Table of Contents
.......The Elegant Universe
THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
Chapter 3 - Of Warps and Ripples
Black Holes, the Big Bang and the Expansion of Space
Whereas special relativity is most manifest when things are moving fast, general relativity comes into its own when things are very massive and the warps in space and time are correspondingly severe. Let's describe two examples.

The first is a discovery made by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild while studying Einstein's revelations on gravity in between his own calculations of artillery trajectories at the Russian front during World War I in 1916. Remarkably, just months after Einstein had put the finishing touches on general relativity, Schwarzschild was able to use the theory to gain a complete and exact understanding of the way space and time warp in the vicinity of a perfectly spherical star. Schwarzschild sent his results from the Russian front to Einstein, who presented them on Schwarzschild's behalf to the Prussian Academy.

Beyond confirming and making mathematically precise the warping that was schematically illustrated in Figure 3.5, Schwarzschild's work—which has now come to be known as "Schwarzschild's solution"—revealed a stunning implication of general relativity. He showed that if the mass of a star is concentrated in a small enough spherical region, so that its mass divided by its radius exceeds a particular critical value, the resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close to the star will be unable to escape its gravitational grip. Since not even light can escape such "compressed stars," they were initially called dark or frozen stars. A more catchy name was coined years later by John Wheeler, who called them black holes—black because they cannot emit light, holes because anything getting too close falls into them, never to return. The name stuck.

We illustrate Schwarzschild's solution in Figure 3.7. Although black holes have a reputation for rapacity, objects that pass by them at a "safe" distance are deflected in much the same way that they would be by an ordinary star, and can proceed on their merry way. But objects of any composition whatsoever that get too close—closer than what has been termed the black hole's event horizon—are doomed: they will be drawn inexorably toward the center of the black hole and subject to an ever increasing and ultimately destructive gravitational strain. For example, if you dropped feet first through the event horizon, as you approached the black hole's center you would find yourself getting increasingly uncomfortable. The gravitational force of the black hole would increase so dramatically that its pull on your feet would be much stronger than its pull on your head (since in a feet-first fall your feet are always a bit closer than your head to the black hole's center); so much stronger, in fact, that you would be stretched with a force that would quickly tear your body to shreds.

Figure 3.7 A black hole warps the surrounding spacetime fabric so severely that anything that comes within its "event horizon"—illustrated by the dark circle—can't escape from its gravitational grip. No one knows exactly what happens at the deepest interior point of a black hole.

If, on the contrary, you were more prudent in your wanderings near a black hole and took great care not to trespass beyond the event horizon, you could make use of the black hole for a rather amazing feat. Imagine, for example, that you were to discover a black hole whose mass was about 1,000 times the mass of the sun, and that you were to lower yourself on a cable, much as George did near the sun, to about an inch above the black hole's event horizon. As we have discussed, gravitational fields cause a warping of time, and this means that your passage through time would slow down. In fact, since black holes have such strong gravitational fields, your passage through time would slow way down. Your watch would tick about ten thousand times more slowly than those of your friends back on earth. If you were to hover just above the black hole's event horizon in this manner for a year, and then climb up the cable to your waiting starship for a short, yet leisurely, journey home, upon arrival at earth you would find that more than ten thousand years had passed since your initial departure. You would have successfully used the black hole as a kind of time machine, allowing you to travel to earth's distant future.

To get a sense of the extreme scales involved, a star with the mass of the sun would be a black hole if its radius were not its actual value (about 450,000 miles), but, instead, just under 2 miles. Imagine: The whole of the sun squeezed to fit comfortably within upper Manhattan. A teaspoonful of such a compressed sun would weigh about as much as Mount Everest. To make a black hole out of the earth we would need to crush it into a sphere whose radius is less than half an inch. For a long time physicists were skeptical about whether such extreme configurations of matter could ever actually occur, and many thought that black holes were merely a reflection of an overworked theoretician's imagination.

Nevertheless, during the last decade, an increasingly convincing body of experimental evidence for the existence of black holes has accumulated. Of course, since they are black, they cannot be observed directly by scanning the sky with telescopes. Instead, astronomers search for black holes by seeking anomalous behavior of other more ordinary light-emitting stars that may be positioned just outside a black hole's event horizon. For instance, as dust and gas from the outer layers of nearby ordinary stars fall toward the event horizon of a black hole, they are accelerated to nearly the speed of light. At such speeds, friction within the maelstrom of downward-swirling material generates an enormous amount of heat, causing the dust-gas mixture to "glow," giving off both ordinary visible light and X rays. Since this radiation is produced just outside the event horizon, it can escape the black hole and travel through space to be observed and studied directly. General relativity makes detailed predictions about properties that such X-ray emissions will have; observation of these predicted properties gives strong, albeit indirect, evidence for the existence of black holes. For example, mounting evidence indicates that there is a very massive black hole, some two and a half million times as massive as the sun, sitting in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. And even this seemingly gargantuan black hole pales in comparison to what astronomers believe to reside in the core of the astonishingly luminous quasars that are scattered throughout the cosmos: black holes whose masses may well be billions of times that of the sun.

Schwarzschild died only a few months after finding his solution, from a skin disease he contracted at the Russian front. He was 42. His tragically brief encounter with Einstein's theory of gravity uncovered one of the most striking and mysterious facets of the natural world.

The second example in which general relativity flexes its muscle concerns the origin and evolution of the whole universe. As we have seen, Einstein showed that space and time respond to the presence of mass and energy. This distortion of spacetime affects the motion of other cosmic bodies moving in the vicinity of the resulting warps. In turn, the precise way in which these bodies move, by virtue of their own mass and energy, has a further effect on the warping of spacetime, which further affects the motion of the bodies, and on and on the interconnected cosmic dance goes. Through the equations of general relativity, equations rooted in geometrical insights into curved space spearheaded by the great nineteenth-century mathematician Georg Bernhard Riemann (more about Riemann later), Einstein was able to describe the mutual evolution of space, time, and matter quantitatively. To his great surprise, when the equations are applied beyond an isolated context within the universe, such as a planet or a comet orbiting a star, to the universe as a whole, a remarkable conclusion is reached: the overall size of the spatial universe must be changing in time. That is, either the fabric of the universe is stretching or it is shrinking, but it is not simply staying put. The equations of general relativity show this explicitly.

This conclusion was too much even for Einstein. He had overturned the collective intuition regarding the nature of space and time built up through everyday experiences over thousands of years, but the notion of an always existing, never changing universe was too ingrained for even this radical thinker to abandon. For this reason, Einstein revisited his equations and modified them by introducing something known as a cosmological constant, an additional term that allowed him to avoid this prediction and once again bask in the comfort of a static universe. However, 12 years later, through detailed measurements of distant galaxies, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble experimentally established that the universe is expanding. In a now-famous story in the annals of science, Einstein then returned to the original form of his equations, citing his temporary modification of them as the biggest blunder of his life. 12 His initial unwillingness to accept the conclusion notwithstanding, Einstein's theory predicted the expansion of the universe. In fact, in the early 1920s—years before Hubble's measurements—the Russian meteorologist Alexander Friedmann had used Einstein's original equations to show, in some detail, that all galaxies would be carried along on the substrate of stretching spatial fabric, thereby speedily moving away from all others. Hubble's observations and numerous subsequent ones have thoroughly verified this astonishing conclusion of general relativity. By offering the explanation for the expansion of the universe, Einstein achieved one of the greatest intellectual feats of all time.

If the fabric of space is stretching, thereby increasing the distance between galaxies that are carried along on the cosmic flow, we can imagine running the evolution backward in time to learn about the origin of the universe. In reverse, the fabric of space shrinks, bringing all galaxies closer and closer to each other. Like the contents of a pressure cooker, as the shrinking universe compresses the galaxies together, the temperature dramatically increases, stars disintegrate and a hot plasma of matter's elementary constituents is formed. As the fabric continues to shrink, the temperature rises unabated, as does the density of the primordial plasma. As we imagine running the clock backward from the age of the presently observed universe, about 15 billion years, the universe as we know it is crushed to an ever smaller size. The matter making up everything—every car, house, building, mountain on earth; the earth itself; the moon; Saturn, Jupiter, and every other planet; the sun and every other star in the Milky Way; the Andromeda galaxy with its 100 billion stars and each and every other of the more than 100 billion galaxies—is squeezed by a cosmic vise to astounding density. And as the clock is turned back to ever earlier times, the whole of the cosmos is compressed to the size of an orange, a lemon, a pea, a grain of sand, and to yet tinier size still. Extrapolating all the way back to "the beginning," the universe would appear to have begun as a point—an image we will critically re-examine in later chapters—in which all matter and energy is squeezed together to unimaginable density and temperature. It is believed that a cosmic fireball, the big bang, erupted from this volatile mixture spewing forth the seeds from which the universe as we know it evolved.

The image of the big bang as a cosmic explosion ejecting the material contents of the universe like shrapnel from an exploding bomb is a useful one to bear in mind, but it is a little misleading. When a bomb explodes, it does so at a particular location in space and at a particular moment in time. Its contents are ejected into the surrounding space. In the big bang, there is no surrounding space. As we devolve the universe backward toward the beginning, the squeezing together of all material content occurs because all of space is shrinking. The orange-size, the pea-size, the grain of sand—size devolution describes the whole of the universe—not something within the universe. Carrying on to the beginning, there is simply no space outside the primordial pinpoint grenade. Instead, the big bang is the eruption of compressed space whose unfurling, like a tidal wave, carries along matter and energy even to this day.
Table of Contents
.......The Elegant Universe