Monday, January 31, 2011

"Black hole sun, won't you come"*

As some of you may know, I've been following the process of the Large Hadron Collider and scientists quest to find the so-called God Particle. This giant particle smasher is currently on hiatus, but is scheduled to be up and running very soon. One hazard of this project is that it has the potential to open up a black hole that swallows up Earth (clearly, this did not happen in its first run!).

I haven't been able to get black holes our of my mind since then. I happened to see a billboard for a special exhibit called Black Holes: Space Warps & Time Twists at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Perfect for an in-depth exploration, right? Well, not exactly. The exhibit was fun, which makes sense because it was geared towards kids and teens, but it wasn't super informative.

Making my Explorer's card was fun. I picked the name "Mini Seeker" because I liked the Harry Potter reference and added a picture of a pizza onto the card. (I could've taken a picture of my face, but no one wants to see that!) The exhibits were interactive and interesting. Still, there wasn't that ah-ha factor that really made me feel like the visit was worthwhile.

That was until I wandered into one of those video areas with those really uncomfortable wooden benches (seriously, the inventor of those should be swallowed up by a black hole). But this video informed me that not everything that gets close to a black hole gets sucked in. I know, you're saying, "Wait a minute. I thought a black hole was like a vacuum and once stuff went in, it never came back out."

That's what I thought, and it is basically true. Once you're in black hole, there's no coming out (and no one knows what happens on the other end of the hole...alternate universe perhaps?). However, matter that is in the process of being sucked into a black hole doesn't immediately fall in (especially because as you get closer to a black hole, time actually slows down...very heady stuff here).

Before the matter is sucked in past the event horizon, it circles around the hole in a disk, and the pieces of matter are all bumping into each other. Some of that matter and lots of gas (okay, no flatulence jokes please) shoot out as a jet that moves at close to the speed of sound. The video below actually does a really nice job of describing this phenomenon.

As more research is done about black holes, scientists are finding that black holes are probably important in the creation of galaxies and the case maybe that every galaxy contains one at its center. Forget the Seven Wonder of the World. That's small beans compared to the awesome mystery and power of black holes.