Skip to main content

Expanding Horizon: How Black Holes Grow

By Talya Klinger, Homeschooler

Contrary to popular opinion, black holes do not exist solely to swallow up your socks, keys, and the last scoop of Rocky Road you were saving for a late night snack. Rather, a black hole is an object with such a large mass in such a small volume that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational pull. The black hole’s gravitational pull absorbs whatever is in its reach.

The outer limit of a black hole is an imaginary surface called its event horizon, where the black hole's gravitational pull is just strong enough that not a single photon can escape, creating a large dark space. According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, even light rays that pass by the event horizon are bent and distorted by the black hole's gravity in a process called gravitational lensing. 

This simulation of a spinning supermassive black hole from the movie Interstellar is approximately what a black hole would look like, according to general relativity.

As black holes absorb more and more objects, their mass grows. Not all black holes grow to a similar size, however. Depending on their mass, black holes generally fall into two radically different size categories: stellar mass and supermassive. Most stellar mass black holes, which are 10 to 24 times the size of the sun, are isolated and difficult to detect. Supermassive black holes, on the other hand, are millions or billions of times the size of the sun and are found at the center of most large galaxies, such as the Milky Way. Even when supermassive black holes are not absorbing matter, scientists can observe the effects such black holes have on the stars and gases around them. While stellar mass black holes are more difficult to detect unless they are in the process of absorbing matter, scientists know more about how they form than they do about the formation of supermassive black holes.

A simulation of gravitational lensing around a black hole and a galaxy

Many of the properties of black holes are well documented, yet the formation and growth of supermassive black holes are on the cutting edge of astrophysics. Black holes usually form out of supernovas – the explosions at the end of a star's lifespan. In young or middle-aged stars, the energy created by nuclear fusion counteracts gravity, and keeps a star from collapsing into a black hole. When a massive star reaches the end of its lifespan (when it has burned all the fuel inside of it), it explodes in a phenomenon known as a supernova. Because fusion cannot occur in the remnants of a supernova, when there is not enough energy for the supernova to counteract gravity, there is nothing to prevent the remaining matter from collapsing into a dense object, such as a black hole. By astronomical standards, only supermassive stars have enough matter to become black holes, so small stars, including our sun, merely compact into white dwarfs or neutron stars. (Spoiler alert: the sun will eventually become a white dwarf, so there is no danger of it becoming a black hole.) Scientists know more about the creation of stellar-mass black holes than about the creation of supermassive black holes, but there is a possibility that stellar-mass black holes can grow to a supermassive size by rapidly consuming the matter around them.

Once a black hole forms, it can continue to grow by absorbing more and more matter. The following is theoretical. For example, in binary star systems containing two large stars, the first star to become a black hole will absorb matter from its companion star until the younger star vanishes. When black holes are too far from stars to absorb their matter, they consume the dust and gas floating around them. When two black holes collide, it has been hypothesized that they merge together to become an even larger black hole, producing a whopping amount of energy and sending ripples known as gravitational waves through the universe. 
 A stellar-mass black hole in a binary star system

So far, the only observations of gravitational waves have been contradicted by other, more detailed observations. However, as pairs of supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies spiral closer and closer to each other, the chances are good that we will eventually be able to observe and study such dramatic black hole growth.

In the upcoming Marin Science Seminar, "Snacking, Gorging, and Cannibalizing: The Feeding Habits of Black Holes," astrophysicist Steve Croft, Ph.D. will discuss how innovative telescope technologies make it possible to observe the growth of black holes in a new way, and perhaps, track disappearances from laundry baskets, tables, and refrigerators once and for all

For more information, come to the next Marin Science Seminar at Terra Linda High School from 7:30-8:30 p.m. on March 11th, 2015.

Image Credits:
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Bacteria, Botulism, and Beauty

--> By Talya Klinger, MSS Intern
What do foodborne illnesses, neck dystonia treatments, and celebrities’ beauty regimens have in common? Clostridium botulinum, baratii, and other species of Clostridium bacteria produce all of the above and more. These seemingly innocuous, rod-shaped bacteria, commonly found in soil and in the intestinal tracts of fish and mammals, produce one of the most deadly biological substances: botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin that intercepts neurotransmitters and paralyzes muscles in the disease known as botulism. Nonetheless, botulinum toxin isn’t all bad: this chemical not only protects the bacteria from intense heat and high acidity, but it makes for an effective treatment for medical conditions as wide-ranging as muscle spasms, chronic migraines, and, yes, wrinkles. 

Clostridium botulinum and similar bacteria can make their way into the human body in a number of ways. Wounds infected with Clostridium botulinum or spores ingested by infants can lead to …

An Interview With Diara Spain, Ph.D

By Rachael Metzger, MSS Intern

Ocean acidification is an issue becoming apparent in the effects on both sea creatures and humans. Diara Spain, the Associate Professor of Biology at Dominican University, came to Marin Science Seminar to talk to us about her studies in marine invertebrates and the damage ocean acidification is causing them. 

To learn more about Diara Spain and what inspired her studies we conducted an interview:

1. How did you get interested in biology? Is there a time, event, 
or person in your life that inspired you to pursue the study? I've always been interested in biology, really science in general. I grew up in rural North Carolina and as a kid it was expected that you'd spend most of your free time outside playing with your friends and pets.  One thing that sparked my interest in marine organisms were the summer vacations at the undeveloped beaches in North Carolina. 
2. Why did you specifically decide to focus on functional morphology, locomotion in echinode…

Invention in Medicine this Wed. 10/26/16

Marin Science Seminar for Teens & Community Presents Invention in Medicine How Medical Devices get Invented and Go to Market with Art Wallace MD PhD of UCSF & VAMC SF
Wednesday, October 26, 2016 7:30 - 8:30 pm Terra Linda High School, Room 207 320 Nova Albion, San Rafael, CA 94903 

Art Wallace started out in experimental surgery and radiology studying imaging of the heart using CT
scanners. He has worked on a number of devices that originally were built for experimental studies that evolved into clinically useful devices including a cardiac output monitor, the off pump CABG, off pump aneurysm surgery, electronic sedation, and a selective coronary vasodialtor. Dr. Wallace will explain his experiences with the inventive process using examples from both device design and drug development. There will be a brief discussion of the importance of intellectual property, patents, venture capital, FDA approval, and business development in completing the invention process. There will …