Could a human enter a black hole to study it?

Get the answer from two physicists who study black holes (albeit from a safe distance).

Artist impression of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy
ESO/L. Calçada
Could a human enter a black hole to study it? – Pulkeet, age 12, Bahadurgarh, Haryana, India

To solve the mysteries of black holes, a human should just venture into one. However, there is a rather complicated catch: A human can do this only if the respective black hole is supermassive and isolated, and if the person entering the black hole does not expect to report the findings to anyone in the entire universe.

We are both physicists who study black holes, albeit from a very safe distance. Black holes are among the most abundant astrophysical objects in our universe. These intriguing objects appear to be an essential ingredient in the evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang till present day. They probably had an impact on the formation of human life in our own galaxy.

Two types of black holes

The universe is littered with a vast zoo of different types of black holes.

They can vary by size and be electrically charged, the same way electrons or protons are in atoms. Some black holes actually spin. There are two types of black holes that are relevant to our discussion. The first does not rotate, is electrically neutral – that is, not positively or negatively charged – and has the mass of our Sun. The second type is a supermassive black hole, with a mass of millions to even billions times greater than that of our Sun.

Besides the mass difference between these two types of black holes, what also differentiates them is the distance from their center to their "event horizon" – a measure called radial distance. The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return. Anything that passes this point will be swallowed by the black hole and forever vanish from our known universe.

The distance from a black hole's center of mass to where gravity's pull is too strong to overcome is called the event horizon. (Leo and Shanshan, CC BY-ND)

At the event horizon, the black hole's gravity is so powerful that no amount of mechanical force can overcome or counteract it. Even light, the fastest-moving thing in our universe, cannot escape – hence the term "black hole."

The radial size of the event horizon depends on the mass of the respective black hole and is key for a person to survive falling into one. For a black hole with a mass of our Sun (one solar mass), the event horizon will have a radius of just under 2 miles.

The supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, by contrast, has a mass of roughly 4 million solar masses, and it has an event horizon with a radius of 7.3 million miles or 17 solar radii.

Thus, someone falling into a stellar-size black hole will get much, much closer to the black hole's center before passing the event horizon, as opposed to falling into a supermassive black hole.

This implies, due to the closeness of the black hole's center, that the black hole's pull on a person will differ by a factor of 1,000 billion times between head and toe, depending on which is leading the free fall. In other words, if the person is falling feet first, as they approach the event horizon of a stellar mass black hole, the gravitational pull on their feet will be exponentially larger compared to the black hole's tug on their head.

The person would experience spaghettification, and most likely not survive being stretched into a long, thin noodlelike shape.

(Leo and Shanshan Rodriguez, CC BY-ND)

As the person approaches the event horizon of a a Sun-size black hole, the vast difference in gravitational pull between the inidvidual's head and toes causes the person to stretch into a very long noodle, hence the term 'spaghettification'.

Now, a person falling into a supermassive black hole would reach the event horizon much farther from the the central source of gravitational pull, which means that the difference in gravitational pull between head and toe is nearly zero. Thus, the person would pass through the event horizon unaffected, not be stretched into a long, thin noodle, survive and float painlessly past the black hole's horizon.

A person falling into a supermassive black hole would likely survive. (Leo and Shanshan Rodriguez, CC BY-ND)

Other considerations

Most black holes that we observe in the universe are surrounded by very hot disks of material, mostly comprising gas and dust or other objects like stars and planets that got too close to the horizon and fell into the black hole. These disks are called accretion disks and are very hot and turbulent. They are most certainly not hospitable and would make traveling into the black hole extremely dangerous.

To enter one safely, you would need to find a supermassive black hole that is completely isolated and not feeding on surrounding material, gas and or even stars.

Now, if a person found an isolated supermassive black hole suitable for scientific study and decided to venture in, everything observed or measured of the black hole interior would be confined within the black hole's event horizon.

Keeping in mind that nothing can escape the gravitational pull beyond the event horizon, the in-falling person would not be able to send any information about their findings back out beyond this horizon. Their journey and findings would be lost to the rest of the entire universe for all time. But they would enjoy the adventure, for as long as they survived … maybe ….

Leo Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Physics, Grinnell College and Shanshan Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Physics, Grinnell College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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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