Black Holes and Chariot of Fools

Wait a minute, I meant Chariot of The Gods, no, dang, I meant Ship of Fools – gosh darn it, why can’t I get this right? I mean micro-black holes – here on Earth, explaining everything we didn’t want to know about the Bermuda Triangle.

History Channel ran a special, nominally on Black Holes, on Thursday night (3/6). The special started out interestingly enough, with about all the generally accepted facts about black holes that you could expect a composite of American families to absorb without breaking out into a sweat.

Black holes result from the crushing collapse of neutron stars after certain very large stars explode into supernovae. The force of their gravity is so enormous that not even light can escape. Their appetite for in-falling matter is insatiable, devouring unlucky stars, gas clouds and possibly galaxies. Consumption by a black hole is a one-way ticket. If there is any way out, it’s Einstein’s hypothesized “other end” of a black hole: past the science fiction writer’s “worm-hole”, perhaps there is a “white hole” spewing matter back out into another part of an infinite universe. But we can’t see any of this.

This first 15-minute sequence was credibly done by the History Channel. I was stunned how quickly it then degenerated into a discussion of the Bermuda Triangle. Some very amiable crackpots were interviewed. Anything attributed to the Bermuda Triangle that lacks explanation was fair game: Magnetic anomalies, local perturbations of gravity (magnitude unspecified), missing ships, aircraft that never return. We’ve heard all that before.

What if micro black holes existed? They could be anywhere, even on Earth. This would explain disappearing airplanes and ships, for example – did the black hole’s gravity just suck them up?

The show did acknowledge that there are scientists who do not subscribe to the micro-black-hole “theory”. Their views were not expanded out to anything resembling a counter-argument. One source was quoted as wryly observing that if the black hole was here, we wouldn’t be having this discussion – a view that earned three seconds of air time.

The magnetometer wouldn’t be detecting the black hole’s perturbation of the local magnetic field, because the black hole would have swallowed it up. But the magnetometer wouldn’t be floating on the ocean, because the black hole would have swallowed the ocean up. But the ocean wouldn’t be swallowed up because the Earth itself would have long since journeyed beyond the light horizon.

If they exist, “micro” black holes aren’t just miniaturized, slow-acting models of the real thing. The black hole’s real-time appetite for attracting and consuming in-falling matter is well documented by physicists and astronomical evidence. There’s no credible evidence that it would take a “micro” black hole any longer to swallow a host Earth than it would to swallow a few cups of seawater on the floor of the Bermuda Triangle. Magnetic anomalies, indeed. Tiny black holes wouldn’t stay tiny long – their event horizons would expand as matter was consumed.

In Chariot of the Gods in 1968, quack author Erich Von Daniken announced that the building of the pyramids could only have been directed from a spaceship 10,000 feet up. Those of you who were around at the time may recall how wildly popular this claptrap was.

To see widely-aired popular science channels like Discovery (haunted houses) and History Channel stoop to exploit fear and ignorance of the “unknown”, with sensationalism and mock science, is very alarming. I don’t know what can be done to combat media charlatanism, but it certainly seems that what we do know about science, astronomy, physics, biology, evolution and geology should be more fascinating (and at least as entertaining) as what we don’t.

I recently learned something new about black holes in Astronomy Magazine. Our popular understanding of the collapsed neutron star core inside an event horizon is only apt inside the event horizon – from the black hole’s point of view. (Remember, in here, concepts of space and time are meaningless). Outside, from our point of view, a black hole never completes its formation. In-falling matter merely piles up outside the even horizon, waiting its turn to be consumed, and this will happen when hell freezes over – that is to say, at the end of time, or never. Take your pick. From our point of view, what does happen is that the event horizon gets bigger and bigger – meaning, I think, that the volume of space forever closed to our understanding expands in real time.

The “black hole detectors” on the History Channel show are no more credible than my gag “squirrel detectors” – thin pieces of wire turned into a coil, mounted on a cedar shingle, connected to nothing, like the minds of the History Channel scriptwriters. At least, I may yet detect a squirrel. They will never detect a black hole on Earth.

Quack.

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