Ever since they were first hypothesized, black holes have been a subject of fascination and occasionally horror in movies, the media, and books. Over the years black holes have taken up a fearsome reputation, as people portrayed them repeatedly as monsters of the cosmos. Black holes have been said to devour stars, crush planets, and even be portals to new dimensions. However, despite all the fuss about black holes in pop culture, they are actually not quite as scary as people think. Sure, If you got too close to one, you would be killed, but the same could be said for any star. The earth has almost no chance of ever encountering a black hole, and even if we did, it would have to come incredibly close to cause any real damage.
One thing about black holes many people don’t realize is that they are actually solid objects. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ever see what a black hole would look like, because they are so dense that light cannot escape their gravity, hence the name “black hole”. Cosmos provides a fantastic illustration of this extreme density, showing that for earth to become a black hole, all of its mass would be confined within a nine millimeter radius. For the sun to become a black hole, its radius would have to decrease to three kilometers, almost a quarter-millionth of its current size. However, there is no need to fear the sun becoming a black hole, despite what the movies might show. Black holes only form after the deaths of giant stars, and the sun is nowhere close to that size. When our sun does die, it will become a red giant, and then a white dwarf, but it has no chance of becoming a black hole.
Let’s say the sun did become a black today, instantaneously. The effects would be less cataclysmic than most people assume. For the first eight minutes (the time it takes for light to reach us from the sun), absolutely nothing would change. Then, once the last remnant of the sun’s light trickled through, the earth would go dark. However, that would be the only effect. National Geographic says that “Earth would be dark and cold, but our orbit around the sun wouldn’t change.” The Sun, though now no longer emitting light, would still have the same mass, so we would stay in the same orbit. Though the lack of a light and heat source would certainly lead to our extinction, we would not be violently sucked into the black hole and crushed like most people imagine.
Despite black holes being one of the most well known cosmic phenomenons, we actually know very little about them. Because they allow nothing, not even light, to escape their gravity, scientists have no way of observing them directly. The only reason we know they exist is because we have observed their effects on things around them. Also, no one is entirely really sure what exists inside a black hole. If our current understanding of gravity is correct, then inside black holes a singularity would occur. A singularity is a point of infinite mass and no volume. If singularities do exist, they likely bend the laws of physics around them, warping both time and space. However, National Geographic says that “Singularities likely don’t really exist but point to a mathematical hole in our understanding of gravity.” It could be that singularities are very real, but we just don’t have the ability to understand them, but the more likely explanation is that there is an error in the way we view gravity.
Black holes are one of the most fascinating occurences in the universe, but they are nothing to be afraid of. A rogue black hole is not going to suddenly appear and destroy the earth, nor is the sun going to become a black hole. There is so much we don’t know about black holes, and they should be studied, not feared.