Black Holes: What the Movies Get Wrong

Any of you recognize this?

To those who don’t, it probably looks like a pretty unimpressive, blurry ring. In fact, this is the first ever image of a black hole, taken with an interferometer the size of the Earth.

If you’re a science geek, you’ve no doubt seen tons of artists’ conceptions of black holes on the internet. Most use a great deal of artistic license. Some of my favorite “images” of black holes used to be the ones that look like ripples in the fabric of space. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that’s not the case at all.

Black holes are singularities—infinitely dense places of zero radius with at least 3 M (solar masses) of star stuff—surrounded by an event horizon, inside of which gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape. That’s why it’s called a black hole.

But they are not “holes” in the usual sense. They are not giant space potholes that you can easily stumble into, and you certainly don’t fall into them the same way you would a pothole.

So…what are black holes really like?

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What is a Black Hole, Really?

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve probably seen these in movies. And I’m guessing you’ve heard a lot about them in pop culture. The problem is, pop culture and movies don’t do a very good job of describing black holes.

First off, let me clear up a common misconception: Black holes do not act like giant space vacuum cleaners, sucking in everything around them. Describing them as “gobbling up” anything is inaccurate.

The representation in movies that bugs me the most is in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, when the bad guy falls into a black hole and the good guys almost get pulled in with him. First of all, please…black holes do not growl. And basically none of what happens in that scene is accurate.

So…what are black holes, really?

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Binary Neutron Stars

Way back when we spent a number of posts surveying the stars, we covered binary systems. These are star systems that contain multiple stars. Imagine if our sun had a companion, and two stars rose and set in our sky over the cycle of day and night.

It might surprise you that the majority of stars in the universe are actually in binary systems. Our solar system seems to be an outlier in that regard. Most stars have a companion or two or six…

…and so do some neutron stars.

Remember that neutron stars are the collapsed remnants of massive stars that have gone supernova. If most stars are part of binary systems, then naturally, some of these stars will evolve into neutron stars and still be part of their birth system.

Not all neutron stars are still part of their birth system. As I covered in my last post, many neutron stars rocket through space at incredible velocities, leaving their birth system behind.

Those that stay, though, provide astronomers with fascinating insight into the nature of neutron stars.

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What About Binary Systems?

In the constellation of Perseus, there is a star named Algol that exists in a binary system. The binary consists of two stars: a massive main-sequence star and a less massive giant.

According to what we’ve explored so far…that doesn’t make any sense.

More massive stars evolve faster than less massive ones. They expand into giants before less massive stars do. In any one binary system out there, we should observe a more massive giant and a less massive main-sequence star, not the other way around.

But the Algol system is not alone in this peculiarity. Over half the stars in the universe are binaries, and in a number of those, the more massive star is still on the main sequence.

Why?

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