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OK, so maybe you aren’t going to get sucked into a black hole tomorrow. Or ever. Maybe even trying to imagine being in such a situation feels like writing yourself into a Doctor Who episode. But, for mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists attempting to understand cosmic strangeness in practical terms, these thought experiments are actually very useful. And they may be more practical in and of themselves than we’d realized.
In the case that you were sucked into a black hole that had an electromagnetic charge, once you made it into the event horizon, you’d actually find yourself confronted by something else entirely: the Cauchy horizon. Beyond that cosmic boundary is… well, we don’t know. Which is why Hintz and his team were so curious about it.
“Given that we don’t know what happens past the Cauchy horizon, it could be crazy things as long as they’re mathematically possible,” Hintz told New Scientist.
The Great Unknown
More interesting than what might exist beyond the Cauchy horizon is what doesn’t — namely, the governing principles of thought and logic that allow us to make sense of the world and predict with a fair degree of certainty how scenarios will play out.
What we do know for certain is that if you spend too long near the Cauchy horizon — deliberating the senselessness of deep space, perhaps — gravity will stretch you to death. However, during that period space-time will also be stretching the bounds of what makes sense; what the philosophers called determinism.
Here on Earth, if we want to better understand our current circumstances, or attempt to make guesses about the future, we can look to the past. But at the edge of the Cauchy horizon, on the brink of singularity, the laws of physics don’t apply. So, not only do we have no idea might be lurking within, we also can’t make any predictions.
“[The singularity] could emit elephants, planets, radiation – basically anything,” Hintz said to New Scientist, which means that even if gravity doesn’t tear you limb from limb, you could be taken out by an elephant hurtling toward you at warp speed.
But here’s the thing: as Hintz’s team points out, the universe is rapidly expanding. Because of this, it stands to reason that all this energy might be more evenly distributed than we think. And if that’s the case, then if we ramped up the engine our of spaceship to pass through the Cauchy horizon fast enough, we might actually make it to the other side.
The calculations in Hintz’s study only work for black holes with an electric charge (which are, as far as we know, wholly theoretical). However, as the team points out in their paper, the behavior and makeup of these non-existent electrically-charged black holes could be seen in certain black holes that do exist: rotating ones.
Not that you’re likely to get sucked into any black hole — theoretical or otherwise — but it’s nice to know you might survive the trip. Of course, what life would be like in the strange and unpredictable world that awaits you on the far side of the Cauchy horizon remains unknowable.
Though, as Hintz’s study concludes, it’s possible that the cosmic landscape would be full of wormholes. So, if you didn’t like your new digs, you could just hop into the next universe over. Maybe one with fewer elephants.
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Within the next 12 months, astrophysicists believe they’ll be able to do something that’s never been done before, and it could have far-reaching implications for our understanding of the universe. A black hole is a point in space with a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape from it. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of black holes in his theory of general relativity, but even he wasn’t convinced that they actually existed. And thus far, no one has been able to produce concrete evidence that they do. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) could change that.
The EHT isn’t so much one telescope as it is a network of telescopes around the globe. By working in harmony, these devices can provide all of the components necessary to capture an image of a black hole.
“First, you need ultra-high magnification — the equivalent of being able to count the dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles when you are sitting in New York,” EHT Director Sheperd Doeleman told Futurism.
Next, said Doeleman, you need a way to see through the gas in the Milky Way and the hot gas surrounding the black hole itself. That requires a telescope as big as the Earth, which is where the EHT comes into play.
The EHT team created a “virtual Earth-sized telescope,” said Doeleman, using a network of individual radio dishes scattered across the planet. They synchronized the dishes so that they could be programmed to observe the same point in space at the exact same time and record the radio waves they detected onto hard disks.
The idea was that, by combining this data at a later date, the EHT team could produce an image comparable to one that could have been created using a single Earth-sized telescope.
In April 2017, the EHT team put their telescope to the test for the first time. Over the course of five nights, eight dishes across the globe set their sights on Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), a point in the center of the Milky Way that researchers believe is the location of a supermassive black hole.
Data from the South Pole Telescope didn’t reach the MIT Haystack Observatory until mid-December due to a lack of cargo flights out of the region. Now that the team has the data from all eight radio dishes, they can begin their analysis in the hopes of producing the first image of a black hole.
Proving Einstein Right (or Wrong)
Not only would an image of a black hole prove that they do exist, it would also reveal brand new insights into our universe.
“The impact of black holes on the universe is huge,” said Doeleman. “It’s now believed that the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies and the galaxies they live in evolve together over cosmic times, so observing what happens near the event horizon will help us understand the universe on larger scales.”
In the future, researchers could take images of a single black hole over time. This would allow the scientists to determine whether or not Einstein’s theory of general relativity holds true at the black hole boundary, as well as study how black holes grow and absorb matter, said Doeleman.
Still, the April observations of Sgr A* are just the first using the EHT, and Doeleman is keeping expectations in check.
“Of course, we have no guarantee of what we’ll see, and nature could throw us a curve ball. However, the EHT is now up and running, so over the next several years, we will work towards making an image to see what a black hole really looks like,” he told Futurism.
While the entire team is excited about the prospect of producing that never-before-seen image, they are also making sure to work carefully and deliberately on the data, said Doeleman, and have, therefore, not set a date for when results will be ready.
Still, we’re closer than ever before to finally capturing an image of a black hole, and there’s no harm in hoping the EHT team crosses the finish line in 2018.
Every September, the Antarctic ozone hole forms after rays from the Sun catalyze ozone destruction cycles. These cycles involve chlorine and bromine, which mostly come from chlorine-containing human-made chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were banned in 1996.
Past research on the ozone has focused on the hole’s size, but for their research, the GSFC team actually measured the chemical composition within the ozone hole.
Using the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) aboard the Aura satellite, the researchers were able to measure hydrochloric acid, which is created when chlorine, after it destroys almost all available ozone, reacts with methane.
They concluded that chlorine levels declined by approximately 0.8 percent each year and noted a 20 percent decrease in ozone depletion in the Antarctic winter than there was in 2005.
“We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said Susan Strahan, the study’s lead author and an atmospheric scientist at GSFC, in a news release.
Later, amendments were added to the protocol to entirely phase out the production of CFCs, and the researchers attribute the decrease they observed to this international ban.
“[The 20 percent decrease] is very close to what our model predicts we should see for this amount of chlorine decline,” said Strahan. “This gives us confidence that the decrease in ozone depletion through mid-September shown by MLS data is due to declining levels of chlorine coming from CFCs.”
While promising, the battle to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet is far from over. “CFCs have lifetimes from 50 to 100 years, so they linger in the atmosphere for a very long time,” said Anne Douglass, a fellow GSFC atmospheric scientist and the study’s co-author. “As far as the ozone hole being gone, we’re looking at 2060 or 2080. And even then there might still be a small hole.”
Still, these recent findings on the ozone hole’s size are a reminder that significant action can have a significant impact. Climate change can seem like a problem too massive to realistically tackle, but if we can reduce ozone depletion in Antarctica through the relatively simple measure of eliminating CFCs, there is no telling what else we could accomplish.
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In 1987, 197 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to stop releasing chemicals that were eating away a hole in our planet’s ozone layer. In a rare scientific triumph, the hole in the ozone layer has just about returned to the size it was at the time of the protocol’s signing: at its peak size in September, NASA reported that the hole was about 7.6 million square miles wide, the smallest it has been at peak since 1988.
Unfortunately, we may have solved one global problem with another, arguably bigger one. Warmer temperatures in the low pressure system that rotates above Antarctica, known as the Antarctic vortex, prevented many stratospheric clouds from forming; it’s within these clouds that the first steps that lead to ozone-destroying reactions occur. In other words, we could have global warming to thank.
“Weather conditions over Antarctica were a bit weaker and led to warmer temperatures, which slowed down ozone loss,” said Paul A. Newman, chief Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, to the Washington Post. “It’s like hurricanes. Some years there are fewer hurricanes that come onshore…this is a year in which the weather conditions led to better ozone [formation].”
Video Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Kathryn Mersmann
The hole in the ozone layer was first clearly detected in 1984, by British Antarctic Survey scientists monitoring the atmosphere. After the team published their discovery in 1985, it spurred an international effort to reduce ozone-depleting compounds, specifically chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were then commonly used as refrigerants. When the sun’s rays hit the chemically active forms of chlorine and bromine that come from these compounds, they produce reactions that destroy ozone.
Given that the ozone layer is primarily responsible for filtering out dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun, closing this hole — and preventing new ones from forming — is certainly good news. What’s more, the story of how we got here could be informative in addressing climate change as well.
International Cooperation is Fixing the Ozone Layer
Though climate contributed specifically to the reduction in ozone hole size we saw this year, the global reduction in atmospheric levels of CFCs following the Montreal Protocol has been the main reason that the hole in the ozone layer has continued shrinking.
Because CFCs hang around in the atmosphere for decades, scientists estimate that it will take until 2070 for the hole to return to the size it was in 1980. However, if this reduction hadn’t happened, NASA modelers estimate that by 2020 we would have seen 17% of global ozone destroyed, with holes above both the Arctic and Antarctic; by 2065, global ozone would have been almost entirely depleted.
Ian Rae, honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote in The Conversation that while no single factor led to the Montreal Protocol’s success, the strong leadership and open discussion during negotiation enabled “a genuine exchange of views and the opportunity to take some issues on trust.”
Including scientists in the negotiations lent credibility to the discussion; and because the science wasn’t concrete at the time, the negotiators developed a highly flexible agreement that could be retooled as the science became clearer.
Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told Motherboard that efforts to address climate change could learn from the Montreal Protocol by breaking it into “more manageable pieces, where you can focus on solving that one piece.”
Additionally, while climate agreements like the Montreal and Paris agreement are voluntary, trade sanctions that allowed signatories to trade only with other signatories — used as a last resort — were a big factor in getting other countries to sign up for the Montreal Protocol.
It’s true that CFCs were never as controversial as climate change, and that greenhouse gas emissions come from many more sources than the refrigerants we had to limit to save our planet’s ozone. Yet the levels of international cooperation that we saw are worth taking a lesson from — especially given the successes we see now.
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