© 1993, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112.
by John Percy, University of Toronto
Gravity is the midwife and the undertaker of the stars. It gathers clumps of gas and dust from the interstellar clouds, compresses them and, if they are sufficiently massive, ignites thermonuclear reactions in their cores. Then, for millions or billions of years, they produce energy, heat and pressure which can balance the inward pull of gravity. The star is stable, like the Sun. When the star's energy sources are finally exhausted, however, gravity shrinks the star unhindered. Stars like the Sun contract to become white dwarfs -- a million times denser than water, and supported by quantum forces between electrons. If the mass of the collapsing star is more than 1.44 solar masses, gravity overwhelms the quantum forces, and the star collapses further to become a neutron star, millions of times denser than a white dwarf, and supported by quantum forces between neutrons. The energy released in this collapse blows away the outer layers of the star, producing a supernova. If the mass of the collapsing star is more than three solar masses, however, no force can prevent it from collapsing completely to become a black hole.
In 1783, British amateur astronomer, Rev. John Mitchell, realized that Newton's laws of gravity and motion implied that the more massive an object, the greater the escape velocity. If you could somehow make something 500 times bigger than the Sun, but with the same density, he reasoned, even light couldn't move fast enough to escape from it and it would never be seen. But it took Einstein's general theory of relativity, the modern theory of gravity, for astronomers and physicists to understand the true nature and characteristics of black holes.
The boundary of a black hole is called the event horizon, because any event which takes place within is forever hidden to anyone watching from outside. Astronomer Karl Schwarzschild showed that the radius of the event horizon in kilometers is 3 times its mass expressed in units of solar masses; this radius is called the Schwarzschild radius. The event horizon is the one-way filter in the black hole: anything can enter, but nothing can leave.
A black hole is a very simple object: it has only three properties mass, spin and electrical charge. Because of the way in which black holes form, their electrical charge is probably zero, which makes them simpler yet. The form of the matter in a black hole is not known, partly because it is hidden from the outer universe, and partly because the matter would, in theory, continue to collapse until it had a radius of zero, a point mathematicians call a singularity, of infinite density -- something with which we have no experience here on Earth.
Black holes are theorized to come in three different sizes: small ("mini''), medium, and large ("supermassive''). There is good evidence that medium-sized black holes form as the corpses of massive stars which collapse at the end of their lives, and that supermassive black holes exist in the cores of many galaxies -- perhaps including our own.
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