When you first start learning about black holes, the mind truly boggles, and the maddening, tantalizing thing about them is the more you grow to understand them, the less you feel you know.
Still a mystery to the world’s greatest scientific and mathematical minds, until an entirely new theory is dreamed up that accounts for their structure, then delivered to us in Layman’s terms, we mere mortals simply cannot fathom their nature, but one thing you’ll hear about more than anything else to do with their existence is the singularity.
It sounds like some kind of ominous apocalyptic force squatting at the black hole’s heart like a spider in a web, but do all black holes contain a singularity?
I’m afraid it’s not a yes or no question because the answer is both yes and no. Physically speaking, no, not all black holes contain a singularity...none of them do. Take a breather if you want. When I first found out, my mind was well and truly blown.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why your parents, teachers, friends, books, posters, computers, and scientists on TV have been lying to you all these years, right?
Well, the truth is it’s not technically a lie because conceptually - or rather non-conceptually as you’ll realize - singularities are a thing, and figuratively speaking, they’re found in black holes.
Confused? Let’s clarify things by asking some fundamental questions.
What is a Black Hole?
A black hole is a deformation of spacetime that occurs around a sufficiently dense and compacted mass.
Basically, it’s a point of massive gravitational force so strong that not even electromagnetic radiation can get away. That means, my friends, that light itself cannot escape a black hole.
How Do Black Holes Form?
A black hole is the result of star death. Not just any old stars - big ones, like really big!
For instance, our sun has a diameter of 864,938 miles and is nowhere near large enough to form a black hole when it finally breaks down. To end up a black hole, a star needs to be upward of eight times the size of our sun, which is about 10.4 million Earths.
When a star of this size exhausts the thermonuclear fuels toiling in its crucible, the core is destabilized, unable to support the gravitational potential, and begins to implode.
The supreme weight of the star’s body caving in from every angle compresses it into a point of zero volume but infinite density, otherwise referred to as - you’ve guessed it - a singularity
What is a Singularity?
Didn’t I just ask this question? Well, actually no, not in a sufficiently nuanced way.
The word singularity isn’t a noun; it’s an adjective, so when scientists speak of the black hole singularity, they’re not mentioning a thing, they’re simply describing a thing.
This thing is something that they don’t know anything about, so the word used appears linguistically to be a noun.
The word singularity is just an acknowledgment that some sort of phenomenon is present in the heart of a black hole. It’s just a label.
It could be A, X, Y, a sequence of numbers. It doesn’t matter, because it has no description. Other than the fact it has a crazy gravitational pull, we really don’t know what’s going on in there.
Do Singularities Even Exist?
Singularities do exist conceptually in maths, science, and even technology, but generally speaking, they always describe something or an instance that has no known definition, by which I mean that something behaves in a way that directly contradicts or expands beyond the realms of accepted theories.
The theory that the singularity evades is of course Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.
It suggests, as I mentioned earlier, that when a giant star reaches the last stage of its evolution, it collapses into a point of infinite density, but the problem with that is that infinity itself is just a concept.
It does not occur in reality, nor is it helpful scientifically, which isn’t to say that physicists don’t use infinity as a mathematical notion, they use it a lot, but in terms of observable natural laws, it’s flawed.
This is because infinity isn’t measurable, which means it can’t help us explain the nature of something’s function or existence.
It’s a worry of some leading scientists that even using infinity as a mathematical construct can lead to drastic errors in scientific reasoning, and so it should not be used to theorize about the nature of the universe.
So, what the singularity actually symbolizes is the inability of Einstein’s theory to describe it. It just doesn’t fit into the same framework.
The only way past this is to posit new theories that account for the behavior of the center of a black hole without disregarding everything else that’s already explained.
Why Don’t Theories Account for the Singularity?
There are two major theories of modern theoretical physics.
One is Relativity and the other is Quantum Mechanics. Relativity went a long way in explaining astronomical phenomena and the way gravity functions, and Quantum Field Theory focuses on the very smallest matter, the very fabric of existence, but doesn’t take into account gravity.
As the singularity is a zero-volume point but is gravitational in nature, neither theory has the composition to describe what’s happening accurately.
What Would Happen if You Fell into a Singularity?
Theoretically, if someone were to be pulled into the event horizon of a black hole, it would not be a pretty picture. Before they got anywhere near the middle, they would be torn to shreds in tidal waves.
There’s even a theory that suggests that as an object passes halfway over the event horizon, the parts on either side of the borderline exist in completely different times, so not only would you be physically torn to pieces, you’d be torn into different times.
What Happens to Objects in a Singularity?
This is one of the major debates in theoretical physics. One of the fundamental tenets of quantum mechanics is that information (essence, form, building blocks of physical existence) cannot be destroyed.
This would mean that when the objects reach the singularity, they are merely stored there, mixed and muddled with other absorbed information.
The Hawkins Information Paradox posits that information in a black hole is in fact destroyed, but not by the singularity, but radiation emitted by the black hole itself that ever so slowly evaporates it.
If the black hole fails to continue taking on mass, eventually this radiation would win out, shrinking it until it literally vanished from existence.
Another possibility is that some black holes may rotate, creating both a parallel universe mirroring our own and a wormhole through the singularity to a totally new pair of universes.
The theory suggests that the information swallowed by the singularity would not be destroyed, only transported to the new universes through the wormhole.
So, there you have, stargazers; from a scientific perspective, infinity doesn’t exist in physical reality, which means the singularity doesn’t exist as described by Relativity, but quantum physics doesn’t shed any light on the situation either.
At this point, we simply don’t know what happens, exists, or does not exist in the middle of a black hole.