One of the (very morbid, but still fascinating) topics I enjoy in astronomy is the concept of a black hole – and how exactly you would die if you went into one. A black hole is a place in space that is so massive and so dense that its gravitational pull is too strong for even light to escape. Scientists believe that some black holes were created when the universe was born and that others, called stellar black holes, form when the center of a huge star collapses, causing a supernova. The super tiny, super massive center of the black hole is called a singularity. The “point of no return”, the boundary of the black hole, the point at which gravity precisely counteracts light’s efforts to escape, is called the black hole’s event horizon. If matter passes the event horizon, it is not escaping that black hole.
There have been many theories over the years about black holes, due to the fact that it is very hard to study them and test the theories. Anyone who has watched an outer space Sci-Fi movie knows the very cool (but very wrong) possibility that you could somehow travel through a wormhole and come out through a different wormhole, essentially “teleportation” through space (and possibly time). This occurs in many space cartoons, Star Trek, Event Horizon, possibly 2001: A Space Odyssey (assuming that’s what the weird lights were that Bowman was traveling through at the end). A recent space travel movie, Interstellar, has the astronaut Cooper plunging into a black hole and ending up in some strange space (the tesseract) where he can see the back of his daughter’s bookshelf at every point in time.
Unfortunately, astronomers and physicists are pretty sure you can’t just go through a black hole and pop out the other side – you will, in fact, die. The real question is, how exactly will you die? There have been several theories, each with their own problems, on what would happen to you. The first way to die: spaghettification. Yes, it’s really a word. Spaghettification is the phenomena of having your body stretched out to be really thin and long (thus, like spaghetti). This would happen because as you cross the event horizon and head towards the center, the part of your body that went first (let’s say your feet) would have a greater force of gravity pulling on it than the part of your body that went in last (say your head). The difference in the force of gravity between your feet and your head would stretch you out and break you apart: spaghettification.
The second way to die in a black hole: incineration. One idea is that a person falling into a black hole would encounter high-energy quanta at or near the event horizon. This “firewall” would essentially burn up anything that tried to pass through it, meaning you would get burnt to a crisp trying to enter that black hole. If you don’t like either of those ways of dying, there are other possibilities that astronomers and physicists are contemplating. You could pass through the event horizon and then have every particle in your body scrambled. You could be ripped about by strong magnetic fields. You could split reality, fall perfectly unharmed into the black hole, and then continue to fall until you died of starvation or thirst – and be instantly incinerated in a different reality.
Black holes are mysterious, confusing objects in space, even to the most brilliant minds. Basically, they warp space-time so much that it curves in on itself, creating a hole through the fabric of reality. The laws of physics as we know them seem to break down around black holes, making it nigh impossible to figure out what exactly happens beyond that event horizon. That, and the fact that we have absolutely no way of sending anything into a black hole, much less trying to retrieve information once that instrument is inside. But while astronomers and physicists are unsure as to the specifics, one thing is very clear: one way or another, stretched or spaghettified or scrambled, you will die. There is no bookcase on the other side.