Black holes: A guide

The original concept of black holes comes from the work of Albert Einstein, who would often conduct thought experiments (gedachtfürze in German), such as wondering why he couldn’t find a pencil, even though he’d been to WHSmith only last week and bought a brand new pack of 10.

Eventually this led him to his theory that space and time were not separate entities, but merged together to form the fabric of the universe, space-time.

This was a bold new idea, but explained perfectly why he might put a pencil down on his desk and then not see it again until August. It also explained the orbits of the planets with a high-degree of precision, by describing how what an orbit was just the planet moving in a straight-line through space-time. The straight line looked like a wonky circle to us because we’re really bad at judging time, which also explained why those, “Want to feel old? 9/11 was closer to the premier of Spitting Image than to the present day!” things work, and why it always takes exactly 45 minutes for your pizza to arrive, even though it feels like much, much longer.

In the 1930s the Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar used Einstein’s theory to show that if you had something really heavy – like even heavier than all of the clinky bags when you do the big Christmas shop – space-time might get so bent that all of the space was in the middle and all of the time was on the outside, making it invisible, because we can’t see time.

When a star exceeded Chandrasekhar Limit (4 pints of stout and Babysham) it would die with a massive explosion, and then form an invisible-time-on-the-outside-bubble, which was later renamed a ‘black hole’, by physicists working for Saatchi & Saatchi.

Black holes are black because not even light can escape from them, because inside there’s no time and outside there’s only time, with nowhere for it to go, making it a bit like an office in Slough, except that people are interested in what’s happening in there.

For a long time black holes were entirely theoretical. Knowing they’d be black, astrologers spent a long time searching for a white bit of sky, where they’d be able see one clearly. However, we now know that the only white bits of the sky are clouds, and they only come out in daytime, when astrologers – who are naturally nocturnal – aren’t around to see them.

Fortunately, scientists realised that a patch of orange sky would work nearly as well as white and have found a bit of orange space which, by good luck, has a black-hole right in the middle of it. But it was  so hard to find that it’s taken 55 million light years to get a slightly blurry photo of it.

black hole
A black hole 55 million years ago, pictured yesterday

Still, now that a live black-hole has been found scientists hope they can soon find a couple more, and a breeding colony can be established.

Today it may just look like a photograph of a child with a sparkler, taken on a late-90s camera phone, but in the future – when we all live in space – our great-grandchildren may be able to go to a space-petting-zoo and actually touch a black-hole, which really is something to get excited about.

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