In 1989-1990, while I spent one year as a research visitor at the University of California, Berkeley, my former collaborator at Paris-Meudon Observatory, Jean-Alain Marck, both an expert in general relativity and computer programming, started to extend my simulation of 1979. The fast improvement of computers and visualization software (he used a DEC-VAX 8600 machine) allowed him to add colors and motions. To reduce the computing time, Marck developed a new method for calculating the geodesics in Schwarzschild space-time, published only several years later (Marck 1996). In a first step Marck started from my model of 1979 and calculated static images of an accretion disk around a Schwarzschild black hole according to various angles of view, see Figure 1 below.
In 1991, when I went back to Paris Observatory, I started the project for the French-German TV channel Arte of a full-length, pedagogical movie about general relativity (Delesalle et al. 1994). As the final sequence dealt with black holes, I asked Marck to introduce motion of the observer with the camera moving around close to the disk, as well as to include higher-order lensed images and background stellar skies in order to make the pictures as realistic as possible. The calculation was done along an elliptic trajectory around a Schwarzschild black hole crossing several times the plane of a thin accretion disk and suffering a strong relativistic precession effect (i.e. rotation of its great axis), see figure 2 below.
Compared to my static, black-and-white simulation of 1979, the snapshot reproduced in Figure 3 below shows spectacular improvements:
The full movie is available on my youtube channel :
Black holes are to many the most mysterious objects in space. According to the laws of General Relativity, they are by themselves invisible. Contrarily to non-collapsed celestial bodies, their surface is neither solid nor gaseous ; it is an immaterial border called the event horizon, beyond which gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light.
Seen in projection on a sky background, the event horizon would have the aspect of a perfectly circular black disk if the black hole is static (the so-called Schwarzschild solution) or of a slightly distorted one if it is in rotation (the Kerr solution). Due to strong gravitational lensing, such a « bare » black hole could leave an observable imprint on a starry background. However, in typical astrophysical conditions, whatever its size and mass (ranging from stellar to galactic scales) a black hole is rarely bare but is dressed in gaseous material. Swirling in a spiral motion, the gas forms a hot accretion disk within which it emits a characteristic spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Giant black holes, such as those currently lurking at the centers of galaxies, can be also surrounded by a stellar cluster, whose orbital dynamics is strongly influenced. As a matter of fact, , if a black hole remains by itself invisible, it “switches on” in its characteristic way the materials it attracts, and distorts the background starry field by gravitational lensing.
Thus, as soon as the basics of black holes astrophysics developed in the 1970’s, the scientists logically wondered what could look like a black hole. Many of you certainly saw didactic or artistic representations of a black hole in popular science magazines, in the form of a black sphere floating in the middle of a circular whirlwind of brilliant gas. So striking they are, these images fail to report the astrophysical reality. This one can be correctly described by means of numerical simulations, taking into account the complex distortions that the strong gravitational field prints in spacetime and light rays trajectories.
Since the first numerical simulations performed 40 years ago, tantalizing progress has been done to detect black holes through electromagnetic radiation from infalling matter or gravitational waves. The first telescopic image by the Event Horizon Telescope of the nearest giant black hole SgrA*, lurking at he center of our Milky Way galaxy, is expected for 2018.
The aim of this series of posts is to retrace the rich history of black hole imaging.
Black hole imaging started in 1972 at a Summer school in Les Houches (France). James Bardeen, building on earlier analytical work of Brandon Carter, initiated research on gravitational lensing by spinning black holes. Bardeen gave a thorough analysis of null geodesics (light-ray propagation) around a Kerr black hole. The Kerr solution had been discovered in 1962 by the New Zealand physicist Roy Kerr and since then focused the attention of many searchers in General Relativity, because it represents the most general state of equilibitum of an astrophysical black hole.
The Kerr spacetime’s metric depends on two parameters : the black hole mass M and its normalized angular momentum a. An important difference with usual stars, which are in differential rotation, is that Kerr black holes are rotating with perfect rigidity : all the points on their event horizon move with the same angular velocity. There is however a critical angular momentum, given by a = M (in units where G=c=1) above which the event horizon would « break up » : this limit corresponds to the horizon having a spin velocity equal to the speed of light. For such a black hole, called « extreme », the gravitational field at the event horizon would cancel, because the inward pull of gravity would be compensated by huge repulsive centrifugal forces.
James Bardeen computed how the black hole’s rotation would affect the shape of the shadow that the event horizon casts on light from a background star field. For a black hole spinning close to the maximum angular momentum, the result is a D-shaped shadow.
The reference is Bardeen, J. M. 1973, Timelike and null geodesics in the Kerr metric, in Black Holes (Les Astres Occlus), ed. C. Dewitt & B. S. Dewitt, (New York: Gordon and Breach) p.215–239
At the time, C.T. Cunningham was preparing a PhD thesis at the University of Washington in Seattle, under the supervision of Bardeen. He began to calculate the optical appearance of a star in circular orbit in the equatorial plane of an extreme Kerr black hole, taking account of the Doppler effect due to relativistic motion of the star, and pointed out the corresponding amplification of the star’s luminosity. He gave formulas but did not produced any image.
The reference is Cunningham, C.T. and Bardeen J.M., The optical appearance of a star orbiting an extreme Kerr black hole, ApJ 173 L137-142 (1972).
One year later Cunningham and Bardeen published a more complete article with the same title. For the first time a picture was shown of the primary and secundary images of a point source moving in a circular orbit in the equatorial plane of an extreme Kerr black hole. They calculated as functions of time the apparent position and the energy flux of the point source as seen by distant observers.
In the upper diagram showing the distorted image of a circle of radius 20M, we clearly see that, whatever the observer’s inclination angle, the black hole cannot mask any part of the circle behind. We also see that the black hole’s spin hardly affects the symmetry of the primary image (although the asymmetry is stronger for the secundary image).
The exact reference is Cunningham, C.T. and Bardeen J.M., The optical appearance of a star orbiting an extreme Kerr black hole, 1973, ApJ, 183, 237. The article can be uploaded here.
In 1975, Cunningham calculated the effects of redshifts and focusing on the spectrum of an accretion disk around a Kerr black hole. He gave formulas and drawed graphics but no image.
The reference is Cunningham, C. T., The effects of redshifts and focusing on the spectrum of an accretion disk around a Kerr black hole, ApJ, 202, 788 (1975)
In 1978 Leigh Palmer, Maurice Pryce and William Unruh carried out, for pedagogical purpose, a simulation of starlight lensed by a camera orbiting a Schwarzschild black hole, using an Edwards and Sutherland Vector graphics display at Simon Fraser University. They showed a film clip in a number of lectures in that period, but unfortunately they did not publish their simulation, so that I can’t reproduce here any image.
First calculations for a black hole accretion disk
The same year and quite independently, as a young researcher at Paris-Meudon Observatory specialized in the mathematics of General Relativity, I wondered what could be the aspect of a Schwarzschild black hole surrounded by a luminous accretion disk. Continue reading →
In november 2014, the Hollywood blockbuster and science-fiction movie Interstellar was released on screens and much mediatic excitation arose about it.
This is the fifth of a series of 6 posts devoted to the analysis of some of the scientific aspects of the film, adapted from a paper I published last spring in Inference : International Review of Science.
TIME TRAVEL INSIDE GARGANTUA
In the last part of the film, the main character, Cooper, plunges into Gargantua. There, beware the tidal forces breaking anything up ! Indeed in the Schwarzschild geometry, the tidal forces become infinite as r -> 0 ; so, even for a supermassive black hole like Gargantua, once past safely the event horizon and approaching the central singularity, everything will be ultimately destroyed. Happily for the continuation of the story, Gargantua has a high spin, and its lethal singularity has the shape of an avoidable ring. Thus the space-time structure allows Cooper to use the Kerr black hole as a wormhole ; he avoids the ring singularity and transports to another region of space-time. In the movie he ends up in a five-dimensional universe, in which he will be able to go backwards in time and communicate with his daughter by means of gravitational signals.
A lot of research has been done on whether the laws of physics permit travel back in time or not. Black hole physics gives interesting results but no firm answers. As seen in the post The Warped Science of Interstellar (1/6), according to Penrose-Carter diagrams a rotating black hole could connect myriads of wormholes to different parts of the space-time geometry. Since two events can differ in time as well as in space, it would be possible to pass from one given position at a given time, along a carefully chosen trajectory, through a wormhole, and arrive at the same position but at a different time, in the past or future. In other words, the black hole could be a sort of time travel machine.
Noneless a journey back through time is an affront to common sense. It is difficult to accept that a man could travel back through time and kill his grandfather before he has had the time to produce children. For the murderer could not have been born, and could not have murdered him, and so on… Such time paradoxes have been pleasantly presented in the celebrated series of movies Back to the future.
In november 2014, the Hollywood blockbuster and science-fiction movie Interstellar was released on screens and much mediatic excitation arose about it.
This is the fourth of a series of 6 posts devoted to the analysis of some of the scientific aspects of the film, adapted from a paper I published last spring in Inference : International Review of Science.
A HUGE TIME DILATION
The elasticity of time is a major consequence of relativity theory, according to which time runs differently for two observers with a relative acceleration – or, from the Equivalence Principle, moving in gravitational fields of different intensities. This well-known phenomenon, checked experimentally to high accuracy, is called « time dilation ».
Thus, close to the event horizon of a black hole, where the gravitational field is huge, time dilation is also huge, because the clocks will be strongly slowed down compared to farther clocks. This is one of the most stunning elements of the scenario of Interstellar : on the water planet so close to Gargantua, it is claimed that 1 hour in the planet’s reference frame corresponds to 7 years in an observer’s reference frame far from the black hole (for instance on Earth). This corresponds to a time dilation factor of 60,000. Although the time dilation tends to infinity when a clock tends to the event horizon (this is precisely why no signal can leave it to reach any external observer), at first sight a time dilation as large as 60,000 seems impossible for a planet orbiting the black hole on a stable orbit.
As explained by Thorne in his popular book, such a large time dilation was a « non-negotiable » request of the film director, for the needs of the story. Intuitively, even an expert in general relativity would estimate impossible to reconcile an enormous time differential with a planet skimming up the event horizon and safely enduring the correspondingly enormous gravitational forces. However Thorne did a few hours of calculations and came to the conclusion that in fact it was marginally possible (although very unlikely). The key point is the black hole’s spin. A rotating black hole, described by the Kerr metric, behaves rather differently from a static one, described by the Schwarzschild metric. The time dilation equation derived from the Kerr metric takes the form:
Since a black hole causes extreme deformations of spacetime, it also creates the strongest possible deflections of light rays passing in its vicinity, and gives rise to spectacular optical illusions, called gravitational lensing. Interstellar is the first Hollywood movie to attempt depicting a black hole as it would actually be seen by an observer nearby.
For this, the team at Double Negative Visual Effects, in collaboration with Kip Thorne, developed a numerical code to solve the equations of light-ray propagation in the curved spacetime of a Kerr black hole. It allows to describe gravitational lensing of distant stars as viewed by a camera near the event horizon, as well as the images of a gazeous acccretion disk orbiting around the black hole. For the gravitational lensing of background stars, the best simulations ever done are due to Alain Riazuelo[i], at the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris, who calculated the silhouette of black holes that spin very fast, like Gargantua, in front of a celestial background comprising several thousands of stars.
But perhaps the most striking image of the film Interstellar is the one showing a glowing accretion disk which spreads above, below and in front of Gargantua. Accretion disks have been detected in some double-star systems that emit X-ray radiation (with black holes of a few solar masses) and in the centers of numerous galaxies (with black holes whose mass adds up to between one million and several billion solar masses). Due to the lack of spatial resolution (black holes are very far away), no detailed image has yet been taken of an accretion disk ; but the hope of imaging accretion disks around black holes telescopically, using very long baseline interferometry, is nearing reality today via the Event Horizon Telescope[ii]. In the meanwhile, we can use the computer to reconstruct how a black hole surrounded by a disk of gas would look. The images must experience extraordinary optical deformations, due to the deflection of light rays produced by the strong curvature of the space-time in the vicinity of the black hole. General relativity allows the calculation of such an effect. Continue reading →
Once on the other side of the wormhole, the spaceship and its crew emerge into a three-planets system orbiting around a supermassive black hole called Gargantua. Supermassive black holes, with masses going from one million to several billion solar masses, are suspected to lie in the centers of most of the galaxies. Our Milky Way probably harbors such an object, Sagittarius A*, whose mass is (indirectly) measured as 4 million solar masses (for a review, see Melia[i]). According to Thorne, Gargantua would be rather similar to the still more massive black hole suspected to be located at the center of the Andromeda galaxy, adding up 100 million solar masses[ii]. Its size being roughly proportional to its mass, the radius of such a giant would encompass the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
Such enormous black holes are not a science-fiction exaggeration, since we have the observational clues of the existence of « Behemoth » black holes in faraway galaxies. The biggest one yet detected lies in the galaxy NGC 1277, located at 250 million light-years ; its mass could be as large as 17 billion solar masses, and its size would encompass the orbit of Neptune[iii]. Continue reading →
Interstellar tells the adventures of a group of explorers who use a wormhole to cross intergalactic distances and find potentially habitable exoplanets to colonize. Interstellar is a fiction, obeying its own rules of artistic license : the film director Christopher Nolan and the screenwriter, his brother Jonah, did not intended to put on the screens a documentary on astrophysics – they rather wanted to produce a blockbuster, and they succeeded pretty well on this point. However, for the scientific part, they have collaborated with the physicist Kip Thorne, a world-known specialist in general relativity and black hole theory. With such an advisor, the promotion of the movie insisted a lot on the scientific realism of the story, in particular on black hole images calculated by Kip Thorne and the team of visual effects company Double Negative. The movie also refers to many aspects of contemporary science, going from well-studied issues such as warped space, fast-spinning black holes, accretion disks, tidal effects or time dilation, to much more speculative ideas which stem beyond the frontiers of our present knowledge, such as wormholes, time travel to the past, extra-space dimensions or the « ultimate equation » of an expected « Theory of Everything ».
It is the reason why, beyond the subjective appreciations that everyone may have about the fiction story itself, many people – physicists and science journalists – have taken the internet to write articles lauding or criticizing the science shown in the movie. Kip Thorne has written a popular book, The Science of Interstellar[i], to explain how he tried to respect scientific accuracy, despite the sometimes exotic demands of Christopher and Jonah Nolan, ensuring in particular that the depictions of black holes and relativistic effects were as accurate as possible.
The aim of this article is not to write a (inevitably subjective) review of Interstellar as a fiction story, but to decipher some of the scientific notions, which support the framework of the movie.
AN ARTIFICIAL WORMHOLE IN THE SOLAR SYTEM ?
In the first part of the film, we are told that a « gravitational anomaly », called a wormhole, has been discovered out near Saturn several decades ago, that a dozen habitable planets have been detected on the « other side » and a dozen astronauts sent to explore them. In particular, one system has three potentially habitable planets, and it is now the mission of the hero, Cooper, to pilot a spaceship through the wormhole and find which planet is more suitable for providing humanity a new home off the dying Earth. Continue reading →
Until now I published as an author 30 books in my native language (French), including 14 science essays, 7 historical novels and 9 poetry collections (for the interested reader, visit my French blog here.
Although my various books have been translated in 14 languages (including Chinese, Korean, Bengali…), only 4 of my essays have been translated in English.
The first one was :
312 pages – Cambridge University Press, 1992 – ISBN 0 521 40029 5 (hardback) – ISBN 0 521 40906 3 (paperback) – Foreword by Joseph Silk.
Black holes are the most fascinating discovery of modern astronomy. They have already become legendary, and form the basis of many myths and fantasies. Are they really the monsters of science fiction which devour light and stars? Are they purely hypothetical objects from the theory of relativity or are they an observable reality?
In answering these questions, the author takes us on a fabulous voyage through space and time. He explains how stars are born, light up and die. He takes us into the strange world of supernovae, X-ray stars and quasars. We travel on a journey to the very edge of the universe and to the limits on contemporary physics.
“The amount of information conveyed is impressive. The intended audience is readers with some understanding of physics who are seeking a coherent, accurate nonmathematical overview of black-hole physics and all the astronomical situations that the discipline seems to explain. Also, any student embarking on a serious technical study of general relativity or astrophysics will find the book a first-rate overview of an important part of the story. (…) This is an outstanding work of scientific exposition.” — John Barrow, Nature Continue reading →
The thought experiments which have been described in my previous post Back to the basics are more than an intellectual exercise, because if black holes really exist (and we have strong observational arguments to believe that), then there is a good chance that they will be illuminated by a natural light source. For a black hole or a planet the most obvious form of lighting is a star. This star could, for example, be bound to the black hole in a binary system. Although such systems are common throughout our Galaxy, the corresponding black holes would be impossible to detect by this effect, as their image by reflected light would be drowned in the intense light of the direct image of the star itself.
A much more interesting situation from an observational point of view is when the source of light comes from a series of rings of matter in orbit around the black hole. It is believed that a number of black holes are surrounded by such structures, which are called accretion disks. Saturn’s rings are an excellent example of an accretion disk; they consist of amalgamated pieces of rock and ice which reflect the light of the distant Sun, whereas those of a black hole consist of hot gas brighting by itself (another important difference is that the accretion disk of a black hole is continually being supplied with gas, whereas that surrounding Saturn is the remnant of the primordial Solar System).
The gases fall slowly into the black hole, like water in a whirlpool. As the gas falls towards the black hole it becomes hotter and hotter and begins to emit radiation. This is a good source of light: the accretion rings shine and illuminate the central black hole. One can then ask : what would be the apparent image of the black hole accretion disk ? Continue reading →
The centre of the black hearth,
of setting suns on the shore :
ah ! well of magic Arthur Rimbaud (Illuminations)
As probably all of you already know, the Interstellar movie tells the adventures of a group of explorers who use a wormhole to cross intergalactic distances and find potentially habitable exoplanets to colonize. For the scientific part, the film director, Christopher Nolan, has collaborated with a colleague of mine, the famous physicist Kip Thorne, a specialist in general relativity and black hole theory.
With such a scientific consultant, the promotion of the movie insisted a lot on the realism of the black hole images calculated by Kip Thorne and the team of visual effects company Double Negative. The most striking one shows a glowing accretion disk appearing above, below and in front of the black hole.
As soon as the movie was displayed on the screens, a lot of physics blogs have commented in details the “Science of Interstellar”. Kip Thorne himself has published a such entitled popular book, to explain how he tried to respect scientific accuracy despite the sometimes odd demands of Christopher Nolan, ensuring in particular that the depictions of black holes and relativistic effects were as accurate as possible.
Since, as soon as 1979, I was the first researcher to perfom numerical calculations and publish the simulated image of a black hole surrounded by a thin accretion disk (you can upload the technical article here), to inaugurate this new blog I’ll devote a series of 3 posts to the basics of black hole imaging. A good part is adapted from a chapter of one of my books, published in French in 2006, Le destin de l’univers – unfortunately not yet available in English. Continue reading →
Luminet’s reinstated visualization of a finite Universe, albeit one from which we can exit through one face and simultaneously enter through the opposite one, relies upon a keplerian form of mental sculpture that may be described as plastic rather than algebraic. Luminet’s characteristic lithograph, Big Bang, exploits the spatial vocabulary of perspective to evoke realms beyond the three dimensional. Whereas Escher relied on contradictions and oscillating ambiguity in his graphic art, Luminet suggests plunging, interpenetrating and matter organizes itself into structures on the right; the tumbling dice on the left imply irreversible disorganization arising from chance. The remarkable range of Luminet’s creativity in art and science is integral to his agenda to recreate what he calls a « humanism of knowledge » — not that the arts and sciences are somehow to be conflated, because they work in very different ways, with illogical and logical means. But Luminet argues that they well up from the same instincts and intuitions: « I do not believe that we acquire at the beginning the ‘heart of an artist’ or the ‘heart of a scientist’. There is simply within oneself a single devouring curiosity about the world. This curiosity pushes us to explore it through various languages and modes of expression, » he says.
Martin Kemp, professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford. Excerpt from “Luminet’s Illuminations : Cosmological Modelling and the Art of Intuition”, Nature, 20 november 2003, vol. 426, p. 232
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)