Yes Virginia, there really are black holes
On Sept. 14, 2015, a gravitational wave passed by Earth, detected only by a Washington State observatory designed to measure such phenomena.
And while it registered with almost no one, that wave – which originated 1.3 billion years ago from the center of our galaxy – confirmed what Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity posited in 1915: that black holes do indeed exist. And that wave was the result of two black holes colliding.
Black holes, regions of space with a gravitational pull so strong that neither light nor particles can escape, can’t be seen but their effects can be. And now a “NOVA” documentary premiering this week attempts to show what encountering one would be like.
In “Black Hole Apocalypse,” airing Wednesday, Jan. 10, on PBS (check local listings), astrophysicist and author Janna Levin takes viewers on a CGI-assisted journey inside these gravitational giants that are capable of swallowing gas, dust, planets and stars, to find out what is inside them, where they come from and what might happen if you fell into one. Along the way, she illustrates the principles of gravity and shows the cutting edge technology leading to breakthroughs in black hole research.
“We really see black holes indirectly, mostly. We see, kind of, the havoc they wreak on their environment,” Levin told a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif. “So at the end of the day, can we absolutely, definitively say it’s a black hole? … What we see is we know there is a lot of material falling into a very small space that’s very, very heavy. By all accounts, that’s what we mean by black hole. So even if it turns out that there is something extraordinary that replaces the black hole, it will still have all of the properties that the black hole has.”
The two-hour film also introduces viewers to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Wash., what resembles a pair of 2.5-mile-long above-ground tunnels that were completed in 2002 to detect cosmic gravitational waves. Overhauled a decade later after finding no activity, it detected its first waves in Sept. 2015, much to the elation of those studying black holes like Levin.
“It’s actually listening to the space-time ring from black holes that are completely dark.” Levin says, “So that’s really a stunning confirmation in a completely new way of the existence of black holes.”