Black Hole Conundrums

Last night I re-watched the excellent two-hour PBS NOVA special Black Hole Apocalypse, and this time I jotted a few questions down.

  • Has Gaia DR2 improved our knowledge of the distance to the O-star black hole binary system Cygnus X-1 (6000 ly) and the mass of the black hole (15M)?
  • Are there any known pulsar black hole binary systems?
  • Could LIGO (and now Virgo in Italy) detect a stellar-mass black hole infalling into a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy or another galaxy?
  • Do supermassive black holes play a role in galaxy formation?  If so, how does a supermassive black hole interact with dark matter?
  • Wouldn’t material infalling into a black hole undergo extreme time dilation and from our vantage point take millions or even billions of years to cross the event horizon?  If so, don’t all black holes—even supermassive ones—form from rapid catastrophic events such as core-collapse supernovae and black hole collisions?

Gaia DR2 (Gaia Data Release 2) has indeed measured the distance to the Cygnus X-1 system.  The “normal” star component of Cygnus X-1 (SIMBAD gives spectral type O9.7Iabpvar) is the 8.9-magnitude star HDE 226868.  Gaia DR2 shows a parallax of 0.42176139325365936 ± 0.032117130282281664 mas (not sure why they show so many digits!).

The distance to an object in parsecs is just the reciprocal of the parallax angle in arcseconds, but since the parallax angle is given in milliarcseconds, we must divide parallax into 1000.  This gives us a best-estimate distance of 2,371 parsecs or 7,733 light years.  Adding and subtracting the uncertainty to the parallax value and then doing the arithmetic above gives us a distance range of 2,203 to 2,566 parsecs or 7,186 to 8,371 light years.  (To get light years directly, just divide the parallax in millarcseconds into 3261.564.)

This is 20% to 40% further than the distance to Cygnus X-1 given in the NOVA program, and looking at the source for that distance (Reid et al. 2011) we find that the Gaia DR2 distance (7,186-8,371 ly) is outside the range given by Reid’s VLBA radio trigonometric parallax distance of 5,708-6,458 ly.  It remains to be seen what effect the Gaia DR2 distance, if correct, will have on the estimate of the mass of the black hole.

The estimate of the mass of the black hole in Cygnus X-1 is calculated using modeling which requires as one of its input parameters the distance to the system.  This distance is used to determine the size of the companion star which then constrains the scale of the binary system.  Because the Cygnus X-1 system is not an eclipsing binary, nor does the companion star fill its Roche equipotential lobe, traditional methods of determining the size of the companion star cannot be used.  However, once we use the distance to the system to determine the distance between the black hole and the companion star, as well as the orbital velocity of the companion star, we can determine the mass of the black hole.

Now, moving along to the next question, have any pulsar black-hole binary systems been discovered yet?  The answer is no, not yet, but the hunt is on because  such a discovery would provide us with an exquisite laboratory for black hole physics and gravity.  Something to look forward to!

Could LIGO ( and Virgo) detect a stellar-mass black hole infalling into a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy or another galaxy?  No.  That would require a space-based system gravitational wave detector such as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)—see “Extreme mass ratio inspirals” in the diagram below.

http://gwplotter.com/

The above diagram illustrates that gravitational waves come in different frequencies depending on the astrophysical process that creates them.  Ground-based detectors such as LIGO and Virgo detect “high” frequency gravitational waves (on the order of 100 Hz) resulting from the mergers of stellar-mass black holes and neutron stars.  To detect the mergers of more massive objects will require space-based gravitational wave observatories (millihertz band) or pulsar timing arrays (nanohertz band) in the case of  supermassive black holes binaries within merging galaxies.  The future of gravitational wave astronomy looks very bright, indeed!

Do supermassive black holes play a role in galaxy formation?  Probably.  We are not yet able to explain how supermassive black holes form, especially so soon after the Big Bang.  Does dark matter play a major role?  Probably.  The formation of supermassive black holes, their interaction with dark matter, and their role in galaxy formation are all active topics or current research.  Stay tuned.

To succinctly restate my final and most perplexing question, “How can anything ever fall into a black hole as seen from  an outside observer?”  A lot of people have asked this question.  Here’s the best answer I have been able to find, from Ben Crowell:

The conceptual key here is that time dilation is not something that happens to the infalling matter.  Gravitational time dilation, like special-relativistic time dilation, is not a physical process but a difference between observers.  When we say that there is infinite time dilation at the event horizon we don’t mean that something dramatic happens there.  Instead we mean that something dramatic appears to happen according to an observer infinitely far away.  An observer in a spacesuit who falls through the event horizon doesn’t experience anything special there, sees her own wristwatch continue to run normally, and does not take infinite time on her own clock to get to the horizon and pass on through.  Once she passes through the horizon, she only takes a finite amount of clock time to reach the singularity and be annihilated.  (In fact, this ending of observers’ world-lines after a finite amount of their own clock time, called geodesic incompleteness, is a common way of defining the concept of a singularity.)

When we say that a distant observer never sees matter hit the event horizon, the word “sees” implies receiving an optical signal.  It’s then obvious as a matter of definition that the observer never “sees” this happen, because the definition of a horizon is that it’s the boundary of a region from which we can never see a signal.

People who are bothered by these issues often acknowledge the external unobservability of matter passing through the horizon, and then want to pass from this to questions like, “Does that mean the black hole never really forms?” This presupposes that a distant observer has a uniquely defined notion of simultaneity that applies to a region of space stretching from their own position to the interior of the black hole, so that they can say what’s going on inside the black hole “now.”  But the notion of simultaneity in GR is even more limited than its counterpart in SR.  Not only is simultaneity in GR observer-dependent, as in SR, but it is also local rather than global.

References
K. Liu, R. P. Eatough, N. Wex, M. Kramer; Pulsar–black hole binaries: prospects for new gravity tests with future radio telescopes, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 445, Issue 3, 11 December 2014, Pages 3115–3132, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnras/stu1913

Mingarelli, Chiara & Joseph W. Lazio, T & Sesana, Alberto & E. Greene, Jenny & A. Ellis, Justin & Ma, Chung-Pei & Croft, Steve & Burke-Spolaor, Sarah & Taylor, Stephen. (2017). The Local Nanohertz Gravitational-Wave Landscape From Supermassive Black Hole Binaries. Nature Astronomy. 1. 10.1038/s41550-017-0299-6.
https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-017-0299-6
https://arxiv.org/abs/1708.03491

Jerome A. Orosz et al 2011 ApJ 742 84
https://doi.org/10.1088/0004-637X/742/2/84

Mark J. Reid et al 2011 ApJ 742 83
https://doi.org/10.1088/0004-637X/742/2/83

Brian C. Seymour, Kent Yagi, Testing General Relativity with Black Hole-Pulsar Binaries (2018)
https://arxiv.org/abs/1808.00080

J. Ziółkowski; Determination of the masses of the components of the HDE 226868/Cyg X-1 binary system, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, Volume 440, Issue 1, 1 May 2014, Pages L61–L65, https://doi.org/10.1093/mnrasl/slu002

Fermilab

Fermilab is a name well known to all physicists.  When I was an astrophysics undergraduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember that several members of our large high energy physics group made frequent trips to Fermilab, including Bill Kernan and Alex Firestone.  At the time, it was the best place in the world to do high energy physics.  What is high energy physics?  Basically, it is the creation and study of new and normally unseen elementary particles formed by colliding subatomic particles into one another at very high velocities (kinetic energies).

Wilson Hall, Fermilab, March 4, 2018.  Photo by Lynda Schweikert

On Sunday, March 4, a group of us from the Iowa County Astronomers met up at Fermilab for an afternoon tour of this amazing facility.  We were all grateful that John Heasley had organized the tour, and that Lynda Schweikert photo-documented our visit.

Our group at Fermilab. Our wonderful tour guide is third from left, and club organizer John Heasley is sixth from right. Photo by Lynda Schweikert, fourth from left.

Our afternoon began with an engaging talk by Jim Annis, Senior Scientist with the Experimental Astrophysics Group: “Kilonova-2017: The birth of multi-messenger astronomy using gravitational waves, x-rays, optical, infrared and radio waves to see and hear neutron stars”.  Here he is showing a computer simulation of an orbiting  pair of neutron stars coalescing, an event first observed by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors on 17 August 2017 (GW170817), and subsequently studied across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Dr. Jim Annis describing the neutron star merger detected on 17 Aug 2017. Photograph by Lynda Schweikert.

One of the amazing factinos I remember from his talk: even though neutrinos were not directly detected from the GW170817 event, the matter in colliding neutron stars is so dense that neutrinos push material outwards in what is called a neutrino wind.  Yes, these are the same neutrinos that could pass through a light year of solid lead and only have a 50% chance of being absorbed or deflected, and pass through your body at the rate of 100 trillion every second with nary a notice.

Even though CERN has now eclipsed Fermilab as the world’s highest-energy particle physics laboratory, Fermilab is making a new name for itself as the world’s premier facility for producing and studying neutrinos.  This is a fitting tribute to Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)—after whom Fermilab is named—as Fermi coined (or at least popularized) the term “neutrino” for these elusive particles in July 1932.

Basic research is so important to the advancement of human knowledge, and funding it generally requires public/government funding because practical benefits are often years or decades away; therefore such work is seldom taken up by businesses interested in short term profit.  However, as our tour guide informed us, the equipment and technology that has to be developed to do the basic research often leads to practical applications in other fields on a much shorter time frame.

Main Control Room at Fermilab. Photograph by Lynda Schweikert.

Thoughts Inspired by Leon Lederman: A Footnote

I had the great privilege in October 2004 of attending a talk given by Leon Lederman (1922-), winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics and director emeritus of Fermilab.  I listened intently and took a lot of notes, but what I remember best besides his charm and engaging speaking style was his idea for restructuring high school science education.  The growing scientific illiteracy in American society, and the growth of dogmatic religious doctrine, is alarming.  Lederman advocates that all U.S. high school students should be required to take a conceptual physics & astronomy course in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. Then, in 12th grade, students with a strong interest in science would take one or more advanced science courses.

Teaching conceptual physics (and astronomy) first would better develop scientific thinking skills and lay a better groundwork for chemistry, which in turn would lay a better groundwork for biology.  Whether or not a student chooses a career in science, our future prosperity as a society depends, in large part, on citizens being well-informed about science & technology matters that affect all of our lives.  We also need to be well-equipped to assimilate new information as it comes along.

It is in this context that I was delighted to read Leon Lederman’s commentary, “Science education and the future of humankind” as the last article in the first biweekly issue of Science News (April 21, 2008). He writes:

Can we modify our educational system so that all high school graduates emerge with a science way of thinking?  Let me try to be more specific.  Consider Galileo’s great discovery (immortalized as Newton’s First Law): “An isolated body will continue its state of motion forever.”  What could be more counterintuitive?  The creative act was to realize that our experience is irrelevant because in our normal experience, objects are never isolated—balls stop rolling, horses must pull carts to continue the motion.  However, Galileo’s deeper intuition suspected simplicity in the law governing moving bodies, and his insightful surmise was that if one could isolate the body, it would indeed continue moving forever.  Galileo and his followers for the past 400 years have demonstrated how scientists must construct new intuitions in order to know how the world works.

I’d like to take Lederman’s comments one step further.  Whether it be science, politics, economics, philosophy, or religion, we must realize that most ignorance is learned.  We all have blind spots you could drive a truck through.  Our perceptions masquerade as truth but sometimes upon closer inspection prove to be faulty.  Therefore, we must learn to question everything, accepting only those tenets that survive careful, ongoing scrutiny.  We must learn to reject, unlearn if you will, old intuitions and beliefs that are harmful to others or that have outlived their usefulness in the world.  We must develop new intuitions, even though at first they might seem counterintuitive, that are well supported by facts and that emphasize the greater good.  We must, all of us, construct new intuitions in order to make our world a better place—for everyone.

Windows to the Earliest: Neutrinos and Gravitational Waves

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Thesis B7…
Neutrinos and gravitational waves will in principle allow us to peer back to much earlier times (the time of neutrino decoupling and the quantum gravity era respectively), but are much harder to observe at all, let alone in useful directional detail.  Nevertheless the latter has the potential to open up to us access to eras quite unobservable in any other way.  Maybe they will give us unexpected information on processes in the very early universe which would count as new features of physical cosmology.

The cosmic microwave background (CMB, T = 2.73 K) points us to a time 380,000 years after the Big Bang when the average temperature of the universe was around 3000 K.  But there must also exist abundant low-energy neutrinos (cosmic neutrino background, CNB, CνB, relic neutrinos) that provide a window to our universe just one second after the Big Bang during the radiation dominated era.  That’s when neutrinos decoupled from normal baryonic matter.

As the universe expanded, these relic neutrinos cooled from a temperature of 1010 K down to about 1.95 K in our present era, but such low-energy neutrinos almost never interact with normal matter.  Even though the density of these relic neutrinos should be at least 340 neutrinos per cm3 (including 56 electron neutrinos per cm3 which will presumably be easier to detect), detecting them at all will be exceedingly difficult.

Neutrinos interact with matter only through the weak nuclear force (which has a very short range), and low-energy neutrinos are much more difficult to detect than higher-energy neutrinos—if they can be detected at all.  If neutrinos have mass, then they will also interact gravitationally with other particles having mass, but this interaction is no doubt unmeasurable due to the neutrino’s tiny mass and the weakness of the gravitational force between subatomic particles.

The cosmic gravitational background (CGB) points us to the time of the Big Bang itself.  Faessler, et al. (2016) state

The inflationary expansion of the Universe by about a factor 1026 between roughly 10-35 to 10-33 seconds after the BB couples according to General Relativity to gravitational waves, which decouple after this time and their fluctuations are the seed for Galaxy Clusters and even Galaxies. These decoupled gravitational waves run since then with only very minor distortions through the Universe and contain a memory to the BB.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Faessler, A., Hodák, R., Kovalenko, S., and Šimkovic, F. 2016
[https://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03347]