Black holes in Slate

The online magazine Slate published a piece today explaining what happens to you if you fall into a black hole, and they had the good sense to consult me on it. Slate’s “Explainer” articles are also podcasted, so if you’re not into reading, you can listen to it instead.

The article pretty much gets things right. One minor quibble: the sentence

In fact, for all but the largest black holes, dissolution would happen before a person even crossed the event horizon, and it would take place in a matter of billionths of a second.

isn’t quite right: the “billionths of a second” number (which I think the author got from me) applies only to quite small black holes, not to “all but the largest” ones, and I think that even for stellar-mass black holes (which are much smaller than “the largest” ones) you’d make it across the horizon before being ripped apart by tidal forces. But those are pretty minor points; the main ideas are all right.

The motivation for this article is the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider will produce black holes. Short answer: It probably won’t, and even if it does, they’ll evaporate quickly rather than gobbling up the Earth. You really don’t need to worry about this.

Slate doesn’t do a lot of science reporting, but when they do it’s often pretty good. A recent article discussed one of the main things the LHC is actually expected to find, namely evidence for the Higgs mechanism. Unlike a lot of writing on the subject, this article actually tried to explain the fact that the Higgs mechanism won’t necessarily manifest itself as just a single new type of particle: it’s likely that something more complicated will be found. If so, that’ll be much more interesting than just finding a single Higgs particle.

Since I’ve been saying nice things about Slate, I want to end with one criticism of their science reporting: they still let Gregg Easterbrook write about science from time to time. Easterbrook’s done some good stuff over the years — in particular he was sharply and rightly critical of the space shuttle and space station long before that became fashionable, and he deserves credit for publicly and forthrightly changing his mind about global warming. (Also, I’ve heard his writing on the NFL is good, but I know nothing about that.) But as far as I’m concerned, anyone who defends the teaching of intelligent design in science classes forfeits all credibility as a science journalist. Yes, I’m intolerant and closed-minded about this. But I’m also right, so it’s OK.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

4 thoughts on “Black holes in Slate”

  1. So if the Hadron Collider were going to produce a black hole, would it have happened already? Or is it one of those things that could happen at any time, probably right after the warranty expires?

  2. The Easterbrook article you link to is interesting in that it makes almost perfect sense up until about the fourth to last paragraph, at which point it goes off the deep end. That’s when Easterbrook pulls out the tired, wretched argument of “teaching the controversy.”

    While “teaching the controversy” is difficult to oppose in principle, it’s only reasonable to do so when there actually is a controversy. My favorite counter example: giving equal time to the “Stork theory of birth” would imply that there’s actually some controversy sourrounding how reproduction actually happens; in fact, the consensus on this subject within the scientific community is fairly solid.

    Easterbrook is flatly incorrect when he states that “Intelligent design is a sophisticated theory now being argued out in the nation’s top universities.” If such arguments are occurring, they are not occuring within actual biology departments. A brief perusal of seminar fliers in our own biology department, for instance, clearly indicates that it’s not a hot topic of debate around here.

    Manufacturing scientific controversy where there is none has been an effective tactic in policy debates about both tobacco and global warming. Recognizing this cynical tactic for what it is does not make you intolerant or closed-minded. It makes you honest.

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