Black Holes (Part 2)- A Briefer History of Time

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking

At some time on his watch, say 11:00, the star would shrink below the critical radius at which the gravitational field becomes so strong nothing can escape, and his signals would no longer reach the spaceship. As 11:00 approached, his companions watching from the spaceship would find the intervals between successive signals from the astronaut getting longer and longer, but this effect would be very small before 10:59:59. They would have to wait only very slightly more than a second between the astronaut’s 10:59:58 signal and the one that he sent when his watch read 10:59:59, but they would have to wait forever for the 11:00 signal. The light waves emitted from the surface of the star between 10:59:59 and 11:00, by the astronaut’s watch, would be spread out over an infinite period of time, as seen from the spaceship.

The time interval between the arrival of successive waves at the spaceship would get longer and longer, so the light from the star would appear redder and redder and fainter and fainter. Eventually, the star would be so dim that it could no longer be seen from the spaceship: all that would be left would be a black hole in space. The star would, however, continue to exert the same gravitational force on the spaceship, which would continue to orbit the black hole.

This scenario is not entirely realistic, however, because of the following problem. Gravity gets weaker the farther you are from the star, so the gravitational force on our intrepid astronaut’s feet would always be greater than the force on his head. This difference in the forces would stretch our astronaut out like spaghetti or tear him apart before the star had contracted to the critical radius at which the event horizon formed!

However, we believe that there are much larger objects in the universe, like the central regions of galaxies, that can also undergo gravitational collapse to produce black holes; an astronaut on one of these would not be torn apart before the black hole formed. He would not, in fact, feel anything special as he reached the critical radius, and could pass the point of no return without noticing it. However, within just a few hours, as the region continued to collapse, the difference in the gravitational forces on his head and his feet would become so strong that again it would tear him apart.

The work that Roger Penrose and I did between 1965 and 1970 showed that, according to general relativity, there must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature within a black hole. This is rather like the big bang at the beginning of time, only it would be an end of time for the collapsing body and the astronaut. At this singularity the laws of science and our ability to predict the future would break down. However, any observer who remained outside the black hole would not be affected by this failure of predictability, because neither light nor any other signal could reach him from the singularity.

This remarkable fact led Roger Penrose to propose the cosmic censorship hypothesis, which might be paraphrased as “God abhors a naked singularity.” In other words, the singularities produced by gravitational collapse occur only in places, like black holes, where they are decently hidden from outside view by an event horizon. Strictly, this is what is known as the weak cosmic censorship hypothesis: it protects observers who remain outside the black hole from the consequences of the breakdown of predictability that occurs at the singularity, but it does nothing at all for the poor unfortunate astronaut who falls into the hole.

There are some solutions of the equations of general relativity in which it is possible for our astronaut to see a naked singularity: he may be able to avoid hitting the singularity and instead fall through a “wormhole” and come out in another region of the universe. This would offer great possibilities for travel in space and time, but unfortunately it seems that these solutions may all be highly unstable; the least disturbance, such as the presence of an astronaut, may change them so that the astronaut could not see the singularity until he hit it and his time came to an end. In other words, the singularity would always lie in his future and never in his past.

The strong version of the cosmic censorship hypothesis states that in a realistic solution, the singularities would always lie either entirely in the future (like the singularities of gravitational collapse) or entirely in the past (like the big bang). I strongly believe in cosmic censorship so I bet Kip Thorne and John Preskill of Cal Tech that it would always hold. I lost the bet on a technicality because examples were produced of solutions with a singularity that was visible from a long way away. So I had to pay up, which according to the terms of the bet meant I had to clothe their nakedness. But I can claim a moral victory. The naked singularities were unstable: the least disturbance would cause them either to disappear or to be hidden behind an event horizon. So they would not occur in realistic situations.

The event horizon, the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape, acts rather like a one-way membrane around the black hole: objects, such as unwary astronauts, can fall through the event horizon into the black hole, but nothing can ever get out of the black hole through the event horizon. (Remember that the event horizon is the path in space-time of light that is trying to escape from the black hole, and nothing can travel faster than light.) One could well say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Anything or anyone who falls through the event horizon will soon reach the region of infinite density and the end of time.

General relativity predicts that heavy objects that are moving will cause the emission of gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of space that travel at the speed of light. These are similar to light waves, which are ripples of the electromagnetic field, but they are much harder to detect. They can be observed by the very slight change in separation they produce between neighboring freely moving objects. A number of detectors are being built in the United States, Europe, and Japan that will measure displacements of one part in a thousand million million million (1 with twenty-one zeros after it), or less than the nucleus of an atom over a distance of ten miles.

Like light, gravitational waves carry energy away from the objects that emit them. One would therefore expect a system of massive objects to settle down eventually to a stationary state, because the energy in any movement would be carried away by the emission of gravitational waves. (It is rather like dropping a cork into water: at first it bobs up and down a great deal, but as the ripples carry away its energy, it eventually settles down to a stationary state.) For example, the movement of the earth in its orbit round the sun produces gravitational waves.

The effect of the energy loss will be to change the orbit of the earth so that gradually it gets nearer and nearer to the sun, eventually collides with it, and settles down to a stationary state. The rate of energy loss in the case of the earth and the sun is very low—about enough to run a small electric heater. This means it will take about a thousand million million million million years for the earth to run into the sun, so there’s no immediate cause for worry! The change in the orbit of the earth is too slow to be observed, but this same effect has been observed over the past few years occurring in the system called PSR 1913 + 16 (PSR stands for “pulsar,” a special type of neutron star that emits regular pulses of radio waves). This system contains two neutron stars orbiting each other, and the energy they are losing by the emission of gravitational waves is causing them to spiral in toward each other. This confirmation of general relativity won J. H. Taylor and R. A. Hulse the Nobel Prize in 1993. It will take about three hundred million years for them to collide. Just before they do, they will be orbiting so fast that they will emit enough gravitational waves for detectors like LIGO to pick up.

During the gravitational collapse of a star to form a black hole, the movements would be much more rapid, so the rate at which energy is carried away would be much higher. It would therefore not be too long before it settled down to a stationary state. What would this final stage look like? One might suppose that it would depend on all the complex features of the star from which it had formed—not only its mass and rate of rotation, but also the different densities of various parts of the star, and the complicated movements of the gases within the star.

And if black holes were as varied as the objects that collapsed to form them, it might be very difficult to make any predictions about black holes in general. In 1967, however, the study of black holes was revolutionized by Werner Israel, a Canadian scientist (who was born in Berlin, brought up in South Africa, and took his doctoral degree in Ireland). Israel showed that, according to general relativity, non-rotating black holes must be very simple; they were perfectly spherical, their size depended only on their mass, and any two such black holes with the same mass were identical.

They could, in fact, be described by a particular solution of Einstein’s equations that had been known since 1917, found by Karl Schwarzschild shortly after the discovery of general relativity. At first many people, including Israel himself, argued that since black holes had to be perfectly spherical, a black hole could only form from the collapse of a perfectly spherical object. Any real star—which would never be perfectly spherical—could therefore only collapse to form a naked singularity.

There was, however, a different interpretation of Israel’s result, which was advocated by Roger Penrose and John Wheeler in particular. They argued that the rapid movements involved in a star’s collapse would mean that the gravitational waves it gave off would make it ever more spherical, and by the time it had settled down to a stationary state, it would be precisely spherical. According to this view, any non-rotating star, however complicated its shape and internal structure, would end up after gravitational collapse as a perfectly spherical black hole, whose size would depend only on its mass. Further calculations supported this view, and it soon came to be adopted generally.

Israel’s result dealt with the case of black holes formed from non- rotating bodies only. In 1963, Roy Kerr, a New Zealander, found a set of solutions of the equations of general relativity that described rotating black holes. These “Kerr” black holes rotate at a constant rate, their size and shape depending only on their mass and rate of rotation. If the rotation is zero, the black hole is perfectly round and the solution is identical to the Schwarzschild solution. If the rotation is non-zero, the black hole bulges outward near its equator (just as the earth or the sun bulge due to their rotation), and the faster it rotates, the more it bulges.

So, to extend Israel’s result to include rotating bodies, it was conjectured that any rotating body that collapsed to form a black hole would eventually settle down to a stationary state described by the Kerr solution.

In 1970 a colleague and fellow research student of mine at Cambridge, Brandon Carter, took the first step toward proving this conjecture. He showed that, provided a stationary rotating black hole had an axis of symmetry, like a spinning top, its size and shape would depend only on its mass and rate of rotation. Then, in 1971, I proved that any stationary rotating black hole would indeed have such an axis of symmetry. Finally, in 1973, David Robinson at Kings College, London, used Carter’s and my results to show that the conjecture had been correct: such a black hole had indeed to be the Kerr solution.

So after gravitational collapse a black hole must settle down into a state in which it could be rotating, but not pulsating. Moreover, its size and shape would depend only on its mass and rate of rotation, and not on the nature of the body that had collapsed to form it. This result became known by the maxim: “A black hole has no hair.” The “no hair” theorem is of great practical importance, because it so greatly restricts the possible types of black holes. One can therefore make detailed models of objects that might contain black holes and compare the predictions of the models with observations. It also means that a very large amount of information about the body that has collapsed must be lost when a black hole is formed, because afterward all we can possibly measure about the body is its mass and rate of rotation. The significance of this will be seen in the next chapter.