Science Pub discusses black holes

In a process called "spaghettification," a person falling into a black hole would be ripped apart by its gravitational forces before they were able to feel anything, according to astronomy post-doctoral researcher Kevin Hainline. To a spectator, though, it would look as though the person were infinitely falling into the black hole as a result of relativistic effects. Physics and astronomy professor Ryan Hickox and Princeton University astrophysics professor Jenny Greene discussed black holes and the science behind them at a bustling Science Pub event titled "Black Holes: Monsters of the Universe!" at Murphy's on the Green on Thursday.


Fielding questions from the audience, Greene said that it is highly unlikely for a black hole to "eat" the entire universe, as they are constantly moving further apart as the universe expands. Black holes can merge together into a larger black hole, Hickox said.


"If you put a small black hole around a big black hole, the small black hole will fall into the big black hole," Hickox said. "Even if you put two black holes next to each other, eventually they will fall into each other."


Hickox also explained how a black hole could theoretically be destroyed.


Radioactive particles, known as Hawking radiation, can cause black holes to lose energy and mass and eventually evaporate. Humans are unlikely to ever see a black hole destroyed because the process would take a period totaling a billion times the age of the universe.


Greene added that it would be impossible for a black hole to become so big that it would cease to exist.


"There is no physical limit," Greene said. "There's no reason that a black hole couldn't get bigger and bigger. 30 billion suns is the limit, I think."


During their presentation, Greene and Hickox explained that scientists use x-ray telescopes to find where black holes are being formed.


The most common way for scientists to find a new black hole is to observe when one begins to suck gases away from a nearby star or swallow a star entirely. When that occurs, the energy from the star causes a bright flash on the x-rays that scientists are able to see.


"Astronomers will see this and be like, Oh hey, this is interesting,'" Greene said. "And then they go back and look at how the star is moving and they say, Oh my God. There is a very massive thing. It's probably a black hole.'"


It was using this method that scientists accidentally discovered the first black hole, Cygnus X-1.


Hickox and Greene said that funding astronomy research is essential, even during financial downturns, because it can help students develop an interest in the sciences. Greene, who also teaches algebra at local prisons, said that many astronomers can introduce the disciplines to a wider community.


Technologies built for astronomy can influence everyday life, Hickox said.


The technology that is used in iPhone cameras was first developed to improve telescopes.


The first monthly Science Pub talks were held in the fall of 2011. The talks are inspired by pub talks in the United Kingdom, according to Nancy Serrell, director of science and technology outreach at the College.


Initial Science Pub events emphasized topics in climate change, science outreach coordinator Sara Head said. She said she tries to choose relevant topics that will promote discussion among the participants and community members.


"We just want to get science out into the public and get people fired up about science and share what's going on in the research world with them," Head said. "We're all funding this through our tax money, so it's really important for people to know what's going on out there."


Serrell, a former science and technology reporter, said she had always wondered what it was like to hear about scientific developments from an expert's perspective.


"I knew what reporters do when they report about science, but I wondered what it was like for a scientist to be talking about science," she said. "I just became interested in how scientists talk about what they do and ways to make it easier for community members to get together with scientists and talk with scientists."


John Wallace, a research systems engineer at the College who attended the talk, said that he enjoyed the opportunity to hear from professors who had extensive teaching experience and were able to explain ideas clearly.


The casual venue at Murphy's made it easier to ask questions, Wallace said.


In addition to planning Science Pubs, Serrell and Head also coordinate Science Cafe events at local schools during lunchtime, where graduate students present their research and inspire younger students to pursue science.


Future Science Pub topics will include infectious diseases, food sustainability and Arctic research.


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