Fasting and Feasting: The Feeding Habits of Black Holes

Yale professor lectures on Black Holes

By Travis Hunter
On April 5, 2018

Photo by Brit Raley
Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan shares her knowledge of black holes with attendees at the 42nd snnual WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science

 

Our collective understanding of black holes has significantly improved in the past 30 years, according to a Yale professor in her March 20 lecture at ASU. She drew an audience of more than 250 people.

Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan presented “Fasting and Feasting: The Feeding Habits of Black Holes” as part of the 42nd Annual WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science in the C.J. Davidson Conference Center. 

“Black holes are the most enigmatic objects in the universe,” Natarajan said. “Over the last 30 years, our understanding of this bizarre astrophysical concept has grown by leaps and bounds.” 

Current knowledge of black holes is rooted in Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“There was this marriage between geometry, mathematics and the physical world that Einstein developed in his theory,” she said. “He realized that it’s an attribute of matter to cause a pothole in spacetime. A universe that has matter will be full of potholes.”

The size of those “potholes” in spacetime are determined by the mass of the objects that create them. Black holes have so much mass that they puncture spacetime itself.

Natarajan said she found that astronomers co-opted the term “black hole” from an infamous Indian prison in the 1700s called the Black Hole of Calcutta while researching her book, Mapping the Heavens.

“The term ‘black hole’ became one to denote a place of no return,” she said. “You go in there, and you vanish.”

Black holes have such a strong gravitational pull that nothing can escape them, she said. A boundary exists around a black hole called the event horizon.

“Black holes swallow anything that crosses the event horizon,” she said. “Therefore, the only way we can find a black hole is indirectly, mapping the distortions in space they cause around themselves or the impact on motions of bodies outside the event horizon is how we detect them.”

Advancements in technology in the past few decades have made indirect detection of black holes easier.

The U.S. recently rejoined a European mission to further research black holes, Natarajan said. 
“I’m very fortunate to be a part of NASA’s science team,” she said. “The future is really, really bright for black hole physics.”

Sophomore Annissa Figueroa attended the lecture for extra credit but said she enjoyed it more than she thought she would.

“Compared to other lectures, this one was much more interesting,” Figueroa said.

Abel Hinojosa, sophomore, said he entered the lecture with an interest in the topic of black holes.

“It was confusing but awe-inspiring,” Hinojosa said. “There’s so much more to it that we still don’t know.”

When asked for advice from an aspiring astrophysicist in attendance, Natarajan said her interest in space began at a young age.

“I was always in love with the night sky,” she said. “Definitely keep looking through telescopes.”

 

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