For years black holes have captured the imagination of the public as well as physicists, featuring heavily in science-fiction books and films. But now it seems that they may not exist after all.
What are Black Holes?
When a star reaches the end of its life-cycle it explodes, becoming what scientists call a supernova. Most supernovas eventually burn themselves out but sometimes they’re so big that they collapse in on themselves. This means that they become very small but with the same mass as before – imagine the Earth squashed to the size of a peanut. Their gravity becomes incredibly strong and everything near them is sucked in and absorbed, even light. The star has become a black hole.
Do Black Holes Exist?
Until this week black holes were a widely accepted (although not completely understood) phenomenon. But Professor Laura Mersini-Houghton, an Albanian physicist at the University of North Carolina, has apparently proven mathematically that they cannot possibly exist. She argues that although a supernova can collapse, emitting radiation as it does so, it will also lose mass. This means that it doesn’t have the density needed for a black hole to form. Instead, the dying star explodes once again and its energy disperses.
What Happens Next?
So is it possible that the black hole we know and love has never existed? This isn’t just a problem for science-fiction writers; scientists may have to rethink all kinds of theories, including those about the origins of our universe. Remember we explained scientific theory and proof? Science writer Brian Clegg writes:
This not saying ‘anything goes’ or ‘all theories have equal value.’ We will typically have a best theory of the moment, and the only sensible thing is to use that until something is established to have better credibility. But it does mean we shouldn’t treat our models as certainties.
Now it is up to other scientists to look at Professor Mersini-Houghton’s results and see if they can replicate them. We will have to wait and find out!