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Black Holes: Not Seeing Is Not Believing

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I understand that many years ago Superman comic books ran a story in which Superman flew faster than the speed of light. A reader wrote to the Dear Editor Column complaining that according to Einstein's theory of special relativity, faster than light travel was impossible. The editor simply responded that what Einstein said was theory; what Superman flies is fact. Now there are news reports that Laura Mersini-Houghton, a University of North Carolina physicist, has published a paper in which she concluded that stellar black holes do not exist. More specifically, she said that there is a problem with the theory of how stellar black holes come to be. Supposedly, a stellar black hole comes about when the core of a massive star implodes, producing a type of supernova. Mersini-Houghton has concluded that in this process, not enough matter remains in the core to form a black hole. This comes after Stephen Hawking’s conclusion earlier this year that black holes, at least as we understand them, do not exist. This is significant coming from Hawking, because he has contributed more to our understanding of black holes than anyone else. Of course, what Hawking and Mersini-Houghton have said is theory; what black holes do is fact.

Don't get me wrong—I mean no disrespect toward these two scientists, but I think that they have allowed the theory to dictate too much of what they believe. The two pillars of modern physics are quantum mechanics and general relativity. Quantum mechanics is the study of very small systems, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. General relativity is the best theory of gravity, space, and time that we have, and it applies to very massive systems. The assumptions of these two theories could not be more different. The two theories normally apply to very different regimes so that there is no overlap. However, this makes for a sort of patchwork approach to the world, and physicists have long thought that there are ought to be a single, unified theory. Indeed, physicists have been looking for such a unified theory since before I was born.

Black holes push general relativity to the brink of its ability to explain the world. Black holes amount to a singularity, something that is not mathematically defined. Hence, general relativity breaks down within a black hole. Fortunately, years ago Hawking showed that an event horizon surrounds a black hole. An event horizon is sort of a screen that shields us from the mathematical ugliness of a singularity. Except now Hawking has decided that event horizons don't exist, which is the reason why he has backed away from some of his earlier work. The fact that singularities arise is an indication that general relativity is an incomplete theory, that there probably is some theory beyond general relativity that solves the singularity problem but includes general relativity as a special case.

Another problem is that a black hole is a domain where both quantum mechanics and general relativity overlap, because quantum effects begin to show up in black holes. For instance, if a particle falls into a black hole, it could take information that quantum mechanics posits must still be available in the rest of the universe, but that information is not available once it falls into a black hole. This is where the patchwork approach gets us into trouble. A theory of quantum gravity could solve these problems, but no such theory yet exists.

Back to the work of Mersini-Houghton. Her work addresses a difficulty in explaining the origin of black holes. Many people, including creationists, confuse the origin of black holes with the science of black holes. As I show in a DVD about black holes, there is very good evidence that black holes exist. This is experimental/observational science. The question of where black holes come from is an entirely different issue, one that experimental/observational science cannot address. Rather, scientists develop ideas based upon what science they know to explain how such things could have come about, but there is no way to test these ideas, because they happened in the past. This is historical science. As a creation scientist, I have no problem with God miraculously making black holes during the Creation Week, nor do I have a problem with black holes forming today through natural processes that God has ordained.

I seriously doubt that this new study will cause astronomers to give up black holes. If we were to abandon the idea of black holes, we'd have to explain by some other means the abundant evidence for stellar black holes and super massive black holes lurking in the cores of galaxies. By the way, while there is a standard theory of how stellar black holes might form, there is no agreed-upon theory of how those super massive black holes in the cores of galaxies formed, but astronomers don't doubt that they exist.

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