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.
An American physicist claims she has mathematically refuted the existence of black holes in our universe. The new theory combines Steve Hawking’s radiation theory with quantum theory’s fundamental law that no information ever disappears from the universe.
Professor Laura Mersini-Houghton from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains she managed to merge two seemingly contradicting theories, Einstein’s theory of gravity and a fundamental law of quantum theory.
While Einstein’s theory predicts the formation of black holes, the quantum theory law says that no information from the universe can ever disappear, in an attempt to resolve the so-called ‘information law paradox.’
“I’m still not over the shock,” said Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We’ve been studying this problem for a more than 50 years and this solution gives us a lot to think about.”
In a news article spotlighted by UNC the scenario suggested by Mersini-Houghton is briefly explained. Basically, when a massive star reaches the end of its life and collapses under its own gravity after blasting its outer layers into space — which is commonly thought to result in an ultra-dense point called a singularity surrounded by a light- and energy-trapping event horizon — it undergoes a period of intense outgoing radiation (the sort of which was famously deduced by Stephen Hawking.)
This release of radiation is enough, Mersini-Houghton has calculated, to cause the collapsing star to lose too much mass to allow a singularity to form. No singularity means no event horizon… and no black hole. At least, not by her numbers.
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.
But now Mersini-Houghton describes an entirely new scenario. She and Hawking both agree that as a star collapses under its own gravity, it produces Hawking radiation. However, in her new work, Mersini-Houghton shows that by giving off this radiation, the star also sheds mass. So much so that as it shrinks it no longer has the density to become a black hole.
Before a black hole can form, the dying star swells one last time and then explodes. A singularity never forms and neither does an event horizon. The take home message of her work is clear: there is no such thing as a black hole.
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.