The vanishing black hole

Laura Mersini-Houghton is taking the “women ruin everything” mantra a little too far in literally destroying huge swaths of science fiction, albeit not in the usual manner:

Black holes have long captured the public imagination and been the subject of popular culture, from Star Trek to Hollywood. They are the ultimate unknown – the blackest and most dense objects in the universe that do not even let light escape. And as if they weren’t bizarre enough to begin with, now add this to the mix: they don’t exist.

By merging two seemingly conflicting theories, Laura Mersini-Houghton, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the College of Arts and Sciences, has proven, mathematically, that black holes can never come into being in the first place. The work not only forces scientists to reimagine the fabric of space-time, but also rethink the origins of the universe.

“I’m still not over the shock,” said Mersini-Houghton. “We’ve been studying this problem for a more than 50 years and this solution gives us a lot to think about.”

For decades, black holes were thought to form when a massive star collapses under its own gravity to a single point in space – imagine the Earth being squished into a ball the size of a peanut – called a singularity. So the story went, an invisible membrane known as the event horizon surrounds the singularity and crossing this horizon means that you could never cross back. It’s the point where a black hole’s gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape it.

The reason black holes are so bizarre is that it pits two fundamental theories of the universe against each other. Einstein’s theory of gravity predicts the formation of black holes but a fundamental law of quantum theory states that no information from the universe can ever disappear. Efforts to combine these two theories lead to mathematical nonsense, and became known as the information loss paradox.

In 1974, Stephen Hawking used quantum mechanics to show that black holes emit radiation. Since then, scientists have detected fingerprints in the cosmos that are consistent with this radiation, identifying an ever-increasing list of the universe’s black holes.

But now Mersini-Houghton describes an entirely new scenario. She and Hawking both agree that as a star collapses under its own gravity, it produces Hawking radiation. However, in her new work, Mersini-Houghton shows that by giving off this radiation, the star also sheds mass. So much so that as it shrinks it no longer has the density to become a black hole.

Before a black hole can form, the dying star swells one last time and then explodes. A singularity never forms and neither does an event horizon. The take home message of her work is clear: there is no such thing as a black hole.

Well, this is a little embarrassing now, isn’t it? How reliable can we consider the science that was used to show that nonexistent entitities emit radiation? I shall be very interested to see what Stickwick makes of this. And if singularities never form, what are the philosophical implications of this for the technocult of the Singularity and the rise of posthumanity?

Then again, as disappointing as it may be to be informed that black holes are bound to disappear from the science fiction of the future and go the way of Martians, steamy Venusian colonies inhabited by green-skinned babes, and other now-abandoned SF tropes, perhaps a fundamental reimagination of the fabric of space time will lead to some interesting new concepts with which we can play.

UPDATE: Astrophysicist Brian Koberlein says Ms Mersini-Houghton is wrong, black holes do exist, and women should stay out of science and remain in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, where they belong. Or something more or less to that effect in Yes, Virginia, There Are Black Holes.