Experiment proves old theory of how aliens might use black holes for energy

Researchers create a device to test a 50-year-old physics theory from the famed Roger Penrose.

Cygnus X-1 black hole

Cygnus X-1 black hole.

Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
  • Scientists prove a 50-year-old physics theory by Roger Penrose.
  • The theory explains how energy could be harvested from black holes by advanced aliens.
  • Researchers from the University of Glasgow twisted sound waves to show that the effect Penrose described is real.

A theory proposed 50 years ago to explain how energy might be harvested from a black hole was verified by an experiment. Scientists from the University of Glasgow were able to provide first proof for an idea from 1969 by the famed British physicist Roger Penrose, who predicted that only an advanced alien civilization would be able to get energy in the black hole's ergosphere – the outer layer of its event horizon.

Why would it take aliens to do this? Penrose thought that if you lower an object into the ergosphere, you could produce negative energy. But for this to work, the object would have to be moving faster than the speed of light. Penrose envisioned a mechanism that would split an object dropped into the black hole in two, with one part going into the hole while the other would be recovered. As explains the press release from the University of Glasgow, the recoil generated by this process would result in the saved half gaining energy from the black hole's rotation.

Of course if this sounds complicated, it really is and only a very high-tech futuristic civilization would be up for the challenge, concluded Penrose.

What the scientists were able to do now was to test this idea by an experiment based on the proposal from another physicist, Yakov Zel'dovich. He suggested in 1971 that Penrose's theory could be proven by using "twisted" light waves, which would create energy by hitting a rotating metal cylinder and utilizing the rotational Doppler effect.

While Zel'dovich's approach also proved impractical, the scientists from the Glasgow University's School of Physics and Astronomy devised a setup of a small ring of speakers that twisted sound waves in a way similar to how he wanted to twist light. The advantage is that sound waves need a significantly slower rotating surface compared to light.

Check out how the researchers explain their work

The team sent twisted sound waves towards a rotating sound absorber from a foam disk. Microphones positioned in the back of the disk captured the sound that passed from the speakers through the disc, which spun faster and faster.

What the scientists found was that this process produced clear changes in the frequency and amplitude of the sound waves, courtesy of the unusual behavior of the Doppler effect, which normally describes how for example, the pitch of a siren from an emergency vehicle seems to rise as it heads towards you but drops when it moves away. This happens because sound waves come at you with more frequency when the ambulance closes in, but less so after it goes past.

The paper's lead author, Marion Cromb, a Ph.D. student in the University's School of Physics and Astronomy, explained that rotation transforms this linear effect and pulls in energy. "The rotational doppler effect is similar, but the effect is confined to a circular space," he pointed out. "The twisted sound waves change their pitch when measured from the point of view of the rotating surface. If the surface rotates fast enough then the sound frequency can do something very strange—it can go from a positive frequency to a negative one, and in doing so steal some energy from the rotation of the surface."

The set-up of the experiment.

Credit: University of Glasgow

The researchers were able to show that as they increased the speed of the spinning disc, the pitch of the sound kept dropping until it disappeared, then it came back up to 30 percent louder than before.

Marion called what they heard during the experiment "extraordinary," adding that the "negative-frequency waves are capable of taking some of the energy from the spinning foam disc, becoming louder in the process—just as Zel'dovich proposed in 1971."

Whether aliens are using this approach to get energy from black holes is certainly hard to ascertain, but the researchers are planning to investigate whether this effect extends to other sources like electromagnetic waves.

Check out their new paper "Amplification of waves from a rotating body" in Nature Physics.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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