus suggests working on your breaststroke—or if nothing else, there’s always hope in kicking furiously.
Right now you may be thinking, “Hey, swimming is a great idea—but what about a particle accelerator?” Beautiful thinking. Matter can move pretty quickly with one of those.
Quantum physicists use these long underground racetracks known as particle accelerators, such as the 27 km Large Hadron Collider, to accelerate microscopic bits of matter to tremendous speeds. The fastest they’ve gotten is 99.999999% the speed of light, about 11 km/h off.
Nothing a bit of dedication couldn’t patch up, right? I’m afraid not. Mammoth amounts of energy are already being used to make these particles move so fast. But at a certain speed, when you’re getting close to the speed of light, something funny happens. Instead of moving faster, any additional kinetic energy pumped into a particle will begin to make it actually grow larger. Spooky, I know.
And of course, the bigger an object gets, the more and more energy it’ll take to keep it moving so fast. So the fix is this: accelerating matter to the speed of light requires an infinite amount of energy. (See: E = mc2).
Consequently, once you’ve crossed the event horizon of a black hole, it would take an infinite amount of energy for you to cross back.
Which neatly leads us to step 2:
Step 2: Pack a banana.
The natural sugars inside a banana provide a slow and stable source of energy, to keep you going and going and going. Plus they’re both healthy and delicious, with a naturally biodegradable wrapper (the peel!) and ridges that by some miracle align to the joints of your fingers. (Source: 10 Surprising Banana Health Benefits).
Step 3: Be a distant observer.
If the first two steps aren’t working for you and the end is drawing near, try being someone who isn’t falling into a black hole. It sounds simple, I know, but it’ll really buy you some time.
Let’s lubricate this with some physics.
Like a bowling ball resting on a trampoline, massive objects like planets and stars create these dips in the material of the universe. Roll a marble towards the dip and it’ll catch, rolling around the edge of the curve. Place it nearby with zero thrust and it’ll roll straight for the centre. Voilà, that’s gravity: mass curves space.
It curves space… and it curves time.
Minkowski space is a special and perhaps more accurate way that physicists think about ‘space’. Minkowski space rejects the idea that time passes like a strict rule, some rigid and untouchable fact of nature. Instead, physicists place time right next to length, width and depth, the classic dimensions of space. Just as earthly, just as wobbly, and by no means moving at a fixed rate across the universe.
Under this idea, space and time are interwoven. ‘Spacetime’ is the fabric of our universe.
And just like space curves into the well made by a large object, so too does time. This isn’t madness, it’s experimentally tried and tested. It’s a routine factor in the science of spaceflight, GPS satellites and other endeavours requiring knifepoint accuracy. If you had two hyper-accurate atomic clocks and left one of them on a tall tower, the clocks would end up coming back to you slightly out of sync. This is because the clock on the ground was deeper inside the Earth’s ‘gravitational well’—for it and for us, time took longer.
Within the deep gravitation well of a black hole, time dilates dramatically. As the seconds pass on your little wrist watch, you will look out at the fast-forwarded events of the universe speeding by. For every second that passes in a black hole, thousands of years will pass on Earth.
Hurtling towards the singularity, approaching light speed, you become unable to perceive the passage of time. Like a square from a flat land witnessing a sphere, for you the dimension of time will dilate itself to the point of ubiquity. The beginning and end of the universe, the billions of years in between, they occur all at once, no more divided than a pool of water.
But a distant observer will peer through her telescope at you. Although you’re plummeting towards the black hole at thousands of kilometres per second, to her you seem to creep forwards slower and slower, until quite peacefully you stop moving altogether, resting gently on the cusp of the event horizon, frozen in time. Soon you being to slowly turn red, as higher frequency light recedes into the depths. Finally, your suspended red image will begin to fade, but this time into darkness, disappearing forever.
Doesn’t that sound pretty!
Understandably, this sort of thing isn’t everyone’s bag. If you’re one of the many, then boy oh boy won’t you be excited to hear our two hot tips.
Hot tip #1
Once you’ve been killed by the black hole (*gasp*), a trace echo of your old self may still be able to wriggle its way out via the Black hole information paradox (*yay*).
It upsets physicists to think that physical information can be deleted. This violates a long-time assumption of science: in principle, complete information about a physical system (such as a pair of lungs, a raincloud, the sun, or anything) at any one point in time, is enough to determine its state at any other time.
But with black holes, if you throw a bunch of physical systems inside, the issue is that they’d all devolve into the same ultra-dense pulp.
Even if you threw, say, a tomato plant into a jet engine, you could still work out what its mangled form used to look like using all your knowledge of physics and biology, of engines and propellors and tomatoes. But not if you threw it into a black hole. A tomato plant mangled by a black hole ends up looking like any other system mangled by a black hole: dark, dense and shitty. This upsets scientists. It upsets them so much that they continue to put a lot of thinking into how and why this might not be the case.
What have they come up with? Well, nothing to pitch a Step 4 out of. But enough to make a “paradox,” it seems.
The answer might have something to do with Hawking Radiation. Hawking Radiation is where particles and antiparticles that spontaneously pop out of nowhere happen to find themselves separated by a back hole’s event horizon. Before they can annihilate each other (as they usually would), the antiparticle slips into the black hole while its twin opposite is able to escape and fly off yonder, in the form of radiation. Nice one, Stephen Hawking.
So maybe patterns of radiation change depending on the stuff that splashes through the event horizon—like you, or a tomato plant. Maybe we could determine your existence from these patterns, like the waves from a pebble dropped in water.
Or perhaps instead the secrets lie deep within the black hole. Maybe information is locked away in the core, only to be released in the black hole’s final moments, after years of slow evaporation, in one terrifying but hopeful explosion. Hopeful, in that your information may come spewing back out into space. (Though indeed you would look a bit different by then).
But what if you don’t come spewing out… could you have ended up somewhere else?
Hot tip #2 Break on through to the other side.
Oh wow they’re not talking about wormholes to another universe, are they? Babe, we are.
Wormholes are theoretical tunnels that burrow through spacetime. Bridges, with a doorway that connects two points in space billions of lightyears apart: step through and just like that you’ve travelled to another galaxy. Or into the past, into the future, or even to a parallel universe.
While popular in science-fiction, wormholes are yet to actually be observed or detected. They’re a contentious point in modern physics. Lots of high-level, good-spirited, mathematical quarrelling. But they were predicted by Einstein’s relativity laws, just like gravitational waves and even black holes, which both turned out to be true. So if you’re treading water near the singularity, have faith!
And remember: extreme mass curves the bloody beluga out of spacetime. At the centre of a black hole is a point of infinite curvature, like a narrowing hole that funnels down forever and ever. The gist of a wormhole is that in a mathematical sense, an intense inward curve of spacetime could meet up with some other tendril of curvature, originating elsewhere.
To better visualise the idea, let’s step down by a dimension. Imagine moving along a 2D sheet of paper. The quickest way to get from point A to point B would be a straight line—unless, the sheet were folded, extending into the third dimension, to align point A and B. Puncture a hole and it’s possible to simply step through, from point A to point B, just like that.
Off paper, back in 3D space, a wormhole wouldn’t be circular like it is on a 2D plane. Rather, it’s likely to be spherical. A spherical hole in the universe, folded on the axis of a higher dimension.
At the core of a black hole an opening like this, sometimes called an ‘Einstein–Rosen bridge,’ would be ephemeral and unstable. It phases into existence for perhaps only a second. But for that second, it is indeed a theoretical portal between two points in our curvy spacetime.
So there’s your ticket out!
If you’re not spaghettified first, that is. And if you have negative mass.
Oh, yes—apologies, there is a catch. The hyperspace vacuum within a wormhole is so unstable that even the gravity of a single light particle could cause it to snap shut. So to keep a wormhole open, to keep the door of existence from swinging shut behind you, the wormhole needs to be kept open using matter with anti-gravitational properties.
Deliciously, physicists call this stuff ‘exotic matter’.
Jingly bracelets, a draped python and some sort of interpretive belly dance might be sufficient in rendering you exotic enough for the wormhole, but we’re yet to conduct the fieldwork. In the meantime, Lapsus recommends cutting back on fats and sweeties. If you don’t dig on swimming, pick up a bicycle! Negative mass is achievable. We believe in you.
Once you’re through, some physicists reckon that on the other end is a ‘white hole’: a singularity, but with all matter and energy spraying out unbelievably, repelling all things yonder and yonder into the wider universe. Not unlike the Big Bang, actually…
So there it is: fall into a black hole, squeeze through a wormhole and you might find yourself clawing at the placenta of a freshly birthed universe. Perhaps they’ll make you a god. Perhaps you’re already god? Maybe you’ll be the universe.
Do let me know.
And finally: relax.
If all this doesn’t help, relax. While it’s good to stay prepared, the nearest black hole is 2800 light years away. Even travelling at the speed of light (with infinite energy behind you and time dilating to the point of nonexistence) it would still take 2800 years for you to get there.
Time enough to perish at the teeth of countless other terrible things here on Earth. Phew!
Feature image: still from Interstellar (2014), edited.