Few things in the universe have a worse name than black holes, but physicist Janna Levin hopes to change that with her new book Black Hole Survival Guide.
“People think of black holes as thick objects, and they get so caught up in the ‘monster truck’ attitude, that they destroy things,” said Levin in Episode 442 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I think it detracts from some of the more chilling and promising and wonderful aspects of this strange phenomenon.”
A century of sci-fi shows has conditioned us to think of black holes as whirlpools in space, violent maelstroms that reach across the void to suck passing stars. But Levin says the reality is very different, and you could even fall into a black hole without even realizing it.
“If you were in an empty place with complete darkness, and you were outside a black hole, you wouldn’t know it was there,” he said. “And if you crossed the event horizon, it would be absolutely dramatic. You could float across, and not realize anything was happening, because there’s nothing there. ”
Despite their terrible reputation, black holes can be safely treated with gravity and magnetism, and it may even be possible to extract power from them, though doing so may soon be impractical. “I once tried to imagine what it would take for a black hole battery to power New York City,” said Levin. “I think I concluded that we would have to use all the resources in the solar system, basically. We might have to make it out of the moon, or a giant magnet the size of the Earth. It would be very, very difficult to get a lot of power out of it. ”
Another potential use for black holes would be to see beyond your lifetime. An individual who flew into a supermassive black hole could survive as long as a year, and would still be able to receive messages from outside. Due to the spread of time, those messages could reveal the whole sweep of future history.
“If you knew you had a year to live, but wanted to see your grandchildren born, you could go on this epic journey, so that your children have time to grow up, have their children, and you get to see your grandchildren born, ”says Levin.
Listen to the complete interview with Janna Levin in Episode 442 o Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some of the highlights of the discussion below.
Janna Levin on publishing:
“Everyone [at the publisher] very excited about the concept of this sweet little book, and I think once it arrived, we were all delighted with how small it is. I think it’s a really special attribute. No one said [it should be longer]. My people are very decent folk. I find they really believe in the book as the book should be, and not buckle to that kind of psychology, mercifully. Otherwise, I don’t think I would publish anything, if there was a commercial appeal – I mean, do people really think, ‘Oh, I’d love a book on whether the universe is infinite or’ n limited. And maybe we could have a novel about mathematicians’? So I feel very fortunate to have those collaborators. “
Janna Levin on Innovation:
“I’m the director of the sciences there – I started the science studios there – and we have many live events, or we used to, before a pandemic. We would have 1,200 people shoulder to shoulder in an inflamed hot hall – an old, beautiful, three-story-tall ironworks factory – for a talk on animal consciousness, or many worlds, or a conversation with Richard Dawkins. Of course we can’t do that right now, and we may never do it again. That might be something we look back on in movies and think, ‘Oh my gosh, can you imagine? People shoulder to shoulder like that? ‘… The amazing thing for us was that it had such a large audience. We weren’t sure we would get anyone to exhibit when we started. ”
Janna Levin on black hole weapons:
“If you put a spinning black hole in a magnetic field, it will create a huge havoc. The jets are basically like giant ray guns, where high energy particles – X-rays, gamma rays – are propelled along these magnetic fields, creating thin jets that then break out of the galaxy and can punch into other galaxies – and we actually observed that – probably destroying any alloplanets that would be in that part of that galaxy and any sentient life trying to get to the clearly there. So you don’t want to be a jet fire line, because with it all the associated biological consequences would be hit by a lot of radiation. … [Aiming those jets] it is not impossible, but it is quite difficult. ”
Janna Levin on finding black holes:
“It could be a real navigation hazard. How would you know you’re driving right into one? You might notice because you weren’t going the route you intended, because your machines were no longer keeping you on track and you were moving towards something, and you would start to notice that you were off the right track. So that would be a way to notice it, but if you happened to be aiming straight for it, and it was completely lit by any background light, you wouldn’t necessarily know. … If you floated close enough, you could hear it, even in a vacuum, because your ear ring would pend in response to the [gravitational] waves easier than the rest of you. ”
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