A black hole is defined by its ‘event horizon’, the imaginary membrane that marks the point of no return for in-falling light and matter. If the Sun were to become a black hole – which is impossible since it is not massive enough – the event horizon would only be six kilometres across.
The biggest supermassive black holes are tens of billions of times more massive than the Sun and are in the hearts of all galaxies, though nobody knows why. These supermassive black holes have event horizons bigger than the Solar System.
If you crossed the event horizon and entered a black hole, space-time would be so distorted that time would become space, and space would become time. This is why you cannot avoid the monstrous infinite-density ‘singularity’ that lurks like a black widow spider at the heart of a black hole: it no longer exists across space but across time. It exists in the future, and you can no more avoid it than you can avoid tomorrow.
As for what exists on the other side of the singularity, some have speculated that this is a gateway to far-flung parts of our Universe or even other universes. The truth is that a singularity in a theory marks the breakdown of that theory, and the point at which it has nothing more sensible to say.
In order to truly understand what happens at the heart of a black hole and whether ‘What’s on the other side?’ is a meaningful question, we will need a better theory of gravity than Einstein’s – a ‘quantum’ theory of gravity. Finding one of these is one of the supreme challenges of science!
- What is a black hole and how did we discover them?
- Why do we think there are black holes in galaxy centres and not supermassive suns?
- Is there life around black holes?
- If you had a strong enough magnet, could you pull something magnetic out of a black hole?
Asked by: Karen Scott-Martinet, New Hampshire
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