Quantum Black Holes [Preview]

Physicists could soon be creating black holes in the laboratory

Ever since physicists invented particle accelerators, nearly 80 years ago, they have used them for such exotic tasks as splitting atoms, transmuting elements, producing antimatter and creating particles not previously observed in nature. With luck, though, they could soon undertake a challenge that will make those achievements seem almost pedestrian. Accelerators may produce the most profoundly mysterious objects in the universe: black holes.

When one thinks of black holes, one usually envisions massive monsters that can swallow spaceships, or even stars, whole. But the holes that might be produced at the highest-energy accelerators--perhaps as early as mid-2008, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva starts running at full design energy--are distant cousins of such astrophysical behemoths. They would be microscopic, comparable in size to elementary particles. They would not rip apart stars, reign over galaxies or pose a threat to our planet, but in some respects their properties should be even more dramatic. Because of quantum effects, they would evaporate shortly after they formed, lighting up the particle detectors like Christmas trees. In so doing, they could give clues about how space-time is woven together and whether it has unseen higher dimensions.

A Tight Squeeze

IN ITS MODERN FORM, the concept of black holes emerges from Einstein's general theory of relativity, which predicts that if matter is sufficiently compressed, its gravity becomes so strong that it carves out a region of space from which nothing can escape. The boundary of the region is the black hole's event horizon: objects can fall in, but none can come out. In the simplest case, where space has no hidden dimensions or those dimensions are smaller than the hole, its size is directly proportional to its mass. If you compressed the sun to a radius of three kilometers, about four millionths of its present size, it would become a black hole. For Earth to meet the same fate, you would need to squeeze it into a radius of nine millimeters, about a billionth its present size.

Thus, the smaller the hole, the higher the degree of compression that is required to create it. The density to which matter must be squeezed scales as the inverse square of the mass. For a hole with the mass of the sun, the density is about 1019 kilograms per cubic meter, higher than that of an atomic nucleus. Such a density is about the highest that can be created through gravitational collapse in the present universe. A body lighter than the sun resists collapse because it gets stabilized by repulsive quantum forces between subatomic particles. Observationally, the lightest black hole candidates are about six solar masses.

Stellar collapse is not the only way that holes might form, however. In the early 1970s Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge and one of us (Carr) investigated a mechanism for generating holes in the early universe. These are termed primordial black holes. As the universe expands, the average density of matter decreases; therefore, the density was much higher in the past, in particular exceeding nuclear levels within the first microsecond of the big bang. The known laws of physics allow for a matter density up to the so-called Planck value of 1097 kilograms per cubic meter--the density at which the strength of gravity becomes so strong that quantum-mechanical fluctuations should break down the fabric of spacetime. Such a density would have been enough to create black holes a mere 1035 meter across (a dimension known as the Planck length) with a mass of 108 kilogram (the Planck mass).

This is the lightest possible black hole according to conventional descriptions of gravity. It is much more massive but much smaller in size than an elementary particle. Progressively heavier primordial black holes could have formed as the cosmic density fell. Any lighter than 1012 kilograms would still be smaller than a proton, but beyond this mass the holes would be as large as more familiar physical objects. Those forming during the epoch when the cosmic density matched nuclear density would have a mass comparable to the sun's and so would be macroscopic.

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