I was watching Dr. Who the other day and came across a physics mistake so common I thought I’d address it here. The mistake is this:
Black holes suck you in like a vacuum cleaner!
The setup: in Dr. Who [2.8] “The Impossible Planet”, the good Doctor and Rose meet the crew of a ship who are on “an expedition [to] the mysterious planet Krop Tor, impossibly in orbit around a black hole.” [Wikipedia] That phrase “impossibly in orbit” made me almost spit out my drink while watching the show.
Black holes have event horizons. I get it. Even light cannot escape. I get that, too. But why does that mean I cannot orbit a black hole?
OK, time for a little general relativity. Einstein figured out, between 1905 and 1915, that gravity is “just” a warping of space-time. Matter causes the space-time around it to curve; the curvature of space-time determines how matter moves (insofar as objects in the absence of gravitational forces follow geodesics). The formulas that link the distribution of matter to the curvature of space are Einstein’s equations:
This expression is compact and might seem relatively simple, but it’s not. Gαβ and Tαβ are components of tensors, which are like vectors, but worse; they’re really 4×4 matrices. So this equation is not one equation, but 16 different equations, since α and β can take on any of four values each.
What do all those letters stand for? Gαβ is a component of the Einstein tensor, which tells you about how space-time is curved; the indices α and β can be any of four values in a 4D space-time. (If you’re mathematically inclined, the Einstein tensor can be related to the Ricci scalar, the Ricci tensor, and the Riemann tensor.) Tαβ is a component of the stress-energy tensor, which basically describes how matter/momentum/energy/stress/strain is distributed in a region of space-time. So here’s another way to visualize Einstein’s equations:
The cause (mass) is on the right; the effect (the curvature of space-time) is on the left.
So what does this have to do with black holes?
One of the first solutions discovered to the Einstein equations is called the Schwarzschild solution, which applies to a spherically symmetric gravitational source. The solution gives you a “metric” (essentially, a geometry) that is almost the same as “flat” space-time, except for a pesky (1–2GM/c2r) term. But that pesky term has a strange implication: when that term equals zero, the solution “blows up” (i.e. becomes infinite). Space becomes so curved that you essentially have a hole in the fabric of space-time itself.
When does this happen? It happens when R = 2GM/c2, as one line of algebra will show. This is called the Schwarzschild radius. The Einstein equations predict that something weird and horrifying happens when a mass is squeezed down to the size of its Schwarzschild radius. Current understanding is that the mass would then keep going, and squeeze itself into a point of zero radius. Literally, zero. (I did say it was weird and horrifying).
Incidentally, the Schwarzschild radius is exactly the radius you’d get if you set the escape speed for an object equal to the speed of light. So this means that not even light can escape this super-squeezed object.
And here’s where various misconceptions start to creep in.
Another name for the Schwarzschild radius is the event horizon. It’s a boundary of no return: if you cross it, you can never go back. But that’s all it is: a boundary. There is not necessarily anything physical at the event horizon. You might never know that you had crossed it. Remember, all the mass is at the center.
Here’s how I “picture” a black hole:
Now, if I am outside the event horizon, what would I see? Well, nothing from inside the event horizon could reach me (hence the term “black”) but I might see Hawking radiation. I would certainly see gravitational lensing: the bending of distant light around a black hole. Here’s a cool picture of gravitational lensing in action (artists conception only!) from Wikipedia:
Let’s say the Sun were a black hole. Its event horizon would be around 3 km. As long as we never got closer than 3km, we could do what we like. We could fly in, fly out, orbit the black hole as we please.
Would the black hole “suck us in”? Sure, in the same way that the Sun sucks us in already. There is a strong pull of the Sun on the Earth. And there would be a strong pull on our hypothetical spaceship. But change the Sun to a black hole, and the pull would not get any stronger. That is the key point that most people miss: black hole gravity is not somehow “stronger” than ordinary gravity. There is just gravity; that’s it. Change the Sun to a black hole, and the Earth would continue in its orbit, and nothing would be any different. Except for, maybe, the lack of light.
Why was the planet Krop Tor’s orbit impossible? Astronomical black holes (created by stellar collapse) have a lot of mass; when there’s a lot of mass hanging around, things tend to orbit them. That’s what you’d expect. It would only be impossible if somehow the orbit crossed the event horizon multiple times during its trajectory. But of course, the show didn’t mention this.
I want to end my rant on GR with a suggestion: that there are two kinds of sci-fi: science fiction, and “sciency” fiction. The first kind tries to get the science right, and makes an effort to be possible (if not plausible). The second kind throws sciency words around in an effort to appeal to a certain demographic. Basically, “sciency” fiction is fantasy, set in outer space. When seen in this light, Dr. Who has more in common with Lord of the Rings than it does with 2001.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Lord of the Rings, and I love Dr. Who. Just don’t call it science fiction.