Mar 21 2014

A Scientific Black Hole

I only have time for a quick post today, so I am going to pig pile on what is likely the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on television this week.

CNN’s Don Lemon asked his panel of experts if it is preposterous to speculate that a black hole might have sucked in Malaysian flight 370. Let that sink in for a moment.

He actually started out OK, saying it is preposterous, but then felt it was necessary to ask his panel for confirmation. Many will point out that this kind of mindless banter is a symptom of 24 hour news shows that have to fill air time with talking heads.

Shockingly, this was not the most scientifically illiterate thing uttered on CNN this week. The response from Mary Schiavo, I think, wins the award. She is a former Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her response was that even a small black hole would suck in the entire universe, so we know it wasn’t that.

Thank goodness for the Cosmos reboot with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. At some point during the series he will likely discuss what black holes actually are. They are the remnants of very large stars that have burned through most of their fuel and can no longer sustain themselves. Such stars will go supernova, and if enough mass is left behind this mass will collapse down into a black hole. It’s also possible that small black holes formed early in the universe. There are also supermassive black holes at the center of many large galaxies, like our own Milky Way, and these may have formed at the same time as the galaxy they are in.

Black holes are so dense that their gravitational field will curve space time so that even light cannot escape close in. The distance at which light can no longer escape is called the event horizon. However, at great distances the gravity of black holes is no different than any massive object. A 10 solar mass black hole would have the same gravitational effects on an object 1 billion miles away as a 10 solar mass sun. The weird stuff, like extreme tidal forces and not letting light escape, only happens because black holes are so small and yet pack in so much mass.

If even a small black hole were anywhere in the vicinity of the earth, the only effect would not be a single missing jet liner. And no, Mary, it would not suck in the entire universe.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “A Scientific Black Hole”

  1. kdh1716on 21 Mar 2014 at 9:22 am

    Oh sure, you’re covering up for Big Pharm again. Everyone knows that these puppets of the Illuminati have been using HAARP to create small black holes to disappear people who are spreading the truth about vaccines! Next thing you’ll be telling us is that the Federal Reserve is not behind the annexation of the Crimea in order to provide a precedent for Mexico’s seizure of South Texas! We’re on to your shape shifting lizard tricks.

  2. Ori Vandewalleon 21 Mar 2014 at 10:31 am

    One of the odder comments I’ve seen regarding this story relates to BICEP2’s gravitational wave discovery. Essentially, some people think it unbelievable that we can find gravitational waves made 10^-35 seconds after the Big Bang, but we can’t find one missing plane on Earth. Which of course means we’re spending too much money on frivolous science when people are dying.

  3. Gallenodon 21 Mar 2014 at 10:44 am

    @kdh1716: That would be one of the best and most amusing conspiracy theory satires I’ve ever seen if I didn’t have an old friend from high school who pretty much believes everything you said.

    Magnets, black holes, tides… people seem to think they’re all just magical. It’s kinda depressing when you think about it, which is why people who believe in magic all seem so happy, I guess.

  4. Bronze Dogon 21 Mar 2014 at 12:19 pm

    I’m reminded of that song, Black Hole Sun, as well as a handful of doomsday soothsayers prophesying our sun turning into one.

    1. Even if the sun were suddenly turned into a black hole, our orbit wouldn’t change much because it’d still have the same mass and thus the same gravitational pull. If there would be an effect, it’d be the result of that mass being compacted in a much smaller space. Black holes don’t have some special sucking ability, just the gravity generated by their typically huge mass. Of course, our extinction would more likely follow from freezing, rather than being plunged into the singularity.
    2. The Earth is going to be consumed by the sun’s expansion into a red giant long before the core collapse.
    3. Our sun isn’t massive enough to form a black hole. The sun’s core will collapse into a white dwarf, which will slowly cool off into a black dwarf.

    On the issue of tiny black holes, it takes extraordinary circumstances to create them, they wouldn’t have the mass necessary to pull anything significant inside, and as I understand it, they’d evaporate into Hawking radiation rather quickly. It’s kind of why LHC-made black holes weren’t something to worry about.

  5. cjcon 21 Mar 2014 at 12:29 pm

    The best quote about this episode was from a physicist queries by The Atlantic Wire:

    Even if a black hole capable of swallowing a plane out of the sky did exist, Peter Michelson, a professor of physics and Stanford University added, “a lot of other things would be missing as well.” When asked for examples of what we’d notice missing, Michelson said, “probably the Earth.”

  6. steve12on 21 Mar 2014 at 1:09 pm

    KDH – That hilarious! Now make yourself some cash by selling it to Alex Jones.

    People who believe a few weird things I can sort of get – certain facts may rub up against your political/religious/whatever worldview.

    But the people who don’t believe any of the things for which there is a ton of evidence, but believe everything for which there is almost no evidence – that’s odd. They’ve literally got the photonegative of reality.

    I guess that that type of a pattern speaks to a personality issue more than cognitive style? Maybe these people want to be seen as different or more daring than others. They’re not really looking at the evidence, they’re looking at how they want to be perceived.

  7. tmac57on 21 Mar 2014 at 1:39 pm


    They’ve literally got the photonegative of reality.

    Ooooooh me likey 🙂

    I’ve got a couple FB friends like that. So far down the rabbit hole that they can see China. No use even pointing them to contradictory evidence, because “they” (factcheckers) are part of the conspiracy.Totally insulated worldview.No facts shall pass!!!

  8. Hosson 21 Mar 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I heard this audio clip on a couple local conservative radio talk shows(their reasoning skills annoy the heck out of me) on my way to and from work. They were using the clip to attack CNN’s credibility, and they completely missed the absurdity of Mary Schiavo’s response. I seriously doubt the hosts have enough of a elementary understanding of astronomy to be able to parse Schiavo’s response.

    The hosts also attacked CNN for another short clip where they considered supernatural intervention, which I thought was a bit ironic since the hosts are bible thumpers.

    “CNN’s Don Lemon Speculates Whether Malaysia Jet’s Disappearance Was ‘Supernatural'”

    Upon watching the ‘supernatural’ clip, the most egregious line of reasoning was from the conspiracy nut, Brad Meltzer.

  9. LDoBeon 21 Mar 2014 at 10:06 pm

    @Bronze Dog
    If the conditions are right, we might not actually freeze if the sun were suddenly replaced by a black hole.

    The reason is that the solar system is filled with a pretty high density of gas and dust. A lot more dense than the interstellar medium. In fact there is already a constant stream of dust and gas falling back onto the sun, which comes from further out in the solar system.

    I posit, that if there’s enough dust and gas falling into a black hole of the right size, there might possibly be enough radiation caused by the compression of the infalling matter to heat up the earth at its current distance. In addition, the solar wind would stop being a constant force pushing diffuse matter away from the gravitational center of the solar system. Instead the black hole’s main ejection route would be parallel to its rotational poles.

    I don’t think it’s very likely in our current configuration, as there’s not very much stuff falling back onto the sun as it is, but I think it’s fun to still speculate about.

  10. Newcoasteron 22 Mar 2014 at 5:24 am

    Apparently CNN has also consulted psychics, and speculated whether it could be the rapture.

    Face palm. Repeat.

  11. Bill Openthalton 24 Mar 2014 at 8:26 am

    To paraphrase Alfred Lord Northcliffe:

    It is the business of journalists to explain to others what they themselves do not understand.

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