Black Hole Myths and Facts

It seems as though no good outer space science fiction book or movie is complete without weaving a black hole into the story line.  Black holes are so mysterious and misunderstood they allow the authors to write outrageous and exciting plots such as time and inter-dimensional travel. 

What is a black hole?  A black hole forms when a very large star exhausts its fuel and its own gravity overwhelms it and it collapses in on itself.  When the star is the size of our sun, it will collapse into a white dwarf which will be about the size of the earth, incredibly small when compared to the size of the sun currently because all of the atoms will be very tightly compressed due to gravity.  If the star is about 1.5 times larger than our sun, the gravity will crush the individual atoms, which are mostly empty space due to distance between electrons and the atom’s nucleus.  This leaves the dying star to be almost made entirely of neutrons, hence the name neutron star. This would reduce a star much larger than our sun to the size of typical city.  Finally, if the star is about 3 times larger than our sun, not even the neutrons can withstand the intense gravity, and they collapse, in fact at this point, there is no known force that we are aware of that can withstand the gravity so the dead star totally collapses in on itself becoming a single point in space or a singularity.  The singularity still has incredible mass, and therefore gravity. So intense is this gravity than not even light can escape it, hence the name black hole.

Myth:  Our sun will eventually turn into a black hole.

Fact: No, our sun’s eventual fate is a white dwarf, a star would have to be about 3 times larger than our sun have enough mass to become a black hole. 

Myth:  If I am fortunate enough fall into a black hole I will be transported into the past, or better yet, the future in one piece.

Fact:  Sadly, no.  If you had the misfortune to fall into a black hole you would stretched out like a piece of spaghetti before being crushed into oblivion as or after you cross the event horizon of the black hole.  On the upside, it is not something you need worry about as the nearest black hole is about 1,600 light years away.  The idea of time travel related to black holes has scientific basis however.  Due to the affects of intense gravity, time is dilated around a black hole, meaning that if you could drop a stopwatch into a black hole the time measured would slow down nearly to the point of stopping relative to an identical stopwatch outside the black hole.  In fact, various theoretical physicists have mathematically theorized that black holes and their properties could be used to travel in time and space, but these theories always seem to run into the problem of turning the traveler into either piece of long piece of spaghetti or a flattened pancake!