Black holes are so entwined in the established scientific narrative these days that it's easy to forget that their existence is still completely theoretical. No black hole has ever been directly observed. In fact, a direct observation of a black hole is technically impossible.
Nevertheless, due in large part to a number of theoretical calculations, a wide consensus has formed in both the scientific world and in the popular scientific narrative that black holes are real. But now a breakthrough new mathematical proof threatens to change everything, according to Phys.org.
The conclusion of the new proof by Laura Mersini-Houghton, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the College of Arts and Sciences, is universe-altering: black holes, she argues, do not and cannot actually exist.
"I'm still not over the shock," said Mersini-Houghton. "We've been studying this problem for more than 50 years and this solution gives us a lot to think about."
For decades, widespread belief in black holes has been fostered by their predicted existence in Einstein's general theory of relativity. This belief was strengthened in 1974 when Stephen Hawking used quantum mechanics to show that black holes, if they exist, must emit radiation, giving scientists an indirect way of observing them. Since then, scientists have detected this so-called "Hawking radiation" throughout the cosmos, seemingly offering proof that black holes exist.
But the picture has been far from perfect. A fundamental law of quantum theory states that no information from the universe can ever disappear, which is in conflict with the classical notion of a black hole. Furthermore, the singularity that is proposed to exist at the heart of a black hole is a place where the laws of physics as we currently understand them break down.
Mersini-Houghton's research therefore began as an attempt to make peace with these conflicted theories. According to her calculations, when a star collapses under its own gravity, it produces the Hawking radiation that scientists have observed. But, she argues, as the star gives off this radiation it also sheds mass. So much mass is shed, in fact, that the star loses density, and the formation of a black hole is prevented.
Stars do not meet their death by collapsing into black holes, according to the proof. Rather, they swell one last time and then explode. The take-home of Mersini-Houghton's paper threatens to rewrite physics — not to mention science fiction — as we know it. If she's right, then there can be no such thing as a black hole.
The proof does more than shatter our understanding of black holes. It could also fundamentally challenge the Big Bang Theory itself. The good news, however, is that Mersini-Houghton's proof avoids so many of the conflicts and paradoxes that exist between physics' two leading theories: the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.
"Physicists have been trying to merge these two theories — Einstein's theory of gravity and quantum mechanics — for decades, but this scenario brings these two theories together, into harmony," said Mersini-Houghton. "And that's a big deal."
Can't wrap your head around that yet? Learn more in Mersini-Houghton's first talk about the concept in this video, "Out of Darkness," from the Institute of Art and Ideas below:
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