For most of the twentieth century, black holes seemed the stuff of science fiction, portrayed either as monster vacuum cleaners consuming all the matter around them or as tunnels from one universe to another. But the truth about black holes is almost stranger than fiction. As we continue our voyage into the universe, we will discover that black holes are the key to explaining many mysterious and remarkable objects—including collapsed stars and the active centers of giant galaxies.
- 24.1: Introducing General Relativity
- Einstein proposed the equivalence principle as the foundation of the theory of general relativity. According to this principle, there is no way that anyone or any experiment in a sealed environment can distinguish between free fall and the absence of gravity.
- 24.2: Spacetime and Gravity
- By considering the consequences of the equivalence principle, Einstein concluded that we live in a curved spacetime. The distribution of matter determines the curvature of spacetime; other objects (and even light) entering a region of spacetime must follow its curvature. Light must change its path near a massive object not because light is bent by gravity, but because spacetime is.
- 24.3: Tests of General Relativity
- In weak gravitational fields, the predictions of general relativity agree with the predictions of Newton’s law of gravity. However, in the stronger gravity of the Sun, general relativity makes predictions that differ from Newtonian physics and can be tested. For example, general relativity predicts that light or radio waves will be deflected when they pass near the Sun, and that the position where Mercury is at perihelion would change by 43 arcsec per century even if there were no other planets
- 24.4: Time in General Relativity
- General relativity predicts that the stronger the gravity, the more slowly time must run. Experiments on Earth and with spacecraft have confirmed this prediction with remarkable accuracy. When light or other radiation emerges from a compact smaller remnant, such as a white dwarf or neutron star, it shows a gravitational redshift due to the slowing of time.
- 24.5: Black Holes
- Theory suggests that stars with stellar cores more massive than three times the mass of the Sun at the time they exhaust their nuclear fuel will collapse to become black holes. The surface surrounding a black hole, where the escape velocity equals the speed of light, is called the event horizon, and the radius of the surface is called the Schwarzschild radius. Nothing, not even light, can escape through the event horizon from the black hole. At its center, each black hole is thought to have a si
- 24.6: Evidence for Black Holes
- The best evidence of stellar-mass black holes comes from binary star systems in which (1) one star of the pair is not visible, (2) the flickering X-ray emission is characteristic of an accretion disk around a compact object, and (3) the orbit and characteristics of the visible star indicate that the mass of its invisible companion is greater than 3 MSun. A number of systems with these characteristics have been found. Black holes with masses of millions to billions of solar masses are found in th
- 24.7: Gravitational Wave Astronomy
- Another part of Einstein’s ideas about gravity can be tested as a way of checking the theory that underlies black holes. According to general relativity, the geometry of spacetime depends on where matter is located. Any rearrangement of matter—say, from a sphere to a sausage shape—creates a disturbance in spacetime. This disturbance is called a gravitational wave, and relativity predicts that it should spread outward at the speed of light.
Thumbnail: The artist’s illustration on the right shows the black hole pulling material away from a massive blue companion star. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets. The material in the disk (before it falls into the black hole) is so hot that it glows with X-rays, explaining why this object is an X-ray source (credit modification of work by NASA/CXC/M.Weiss).