OK, that was a little click-baity, but then again, so was the announcement this week that a scientist had confirmed Hawking radiation with a lab-grown black hole. It sure got our attention, at least.
As it turns out, the truth is both less and more than meets the eye. The article above was eventually edited to better reflect the truth that, alas, we have not yet found a way to create objects so massive that even light cannot escape them. Instead, physicist [Jeff Steinhauer] and colleagues at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed an acoustic model of black holes, which is what was used to observe the equivalent of Hawking radiation for the first time. Hawking radiation is the theoretical exception to the rule that nothing makes it out of a black hole and would imply that black holes evaporate over time. The predicted radiation would be orders of magnitude weaker than the background radiation, though, making it all but impossible to detect.
That’s where [Steinhauer]’s sonic black holes come in. In these experiments, phonons, packets of mechanical vibrations that stand in for photons, are trapped in a fast-moving stream of fluid. The point in the stream where its speed straddles the local speed of sound is the equivalent to a real black hole’s event horizon; phonons inside that boundary can never escape. Except, of course, for the sonic equivalent of Hawking radiation, which the researchers found after 97,000 attempts.
When we first stumbled upon this story, we assumed a lab-grown black hole, even an acoustic analog, would take a CERN’s-worth of equipment to create. It turns out to be far simpler than that; [Steinhauer], in fact, built his black hole machine singlehandedly from relatively simple equipment. The experiments do require temperatures near absolute zero and a couple of powerful lasers, so it’s not exactly easy stuff; still, we can’t help but wonder if sonic black holes are within the reach of the DIY community. Paging [Ben Krasnow] and [Sam Zeloof], among others.
[Featured image credit: Nitzan Zohar, Office of the Spokesperson, Technion]
We are saddened by the passing of physicist Stephen Hawking. One of the great minds of our time, Hawking’s work to apply quantum theory to black holes launched his career and led to his best known theoretical discovery that black holes emit radiation, aptly known as Hawking radiation.
Thinking back on Stephen Hawking’s contributions to humanity, it strikes us that one of his most important is his embrace of pop culture. While his scientific discoveries and writings are what will stand the test of time, in our own age it is remarkable that Stephen Hawking is a household name around the world.
Hawking’s first book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10 million copies and for many readers was their introduction into the way physicists view space and time. It was written for general consumption and not reserved for those who were already bathed in the jargon of theoretical physics. It sent the message that contemplating science is something that is fun to do in your spare time. This work continued with his more recent mini-series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking created for the Discovery Channel.
A fan of the series, Hawking appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993 and made subsequent, often repeat, appearances on The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory. This was great fun for all science geeks who knew of his work, but it has a far more profound effect of normalizing interaction with a world-class scientist. Appearing on these shows told the story that the pursuit of knowledge is cool.
Having scientists in the public light is crucial to research and advancement. It lets the general public know what kind of frontiers are being pursued, and why that matters. This trickles both up and down, inspiring the next generation of scientists by introducing deep topics at an early age, and ensuring funding and opportunities for this upcoming wave of researchers has widespread support.
Stephen Hawking showed us some incredibly complicated secrets of the cosmos both through his discovery, and through his ambassadorship of scientific knowledge. He will be greatly missed but leaves behind an admirable legacy which we can all strive to live up to.
[Main image by Martin Pope via The Telegraph]