50 shades of black holes for 17 years of Cosmic Log

Alan Boyle discusses the weird science surrounding black holes during Infinity Box Theatre’s “Centrifuge” production at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson. (Robert Falk Photo)

This week marks 17 years since Cosmic Log was founded, and to celebrate the occasion, here’s the text of a talk I gave this month at Theatre Off Jackson for Infinity Box Theatre’s “Centrifuge” production of science-oriented one-act plays. My talk, titled “Fifty Shades of Black Holes,” set the scene for a three-actor drama about a black hole expedition. To take a walk down Cosmic Log’s memory lane, check out our archives.

I bet you never thought you’d be learning about black holes, the holographic principle and digital consciousness theory tonight. But you’ll be getting a taste of all of that in just a few minutes, in Harold Taw’s play about the Primrose Protocol.

My name is Alan Boyle. I’m the aerospace and science editor at GeekWire, and you can consider this a prologue to set the scientific scene.

I actually write about black holes every so often – for example, I was in Washington, D.C., last month for the unveiling of the first-ever image of a supermassive black hole. This one is in M87, a galaxy that’s about 55 million light-years away. But our own Milky Way galaxy also has a black hole at its center, a mere 26,000 light-years away.

If you’re up on your science fiction, you probably know that a black hole is a gravitational singularity so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its grip. But that’s just one of the ways in which black holes bend our conception of reality.

Light waves from stars behind a black hole are bent by its gravitational field, which produces the aura you see around the circular edge of the event horizon.

Oh, the event horizon … This is important. That marks the edge of the region where anything that falls in can’t get out. But if you were heading toward the event horizon, you wouldn’t necessarily know when you crossed it – at least at first. You could keep falling toward the center of a black hole for hours before bad stuff starts happening.

Eventually, though, the gravitational field would become so strong that if you were falling feet first, your feet would be pulled in faster than your head. Your whole body, and all the atoms in it, would be stretched out like a noodle. Stephen Hawking is credited with coming up with the technical term for this effect: spaghettification.

Once an object falls past the event horizon, it’s gone. But for physicists like Hawking, that’s a big problem. In science class, you’ve probably heard it said that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only be transferred or changed in form. Theoretical physicists say the same thing about information: It can neither be created nor destroyed.

So what happens to the information about things that fall in a black hole? Some physicists say that the information is somehow encoded on the surface of the event horizon, perhaps as tiny fluctuations in a black hole’s gravitational field.

It’s similar to the way the information for a 3-D object can be encoded on a 2-D hologram – like the shiny square that’s on the back of a credit card. Physicists call this idea the holographic principle. Some even suggest that at its most basic level, the universe we live in just might be an encoded two-dimensional surface that we decode into our perception of three dimensions.

If that’s the case, it’s not hard to imagine that everything in our reality – including ourselves – can be translated into the code of a deeper reality. And if our descendants ever figure out that code, maybe millions of years from now, could our shades be re-created from the fluctuations we left behind? What is real?

I’m going to stop right here, at the edge of the event horizon. I’ll leave it to the actors of “The Primrose Protocol” to plunge ahead, into the void.

About Alan Boyle

Award-winning science writer, creator of Cosmic Log, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.
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