Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An infinite vacation

Photo credit: thebadastronomer

How would you like to vacation in a land that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye? A land in which no color escaped, time was warped, and that made you suddenly look like the contents in that tube of toothpaste at the bottom of your suitcase?
I couldn’t understand why the Huffington Post would run such an article, “What would happen if you fell into a black hole” but soon found myself equally as interested as the “so many people” that wonder what it would be like to visit one.

Writer Natalie Wolchover asked astrophysicist Charles Liu, who works at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, to describe the experience. 
Liu said that one’s body would closely resemble “toothpaste being extruded out of the tube.” 
I was immediately grateful for my choice in the single-colored, yet sparkly Crest toothpaste that sits on my bathroom sink. (Imagine if I had used my mom’s tri-colored red, white, and blue patriotic blur of what must taste like generic dish detergent.)
Beautiful imagery, I know. But I wanted to know why I would look like such, and because I haven’t taken an astronomy class, nor am I in any parallel universe a physicist, I turned to NASA.
Sure, we've all learned that most black holes are formed when a large star collapses on itself in a supernova explosion. A black hole is a place in space where gravity is so strong, because so much matter has been squeezed into a tiny space, that not even light can escape it. Therefore black holes can’t be seen with the human eye. Instead scientists rely on space telescopes, examining how stars and gases surrounding black holes act differently than others.
When a star gets near a black hole, it creates a high-energy light, that again, cannot be seen with the human eye. I must admit that after years of seeing images of black holes, it never once occurred to me that if I were standing in the space station, I couldn't see that very image for myself.
But this doesn’t explain why a human being would look like the result of child’s finger painting while falling into a black hole. Nonetheless, the gravity concept is key.
Liu compared crossing the outer boundary of a black hole, also called the point of no return, or “event horizon,” to the Earth’s ocean and tidal effects. Gravity’s strength decreases with distance, so as the Pacific Ocean rotates further away from the moon, its tidal interaction decreases.
Unlike diving into the ocean, should you plunge headfirst into a black hole, Liu said that your head would experience the most gravitational pull, your toes the least, thus elongating you. Eventually you would be stretched into a stream of subatomic particles.
It sounds tortuous, but the article also mentions that you’re brain would combust instantly and therefore you wouldn’t get to enjoy Einstein’s theory on relativity... Or experience what sounds like the most subliminal spinal adjustment of your life.

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