Chapter 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime

# Collaborative Group Activities

1. A computer science major takes an astronomy course like the one you are taking and becomes fascinated with black holes. Later in life, he founds his own internet company and becomes very wealthy when it goes public. He sets up a foundation to support the search for black holes in our Galaxy. Your group is the allocation committee of this foundation. How would you distribute money each year to increase the chances that more black holes will be found?
2. Suppose for a minute that stars evolve without losing any mass at any stage of their lives. Your group is given a list of binary star systems. Each binary contains one main-sequence star and one invisible companion. The spectral types of the main-sequence stars range from spectral type O to M. Your job is to determine whether any of the invisible companions might be black holes. Which ones are worth observing? Why? (Hint: Remember that in a binary star system, the two stars form at the same time, but the pace of their evolution depends on the mass of each star.)
3. You live in the far future, and the members of your group have been convicted (falsely) of high treason. The method of execution is to send everyone into a black hole, but you get to pick which one. Since you are doomed to die, you would at least like to see what the inside of a black hole is like—even if you can’t tell anyone outside about it. Would you choose a black hole with a mass equal to that of Jupiter or one with a mass equal to that of an entire galaxy? Why? What would happen to you as you approached the event horizon in each case? (Hint: Consider the difference in force on your feet and your head as you cross over the event horizon.)
4. General relativity is one of the areas of modern astrophysics where we can clearly see the frontiers of human knowledge. We have begun to learn about black holes and warped spacetime recently and are humbled by how much we still don’t know. Research in this field is supported mostly by grants from government agencies. Have your group discuss what reasons there are for our tax dollars to support such “far out” (seemingly impractical) work. Can you make a list of “far out” areas of research in past centuries that later led to practical applications? What if general relativity does not have many practical applications? Do you think a small part of society’s funds should still go to exploring theories about the nature of space and time?
5. Once you all have read this chapter, work with your group to come up with a plot for a science fiction story that uses the properties of black holes.
6. Black holes seem to be fascinating not just to astronomers but to the public, and they have become part of popular culture. Searching online, have group members research examples of black holes in music, advertising, cartoons, and the movies, and then make a presentation to share the examples you found with the whole class.
7. As mentioned in the Gravity and Time Machines feature box in this chapter, the film Interstellar has a lot of black hole science in its plot and scenery. That’s because astrophysicist Kip Thorne at Caltech had a big hand in writing the initial treatment for the movie, and later producing it. Get your group members together (be sure you have popcorn) for a viewing of the movie and then try to use your knowledge of black holes from this chapter to explain the plot. (Note that the film also uses the concept of a wormhole, which we don’t discuss in this chapter. A wormhole is a theoretically possible way to use a large, spinning black hole to find a way to travel from one place in the universe to another without having to go through regular spacetime to get there.)