On Stephen Hawking

I’ve been a fan of Stephen Hawking’s since I was in 1oth grade. That year in English, we had to do a research project. (It was called an ISearch Project, as I recall, because we were allowed to use the first person when writing it.) As my topic, I chose black holes, mainly because I’d seen a movie: A Brief History of Time, which was based on Hawking’s book:

I thoroughly enjoyed writing that paper, and it made a big impact on me. Big enough that right up until college, one of the careers I was thinking about was becoming a theoretical physicist, which I imagine not too many high schoolers rattle off among their top choices. (Somewhere in an alternate universe, who knows what I’m up to at this point. Probably galactic domination.)

This was in 1993, so . . . 25 years ago. From that time forward, I liked reading about Stephen Hawking, doing my best to keep up with what he was talking about. I got to see him in person at a lecture in Utah the same year. (It was in Abravenel Hall in July of that year.) It was a big auditorium (about 15,000 or so), so it wasn’t like I was up close and  personal with the man, but it was still fascinating to hear him “speak” about his research.

I’ve been inspired by his ability to make so much out of a life many thought would be impossible. I’m amazed he lived so long and accomplished so much.

At the time, the ISearch paper seemed like this huge undertaking. Because I’m a stickler for organization, I still have a copy of the whole thing, though it’s in an older format that took a bit of finagling to read on today’s machines. And so I present to you today, in honor of Stephen Hawking’s passing, my most cutting edge 10th grade research in all its glory. (There was an oral report that went along with this. I remember making a big poster for it. Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that.)

Black Holes and Their Possible Effects On Man

Black holes.  The very words we use to describe these phenomena inspire mystery.  When I started this report I knew very little of black holes.  The majority of my knowledge came from a remarkable biographical movie called A Brief History of Time.  It describes the life and research of today’s most intelligent scientist, Stephen Hawking, who has spent the last couple of years researching black holes.  Although most of the information was extremely complicated, I learned, in rather vague terms, a lot more about black holes than I knew originally.  Even with my original knowledge and the information I had gained from the movie, I still knew little.

A black hole is much smaller than a pinhead but infinitely more dense so that the gravitational pull it has creates an object called an event horizon- the area where the gravitational pull begins to take effect.  Even more amazing, this pull is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape once it is caught.  Because the black hole allows no light to escape, it is virtually invisible.  In addition, I learned that inside the event horizon, time itself slows down so that somone inside the black hole would age much slower than a person outside it.  However, once inside the black hole, he would have very little time, at most a couple of days, before he met the black hole itself, killing him.  I decided that I wanted to discover what black holes are and, if man could reach one easily, how they might change our society.

To understand what a black hole is, you must first understand how it is formed.  It begins with the birth of a star, which occurs when a great amount of gas, usually hydrogen or oxygen, condenses together because of gravitational attraction (Hawking, Time 82).  As far as I know, gravitational attraction is the force that draws two atoms together due to their gravitational pulls.  Because it is soon too dense for all the gas to fit, the gas particles begin to collide into each other (Hawking, Time 82).  As the gas does this, it heats up, eventually causing the oxygen or hydrogen to form into helium, releasing the built-up heat (Hawking, Time 82).  After a while (it varies from star to star) the large amount of heat released stops the condensation of the gas that makes up the star, and the star has a long life spanning quite a few millenia (Hawking, Time 83).

There comes a time that that life must end, however.  The gas runs low and the star begins to contract again (Hawking, Time 83).  However, it soon gets too dense, and in order to prolong its life it must expand rapidly, at which point in time it will go one of three routes (Hawking, Time 83).  There is a specific size of star, called the Chandrasekhar limit, that determines which route the star will follow (Hawking, Time 83).  If a star is less than or equal to the Chandrasekhar limit when it begins to expand, it won’t die but will soon stabilize and live forever as a white dwarf or a neutron star (Hawking, Time 84).  If it is over the limit, on the other hand, it will either throw off enough weight to go under the limit or collapse into a point of singularity, a black hole (Hawking, Time 84-85).  However, at present there is only one object in space that might be a black hole (it exists in Cygnus X-1, part of the constellation Orion);  man knows of no others (Patz).  However, some scientists have estimated that there may be relatively small black holes about as far away from Earth as Pluto (Hawking, Essays 109-110).  Personally, I believe that because there are so many stars in the universe, there could be quite a few black holes there, as well.

The possible black hole we know of has many interesting characteristics.  From research it has been determined that the only ways to detect a black hole are by the enormous amount of X-rays it gives off or by getting close enough to sense its intense gravitational pull (Patz).  This is because the black hole creates no noise and you can’t see it because its gravity lets out no light (Patz).  (The reason that light can be affected by gravity is rather complicated, and won’t be discussed in this paper).  Most black holes rotate around an axis, much like earth, and, depending on how fast the rotation is, have a slight or distinct bulge in the center (Hawking, Time 91).  As for their size, Professor Hawking has said that “a black hole weighing about a billion tons (about the mass of a mountain) would have the radius of about ten to the negative thirteenth centimeter (about the size of a neutron or proton).”  To give you an idea of the amount of force a black hole’s gravity has, if someone got caught in its pull, by the time they reached the black hole itself the bonds holding each atom together would have broken down, leaving only separate protons, neutrons, and electrons (Patz).  This aspect surprised me.  I had been aware that the gravitational forces of a black hole were intense.  However, I had not imagined they were strong enough to tear apart the very building blocks of life itself.

The next part of a black hole is what I consider to be the first obstacle in the way of finding out more about the actual black hole.  Surrounding the black hole is a barrier of intense heat and pressure, called the event horizon, that can’t be penetrated by anything, physical or technological (Patz).  The event horizon is far away from the black hole itself and is billions of times larger.  As  Stephen Hawking says, it is the “wave front of light that just fails to escape to infinity but remains hovering at the Schwarzchild radius” (Hawking, Essays 103).  The Schwarzchild radius varies for each star and is two times Newton’s constant of gravity (G) times the mass of the star (M) divided by the square root of the speed of light (C) (2GM/ C) (Hawking, Essays 103-104).  As I interpret it, this radius is the point of no return from a black hole, the place where light itself begins to be affected by the hole’s gravity.  As far as I know, the reason no one knows what a black hole itself looks like because it is invisible, and anyone who could pass the event horizon to see it wouldn’t be able to get back out to describe it to us.  BEfore our knowledge of black holes expands, I think we’ll first have to devise a method of getting paast the so far impenetrable event horizon.

The final aspect of black holes is Hawking radiation.  Hawking radiation, discovered by Prof. Hawking through some fairly new theories, is the one thing that ever comes out of a black hole.   To begin, scientists have discovered that space, a gigantic vacuum, is not as empty as they originally hypothesized (Folger 101).  Throughout it, pairs of “virtual particles”, subatomic pieces of matter and antimatter, rapidly pop into space by stealing energy from any nearby source, collide together, and explode back into nothingness (Folger 101).  This works like clockwork until black holes enter the picture.  If virtual particles are “born” next to a black hole (a source of energy), there is a way they can survive (Folger 101).  When the particles pop into existence, they recieve a tiny “push” of energy that shoves the pair apart from each other before they collide back together (Folger 101).  However, in a pair formed near a black hole, one of the particles may be “pushed” past the event horizon while the other is “pushed” out of it, letting one of the particles escape (Gribbin).  These particles that escape from the black hole are called Hawking radiation (Folger 101).  This radiation allows for the death of black holes (Folger 101).  This, too, surprised me.  I had always pictured black holes as being immortal.  This however, was just one of my many beliefs that were changed through this report.

The death of a black hole is a rather long, intricate process.  When Hawking radiation escapes, with it goes the small portion of energy which it stole from the black hole (Folger 101).  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, energy is equal to mass (Folger 101).  Since the radiation took its energy from the black hole, the black hole lost that energy and its equal in mass, resulting with a small diminishment in the size of the hole (Gribbin).  With enough of these small robberies, the black hole will eventually disappear and die (Folger 101).  However, because the black hole is continually growing by consuming more mass from its surroundings, the death of any black hole will not occur until eons after all the material in the universe is contained within a black hole (Folger 101).  This concept should not be that unsettling.  After all, “all things come to an end,” and the human race will probably be extinct by then, anyway.

In addition, there are three other objects in space that are related to black holes.  The first of these are white holes, believed to be the exact opposite of black holes.  Scientists hypothesize that an object might go in through a black hole and come out through a white hole (Patz).  By their reasoning, if there is something out there that takes everything in, there must be something that shoves everything out (Patz).  I agree with the scientists because it seems quite logical.  Like black holes, white holes may be invisible as well or have other characteristics that hide them from our view right now.  I believe, however, that we will one day find them.

The second “hole” is a possible link between white holes and black holes.  This new type of hole is a worm hole, a passageway that connects two regions of space, possibly a white hole and black hole (Freedman 59) or a black hole and a black hole (Davies).  A worm hole linking a black hole to a black hole wouldn’t do much as far as space travel is concerned because in both, the traveler, if he survived, wouldn’t be able to get out (Davies).  A worm hole between a black hole and a white hole, however, has some interesting characteristics.  This type of worm hole would be a very fast “short cut” between two far-away regions in space because it does not follow the regular rules of space and time (Freedman 59).  One of the problems is that worm holes are very unstable, and if someone were to try to pass through them, that someone would probably upset it, causing it to close and thus kill the traveller (Freedman 61).  As I figure, the traveler would also have to pass through the singularity of a black hole making the chances of passing through a worm hole look pretty slim.

Where I had given up hope, however, another had “just begun to fight”.  Professor Kip Thorne believes man could use “exotic matter,” matter more dense than the worm hole itself, to hold open and stabilize a worm hole so that it could be used ((Freedman 61).  There are two problems with this (Freedman 61).  First, this would give the worm hole negative mass and energy and anti-gravity, going against the laws of general relativity (Freedman 61).  Second, it is not known if exotic matter can interact with people (Freedman 61).  (Thorne himself gives it just a 50/50 chance (Freedman 64)).  Thorne’s answer to this is that either it’s impossible, exotic matter doesn’t interact with people (it passes through regular matter), or, most unlikely, humans could put a vacuum tube down the worm hole, protecting the people from the exotic matter.  Even if scientists got past that step, it is still unknown how to construct exotic matter that doesn’t contradict the laws of physics (Folger 61).  I believe that if any new discoveries on this subject are ever made, it won’t be until we find a worm hole close enough to study.  That is definitely going years to discover.

It is because of all these interesting characteristics of black holes, white holes, and worm holes that rather interesting theories have developed as to how they could affect our lives.  Aside from the belief that black holes are going to eventually kill the universe (Folger 101) and the idea that worm holes may be a faster method of space travel (Freedman 61), the first of these is the age old concept of time travel.  Because, as I had learned from the movie, it is somehow presumed that black holes are believed to slow time down inside them, I assumed that mankind might one day make a spaceship to travel into the future.  I believed this to be possible if the spaceship could build up enough speed to glance off the event horizon, going enough of the way into the black hole to slow time down for the ship but not getting pulled all the way into the hole.  I then thought that the ship could bounce back out of the black hole at some point in the future.  Of course, I had hardly expected to be correct in my hypothesis.

However, I found out that time travel is possible through the use of a black hole.  If the spaceship was strong and fast enough, it could “bounce” off a black hole and use the gravitational assist of the event horizon to propell it even faster, approaching the speed of light (300,000 km/s) (Patz).  It could then use this tremendous speed to escape from the black hole and go into the future (Patz).  However, this plan is somewhat flawed.  First of all, it would require a lot of precision to avoid falling into the black hole (Patz).  The slightest miscalulation would send the ship on a one way trip to oblivion (Patz).  As I learned in my interview with Mr. Patz, the other big problem is slowing the ship down.  He said that a ship going that fast would take an extremely long time to slow down.  While this may present some problems, the fact still remains that the people inside the ship would, in effect, be going into the future (Patz).  However, the passengers wouldn’t be going ahead in time (Patz).  They would still be going at 300,000 km/s no matter what and would arrive at their destination the same time as they would have if time hadn’t slowed down when they were going at that incredible rate (Patz).  To the passengers, however, the journey would have seemed faster because their time had slowed down (Patz).  How much time they had lost would be determined by how long they had been travelling at that great rate, I suppose.  I was, of course, very interested that my hypothesis had been partially true.

Another theory on time travel centers around worm holes.  Prof. Thorne believes that if one end of a stable worm hole is spun at a speed near the speed of light, a “time hole” would be created that would allow travel back in time to the conception of the time hole, no earlier (Freedman 61).  The reasons for this are extremely complicated and won’t be discussed here to save you a boring lecture.  However, a time hole is very unlikely.  Professor Thorne says, “The chance of achieving any sort of time travel within the next thousand years are nil.”  For starters, it is not known whether worm holes can be spun or if there exists any easily moved object with which to spin them (Patz).  Add to this the fact that scientists don’t even know if worm holes exist and if they can be stabilized, and the hopes look pretty dim (Patz).  I doubt this theory will ever be realized.  With all its flaws, it seems to me impossible that it could be even partially true.

Another interesting theory I had heard is that black holes may lead to alternate universes that are connected via black holes.  It is not very likely that, even if this fact were true, it will do anyone any good (Patz).  The black hole would almost definitely destroy any thing that fell into it if the event horizon didn’t get them first (Patz).  So, even if there were an alternate universe, the only thing of the traveler that would enjoy it would be his neutrons, protons and electrons (Patz).  I believe, however, that black holes might lead to alternate universes.  It would take a lot more technology to get past the event horizon and the singularity of the black hole, but I don’t think we should give the idea up yet.  After all, a couple of decades ago, no one even thought it was possible to fly, let alone go into outerspace.

The next theory has physicists intrigued the most.  It is the idea that what goes into a black hole can’t be recreated through anything, not even Hawking radiation (Folger 100).  Physicists center their studies around the recreation of the past using the future (Folger 100).  However, if there is something that exists in the universe that utterly eliminates the past, physics has just been eliminated as well (Folger 100).  Naturally, the physicts have developed theories, three to be exact, on this subject (Folger 102).  Although none of them really help physicists of today, I suppose they must make an effort to reassure themselves that their jobs exist.

The first theory on this subject is the already mentioned belief that the past can’t be recreated.  Because the radiation comes out at the event horizon, far away from the actual black hole, Hawking radiation all looks the same, much like steam that only appeared from a glass of hot chocolate when it was miles away from the glass, with its scent and distinguishing characteristics all long gone (Folger 101).  The second theory is that Hawking radiation has distinguishable characteristics- we just don’t know what to look for (Folger 102). The last solution is that the information never emerges- it’s not contained within the Hawking radiation (Folger 102).  They believe that when the black hole dies, it leaves a jumble of information that is in some way inaccessible (Folger 102).  This theory isn’t too much different from the first one, though it may be more comforting to the physicists to know the information is there, even if it cannot be seen.  I believe that it will take time and a closer real black hole to determine which theory is right.

I find the next theory to be the most interesting.  Scientists have hypothesized that general relativity and quantum physics, a set of rules having do do with subatomic particles, will one day be combined to form a law that governs everything (Folger 106).  Scientists believe that if there is a place to do this, the best possible place is a black hole (Folger 106).  The probabilities for at least a change in the current theories of relativity are good, seeing as how Einstein died before he came close to finishing his theories (Patz).  I don’t know of any theories that scientists have developed yet that sooner or later haven’t been proved wrong.  In addition, I know that scientists have been encountering numerous problems with the current theories when dealing with objects such as black holes.  Therefore, I feel fairly sure that Einstein’s theory will also be proven false.

Through this report I have learned a great deal.  Even though there are no 100% certain black holes found as of yet, I believe, as Mr. Patz does, that we will find something that at least resembles a black hole, even if it isn’t everything we thought it would be.  I think that if we one day get adept at space travel and reach a black hole, at least someone will try to go into the future.  I further believe he/she will have a good chance of succeeding.  I believe that white holes and worm holes exist, but I don’t think they’re distuinguishable from black holes, given that they’re all singularities.  Therefore, I don’t believe we’ll find out if they exist until we get close enough to one to find out.  However, I don’t think either of these new holes will really affect our society aside from the scientific gains involved.  I predict that our theories on black holes will change drastically over the years as scientists gain new information.  However, I believe it will be a long while until black holes have an impact on our lives.  At that point, they may change our societies in ways we cannot even imagine.

Works Cited

Davies, Paul.  “Wormholes and Time Machines.”  Sky & Telescope January 1992: 20-23.  Rpt. in SIRS:  CD-ROM.  CD-ROM disc.  SIRS, 1992.

Folger, Tim.  “The Ultimate Vanishing.”  Discover October 1993:  98-106.

Freedman, David.  “Cosmic Time Travel.”  Discover June 1989:  58-64.

Gribbin, John.  “The Birth and Death of the Universe.”  Unesco Courier May 1991: 36-40.  Rpt. in SIRS:  CD-ROM.  CD-ROM disc.  SIRS, 1992.

Hawking, Stephen.  A Brief History of Time From the Big Bang to Black      Holes.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1988.

—Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays.  New York:  Bantam     Books, 1993.

Patz, Derrik.  Telephone Interview.  5 December, 1993.


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