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.

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