- Black holes are theoretical structures in spacetime predicted by the theory of general relativity. Nothing can escape a black hole’s gravity after passing inside its event horizon.
- Approximate quantum calculations predict that black holes slowly evaporate, albeit in a paradoxical way. Physicists are still seeking a full, consistent quantum theory of gravity to describe black holes.
- Contrary to physicists’ conventional wisdom, a quantum effect called vacuum polarization may grow large enough to stop a hole forming and create a “black star” instead.
Black holes have been a part of popular culture for decades now, most recently playing a central role in the plot of this year’s Star Trek movie. No wonder. These dark remnants of collapsed stars seem almost designed to play on some of our primal fears: a black hole harbors unfathomable mystery behind the curtain that is its “event horizon,” admits of no escape for anyone or anything that falls within, and irretrievably destroys all it ingests.
To theoretical physicists, black holes are a class of solutions of the Einstein field equations, which are at the heart of his theory of general relativity. The theory describes how all matter and energy distort spacetime as if it were made of elastic and how the resulting curvature of spacetime controls the motion of the matter and energy, producing the force we know as gravity. These equations unambiguously predict that there can be regions of spacetime from which no signal can reach distant observers. These regions—black holes—consist of a location where matter densities approach infinity (a “singularity”) surrounded by an empty zone of extreme gravitation from which nothing, not even light, can escape. A conceptual boundary, the event horizon, separates the zone of intense gravitation from the rest of spacetime. In the simplest case, the event horizon is a sphere—just six kilometers in diameter for a black hole of the sun’s mass.
This article was originally published with the title Black Stars, Not Holes.