An interview with Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius, authors of The Little Book of Black Holes
Your book tells the story of black holes from a physics perspective. What are black holes, really? What’s inside?
Black holes are regions of spacetime from which nothing can escape, not even light. In our book, we try to live up to our title by getting quickly to the heart of the subject, explaining in non-technical terms what black holes are and how we use Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand them. What’s inside black holes is a great mystery. Taken at face value, general relativity says spacetime inside a black hole collapses in on itself, so violently that singularities form. We need something more than Einstein’s theory of relativity to understand what these singularities mean. Hawking showed that quantum effects cause black holes to radiate very faintly. That radiation is linked with quantum fluctuations inside the black hole. But it’s a matter of ongoing debate whether these fluctuations are a key to resolving the puzzle of the singularity, or whether some more drastic theory is needed.
How sure are we that black holes exist?
A lot more certain than we were a few years ago. In September 2015, the LIGO experiment detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, each one about thirty times the mass of the sun. Everything about that detection fit our expectations based on Einstein’s theories, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there really are black holes out there. In fact, before the LIGO detection we were already pretty sure that black holes exist. Matter swirling around gigantic black holes at the core of distant galaxies form the brightest objects in the Universe. They’re called quasars, and the only reason they’re dim in our sight is that they’re so far away, literally across the Universe. Similar effects around smaller black holes generate X-rays that we can detect relatively nearby, mere thousands of light years away from us. And we have good evidence that there is a large black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
Can you talk a bit about the formation of black holes?
Black holes with mass comparable to the sun can form when big stars run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves. Ordinarily, gravity is the weakest force, but when too much matter comes together, no force conceivable can hold it up against the pull of gravity. In a sense, even spacetime collapses when a black hole forms, and the result is a black hole geometry: an endless inward cascade of nothing into nothing. All the pyrotechnics that we see in distant quasars and some nearby X-ray sources comes from matter rubbing against itself as it follows this inward cascade.
How have black holes become so interesting to non-specialists? How have they been glorified in popular culture?
There’s so much poetry in black hole physics. Black hole horizons are where time stands still—literally! Black holes are the darkest things that exist in Nature, formed from the ultimate ashes of used-up stars. But they create brilliant light in the process of devouring yet more matter. The LIGO detection was based on a black hole collision that shook the Universe, with a peak power greater than all stars combined; yet we wouldn’t even have noticed it here on earth without the most exquisitely sensitive detector of spacetime distortions ever built. Strangest of all, when stripped of surrounding matter, black holes are nothing but empty space. Their emptiness is actually what makes them easy to understand mathematically. Only deep inside the horizon does the emptiness end in a terrible, singular core (we think). Horrendous as this sounds, black holes could also be doorways into wormholes connecting distant parts of the Universe. But before packing our bags for a trip from Deep Space Nine to the Gamma Quadrant, we’ve got to read the fine print: as far as we know, it’s impossible to make a traversable wormhole.
What inspired you to write this book? Was there a point in life where your interest in this topic was piqued?
We both feel extremely fortunate to have had great mentors, including Igor Klebanov, Curt Callan, Werner Israel, Matthew Choptuik, and Kip Thorne who gave us a lot of insight into black holes and general relativity. And we owe a big shout-out to our editor, Ingrid Gnerlich, who suggested that we write this book.