astronomy, physics, science, Space, thought experiment

If the Sun went Supernova

I have to preface this article by saying that yes, I know I’m hardly the first person to consider this question.

I also have to add that, according to current physics (as of this writing in December 2017), the Sun won’t ever go supernova. It’s not massive enough to produce supernova conditions. But hey, I’ll gladly take any excuse to talk about supernovae, because supernovae are the kind of brain-bending, scary-as-hell, can’t-wrap-your-feeble-meat-computer-around-it events that make astronomy so creepy and amazing.

So, for the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s say that, at time T + 0.000 seconds, all the ingredients of a core-collapse supernova magically appear at the center of the Sun. What would that look like, from our point of view here on Earth? Well, that’s what I’m here to find out!

From T + 0.000 seconds to 499.000 seconds

This is the boring period where nothing happens. Well, actually, this is the nice period where life on Earth can continue to exist, but astrophysically, that’s pretty boring. Here’s what the Sun looks like during this period:

Normal Sun.png

Pretty much normal. Then, around 8 minutes and 19 seconds (499 seconds) after the supernova, the Earth is hit by a blast of radiation unlike anything ever witnessed by humans.

Neutrinos are very weird, troublesome particles. As of this writing, their precise mass isn’t known, but it’s believed that they do have mass. And that mass is tiny. To get an idea of just how tiny: a bacterium is about 45 million times less massive than a grain of salt. A bacterium is 783 billion times as massive as a proton. Protons are pretty tiny, ghostly particles. Electrons are even ghostlier: 1836 times less massive than a proton. (In a five-gallon / 19 liter bucket of water, the total mass of all the electrons is about the mass of a smallish sugar cube; smaller than an average low-value coin.)

As of this writing (December 2017, once again), the upper bound on the mass of a neutrino is 4.26 million times smaller than the mass of an electron. On top of that, they have no electric charge, so the only way they can interact with ordinary matter is by the mysterious weak nuclear force. They interact so weakly that (very approximately), out of all the neutrinos that pass through the widest part of the Earth, only one in 6.393 billion will collide with an atom.

But, as XKCD eloquently pointed out, supernovae are so enormous and produce so many neutrinos that their ghostliness is canceled out. According to XKCD’s math, 8 minutes after the Sun went supernova, every living creature on Earth would absorb something like 21 Sieverts of neutrino radiation. Radiation doses that high have an almost 100% mortality rate. You know in Hollywood how they talk about the “walking ghost” phase of radiation poisoning? Where you get sick for a day or two, and then you’re apparently fine until the effects of the radiation catch up with you and you die horribly? At 21 Sieverts, that doesn’t happen. You get very sick within seconds, and you get increasingly sick for the next one to ten days or so, and then you die horribly. You suffer from severe vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, confusion, fluid loss, fever, cardiac complications, neurological complications, and worsening infections as your immune system dies. (If you’re brave and have a strong stomach, you can read about what 15-20 Sieverts/Gray did to a poor fellow who was involved in a radiation accident in Japan. It’s NSFW. It’s pretty grisly.)

But the point is that we’d all die when the neutrinos hit. I’m no religious scholar, but I think it’d be appropriate to call the scene Biblical. It’d be no less scary than the scary-ass shit that happens in in Revelation 16. (In the King James Bible, angels pour out vials of death that poison the water, the earth, and the Sun, and people either drop dead or start swearing and screaming.) In our supernova Armageddon, the air flares an eerie electric blue from Cherenkov radiation, like this…

685px-Advanced_Test_Reactor

(Source.)

…and a few seconds later, every creature with a central nervous system starts convulsing. Every human being on the planet starts explosively evacuating out both ends. If you had a Jupiter-sized bunker made of lead, you’d die just as fast as someone on the surface. In the realm of materials humans can actually make, there’s no such thing as neutrino shielding.

But let’s pretend we can ignore the neutrinos. We can’t. They contain 99% of a supernova’s energy output (which is why they can kill planets despite barely interacting with matter). But let’s pretend we can, because otherwise, the only spectators will be red, swollen, feverish, and vomiting, and frankly, I don’t need any new nightmares.

T + 499.000 seconds to 568.570 seconds (8m13s to 9m28.570s)

If we could ignore the neutrino radiation (we really, really can’t), this would be another quiet period. That’s kinda weird, considering how much energy was just released. A typical supernova releases somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 × 10^44 Joules, give or take an order of magnitude. The task of conveying just how much energy that is might be beyond my skills, so I’m just going to throw a bunch of metaphors at you in a panic.

According to the infamous equation E = m c^2, 10^44 Joules would mass 190 times as much as Earth. The energy alone would have half the mass of Jupiter. 10^44 Joules is (roughly) ten times as much energy as the Sun will radiate in its remaining 5 billion years. If you represented the yield of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear device ever set off, by the diameter of a human hair, then the dinosaur-killing (probably) Chicxulub impact would stretch halfway across a football field, Earth’s gravitational binding energy (which is more or less the energy needed to blow up the planet) would reach a third of the way to the Sun, and the energy of a supernova would reach well past the Andromeda galaxy. 1 Joule is about as much energy as it takes to pick up an egg, a golf ball, a small apple, or a tennis ball (assuming “pick up” means “raise to 150 cm against Earth gravity.”) A supernova releases 10^44 of those Joules. If you gathered together 10^44 water molecules, they’d form a cube 90 kilometers on an edge. It would reach almost to the edge of space. (And it would very rapidly stop being a cube and start being an apocalyptic flood.)

Screw it. I think XKCD put it best: however big you think a supernova is, it’s bigger than that. Probably by a factor of at least a million.

And yet, ignoring neutrino radiation (we really can’t do that), we wouldn’t know anything about the supernova until nine and a half minutes after it happened. Most of that is because it takes light almost eight and a quarter minutes to travel from Sun to Earth. But ionized gas is also remarkably opaque to radiation, so when a star goes supernova, the shockwave that carries the non-neutrino part of its energy to the surface only travels at about 10,000 kilometers per second. That’s slow by astronomical standards, but not by human ones. To get an idea of how fast 10,000 kilometers per second is, let’s run a marathon.

At the same moment, the following things leave the start line: Usain Bolt at full sprint (10 m/s), me in my car (magically accelerating from 0 MPH to 100 MPH in zero seconds), a rifle bullet traveling at 1 kilometer per second (a .50-caliber BMG, if you want to be specific), the New Horizons probe traveling at 14 km/s (about as fast as it was going when it passed Pluto), and a supernova shockwave traveling at 10,000 km/s.

Naturally enough, the shockwave wins. It finishes the marathon (which is roughly 42.195 kilometers) in 4.220 milliseconds. In that time, New Horizons makes it 60 meters. The bullet has traveled just under 14 feet (422 cm). My car and I have traveled just over six inches (19 cm). Poor Usain Bolt probably isn’t feeling as speedy as he used to, since he’s only traveled an inch and a half (4.22 cm). That’s okay, though: he’d probably die of exhaustion if he ran a full marathon at maximum sprint. And besides, he’s about to be killed by a supernova anyway.

T + 569 seconds

If you’re at a safe distance from a supernova (which is the preferred location), the neutrinos won’t kill you. If you don’t have a neutrino detector (Ha ha!), when a supernova goes off, the first detectable sign is the shock breakout: when the shockwave reaches the star’s surface. Normally, it takes in the neighborhood of 20 hours before the shock reaches the surface of its parent star. That’s because supernovas (at least the core-collapse type we’re talking about) usually happen inside enormous, bloated supergiants. If you put a red supergiant where the Sun is, then Jupiter would be hovering just above its surface. They’re that big.

The Sun is much smaller, and so it only takes a couple minutes for the shock to reach the surface. And when it does, Hell breaks loose. There’s a horrific wave of radiation trapped behind the opaque shock. When it breaks out, it heats it to somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Kelvin. Let’s split the difference and say 500,000 Kelvin. A star’s luminosity is determined by two things: its temperature and its surface area. At the moment of shock breakout, the Sun has yet to actually start expanding, so its surface area remains the same. Its temperature, though, increases by a factor of almost 100. Brightness scales in proportion to the fourth power of temperature, so when the shock breaks out, the Sun is going to shine something like 56 million times brighter. Shock breakout looks something like this:

Sun Shock Breakout.png

But pretty soon, it looks like this:

Sun Supernova.blend

Unsurprisingly, this ends very badly for everybody on the day side. Pre-supernova, the Earth receives about 1,300 watts per square meter. Post-supernova, that jumps up to 767 million watts per square meter. To give you some perspective: that’s roughly 700 times more light than you’d be getting if you were currently being hit in the face by a one-megaton nuclear fireball. Once again: However big you think a supernova is, it’s bigger than that.

All the solids, liquids, and gases on the day side very rapidly start turning into plasma and shock waves. But things go no better for people on the night side. Let’s say the atmosphere scatters or absorbs 10% of light after passing through its 100 km depth. That means that, after passing through one atmosphere-depth, 90% of the light remains. Since the distance, across the Earth’s surface, to the point opposite the sun is about 200 atmosphere-depths, that gives us an easy equation for the light on the night side: [light on the day side] * (0.9)^200. (10% is approximate. After searching for over an hour, I couldn’t find out exactly how much light the air scatters, and although there are equations for it, I was getting a headache. Rayleigh scattering is the relevant phenomenon, if you’re looking for the equations to do the math yourself).

On the night side, even after all that atmospheric scattering, you’re still going to burn to death. You’ll burn to death even faster if the moon’s up that night, but even if it’s not, enough light will reach you through the atmosphere alone that you’ll burn either way. If you’re only getting light via Rayleigh scattering, you’re going to get something like 540,000 watts per square meter. That’s enough to set absolutely everything on fire. It’s enough to heat everything around you to blowtorch temperatures. According to this jolly document, that’s enough radiant flux to give you a second-degree burn in a tenth of a second.

T + 5 minutes to 20 minutes

We live in a pretty cool time, space-wise. We know what the surfaces of Pluto, Vesta, and Ceres look like. We’ve landed a probe on a comet. Those glorious lunatics at SpaceX just landed a booster that had already been launched, landed, and refurbished once. And we’ve caught supernovae in the act of erupting from their parent stars. Here’s a graph, for proof:

breakout_sim-ws_v6.png

(Source. Funnily enough, the data comes from the awesome Kepler planet-hunting telescope.)

The shock-breakout flash doesn’t last very long. That’s because radiant flux scales with the fourth power of temperature, so if something gets ten times hotter, it’s going to radiate ten thousand times as fast, which means, in a vacuum, it’s going to cool ten thousand times faster (without an energy source). So, that first bright pulse is probably going to last less than an hour. But during that hour, the Earth’s going to absorb somewhere in the neighborhood of 3×10^28 Joules of energy, which is enough to accelerate a mass of 4.959×10^20 kg. to escape velocity. In other words: that sixty-minute flash is going to blow off the atmosphere and peel off the first 300 meters of the Earth’s crust. Still better than a grisly death by neutrino poisoning.

T + 20 minutes to 4 hours

This is another period during which things get better for a little while. Except for the fact that pretty much everything on the Earth’s surface is either red-hot or is now part of Earth’s incandescent comet’s-tail atmosphere, which contains, the plants, the animals, most of the surface, and you and me. “Better” is relative.

It doesn’t take long for the shock-heated sun to cool down. The physics behind this is complicated, and I don’t entirely understand it, if I’m honest. But after it cools, we’re faced with a brand-new problem: the entire mass of the sun is now expanding at between 5,000 and 10,000 kilometers per second. And its temperature only cools to something like 6,000 Kelvin. So now, the sun is growing larger and larger and larger, and it’s not getting any cooler. We’re in deep dookie.

Assuming the exploding sun is expanding at 5,000 km/s, it only takes two and a quarter minutes to double in size. If it’s fallen back to its pre-supernova temperature (which, according to my research, is roughly accurate), that means it’s now four times brighter. Or, if you like, it’s as though Earth were twice as close. Earth is experiencing the same kind of irradiance that Mercury once saw. (Mercury is thoroughly vaporized by now.)

In 6 minutes, the Sun has expanded to four times its original size. It’s now 16 times brighter. Earth is receiving 21.8 kilowatts per square meter, which is enough to set wood on fire. Except that there’s no such thing as wood anymore, because all of it just evaporated in the shock-breakout flash.

At sixteen and a quarter minutes, the sun has grown so large that, even if you ignored the earlier disasters, the Earth’s surface is hot enough to melt aluminum.

The sun swells and swells in the sky. Creepy mushroom-shaped plumes of radioactive nickel plasma erupt from the surface. The Earth’s crust, already baked to blackened glass, glows red, then orange, then yellow. The scorched rocks melt and drip downslope like candle wax. And then, at four hours, the blast wave hits. If you thought things couldn’t get any worse, you haven’t been paying attention.

T + 4 hours

At four hours, the rapidly-expanding Sun hits the Earth. After so much expansion, its density has decreased by a factor of a thousand, or thereabouts. Its density corresponds to about the mass of a grain of sand spread over a cubic meter. By comparison, a cubic meter of sea-level air contains about one and a quarter kilograms.

But that whisper of hydrogen and heavy elements is traveling at 5,000 kilometers per second, and so the pressure it exerts on the Earth is shocking: 257,000 PSI, which is five times the pressure it takes to make a jet of abrasive-laden water cut through pretty much anything (there’s a YouTube channel for that). The Earth’s surface is blasted by winds at Mach 600 (and that’s relative to the speed of sound in hot, thin hydrogen; relative to the speed of sound in ordinary air, it’s Mach 14,700). One-meter boulders are accelerated as fast as a bullet in the barrel of a gun (according to the formulae, at least; what probably happens is that they shatter into tiny shrapnel like they’ve been hit by a gigantic sledgehammer). Whole hills are blown off the surface. The Earth turns into a splintering comet. The hydrogen atoms penetrate a full micron into the surface and heat the rock well past its boiling point. The kinetic energy of all that fast-moving gas delivers 10^30 watts per second, which is enough to sand-blast the Earth to nothing in about three minutes, give or take.

T + 4 hours to 13h51m

And the supernova has one last really mean trick up its sleeve. If a portion of the Earth survives the blast (I’m not optimistic), then suddenly, that fragment’s going to find itself surrounded on all sides by hot supernova plasma. That’s bad news. There’s worse news, though: that plasma is shockingly radioactive. It’s absolutely loaded with nickel-56, which is produced in huge quantities in supernovae (we’re talking up to 5% of the Sun’s mass, for core-collapse supernovae). Nickel-56 is unstable. It decays first to radioactive cobalt-56 and then to stable iron-56. The radioactivity alone is enough to keep the supernova glowing well over a million times as bright as the sun for six months, and over a thousand times as bright as the sun for over two years.

A radiation dose of 50 Gray will kill a human being. The mortality rate is 100% with top-grade medical care. The body just disintegrates. The bone marrow, which produces the cells we need to clot our blood and fight infections, turns to sterile red soup. 50 Gray is equivalent to the deposition of 50 joules of radiation energy per kilogram. That’s enough to raise the temperature of a kilo of flesh by 0.01 Kelvin, which you’d need an expensive thermometer to measure. Meanwhile, everything caught in the supernova fallout is absorbing enough radiation to heat it to its melting point, to its boiling point, and then to ionize it to plasma. A supernova remnant is insanely hostile to ordinary matter, and doubly so to biology. If the Earth hadn’t been vaporized by the blast-wave, it would be vaporized by the gamma rays.

And that’s the end of the line. There’s a reason astronomers were so shocked to discover planets orbiting pulsars: pulsars are born in supernovae, and how the hell can a planet survive one of those?

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engineering, math, physics, thought experiment

The Treachery of Plumb-Lines

I’m pretty sure that’s my most pretentious article title to date, but really, the only pretentious thing about it is that it’s a Rene Magritte reference, because if you read it literally, that’s exactly what this article is about.

Imagine two skyscrapers. Both start from ordinary concrete foundations 100 meters by 100 meters, and each will be 1,000 meters high, when finished. We’ll call the first skyscraper Ruler, and the second skyscraper Plumb, for reasons I’ll explain.

Ruler is built exactly according to architectural specifications. Every corner is measured with a high-grade engineer’s square and built at precisely 90 degrees. Importantly, Ruler is constructed so that every floor is precisely 10 meters above the previous one, and every floor is 100 meters by 100 meters. This is done, of course, using a ruler. Because it’s kept so straight and square at every stage, Ruler is a very straight, square building.

Plumb, on the other hand, is kept straight and square using one of the oldest tricks in the architect’s book: the plumb-bob. True story: plumb-bobs are called that because, back in the day, they were almost always made of lead, and the Latin for lead is plumbus (or something like that; I took Latin in high school, but the teacher got deathly ill like two weeks in, so I never learned much). A well-made and well-applied plumb-bob is an excellent way to make sure something is absolutely vertical.

The builders of Plumb do use a ruler, but only to mark off the 10-meter intervals for the floors. They mark them off at the corners of the building, and they make sure the floors are perfectly horizontal using either a modified plumb-bob or a spirit level (which is largely the same instrument).

One might assume that Plumb and Ruler would turn out to be the exact same building. But anybody who’s read this blog knows that that’s the kind of sentence I use to set up a twist. Because Plumb was kept straight using plumb-bobs, and because plumb-bobs point towards the center of the Earth, and because the 100-meter difference between the east and west (or north and south walls) gives the bobs an angle difference of 0.009 degrees, Plumb is actually 11 millimeters wider at the top than at the bottom. Probably not enough to matter in architectural terms, but the difference is there.

Not only that, but Plumb’s floors aren’t flat, either, at least not geometrically flat. The Earth is a sphere, and because Plumb’s architects made its floors level with a spirit level or a plumb-bob, those floors aren’t geometrically flat: they follow the spherical gravitational equi-potential contours. Over a distance of 100 meters, the midpoint of a line across the Earth’s surface sits 0.2 millimeters above where it would were the line perfectly, geometrically straight. This difference decreases by the time you reach the 100th floor (the top floor) because the sphere in question is larger and therefore less strongly curved. But the difference only decreases by around a micron, which is going to get swamped out by even really small bumps in the concrete.

“Okay,” you might say, “so if you blindly trust a plumb-bob, your building will end up a centimeter out-of-true. What does that matter?” Well, first of all, if you came here looking for that kind of practicality, then this blog is just gonna drive you insane. Second, it doesn’t matter so much for ordinary buildings. But let’s say you’re building a 2,737-meter-long bridge (by total coincidence, the length of the Golden Gate Bridge). If you build with geometric flatness in mind, your middle pier is going to have to be 14.7 centimeters shorter than the ones at the ends. That’s almost the length of my foot, and I’ve got big feet. It’s not a big enough difference that you couldn’t, say, fill it in with concrete or something, but it’d certainly be enough that you’d have to adjust where your bolt-holes were drilled.

What’s the moral of this story? It’s an old moral that probably seems fairly ridiculous, but is nonetheless true: we live on the surface of a sphere. And, when it comes down to it, that’s just kinda fun to think about.

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biology, science, silly, thought experiment

Life at 1:1000 Scale, Part 1

You can’t see it, but out in the real world, I look like a Scottish pub brawler. I’ve got the reddish beard and the roundish Scots-Irish face and the broad shoulders and the heavy build I inherited from my Scotch and Irish ancestors (the hairy arms come from my Italian ancestors).

What I’m saying is that I’m a bulky guy. I stand 6 feet, 3 inches tall. That’s 190.5 centimeters, or 1,905 millimeters. Keep that figure in mind.

When I was a kid, the motif of someone getting shrunk down to minuscule size was popular. It was the focus of a couple of books I read. There was that one episode of The Magic Schoolbus which was pretty much just The Fantastic Voyage in cartoon form. There was the insufferable cartoon of my late childhood, George Shrinks.

As a kid, I was very easily bored. When I got bored waiting in line for the bathroom, for instance, I would imagine what it would actually be like to be incredibly tiny. I imagined myself nestled among a forest of weird looping trees: the fibers in the weird multicolored-but-still-gray synthetic carpet my school had. I imagined what it would be like to stand right beneath my own shoe, shrunk down so small I could see atoms. I realized that the shoe would look nothing like a shoe. It would just be this vast plain of differently-colored spheres (that was how I envisioned atoms back then, because that’s how they looked in our science books).

Now, once again, I find myself wanting to re-do a childhood thought experiment. What if I were shrunk down to 1/1000th of my actual size? I’d be 1.905 millimeters tall (1,905 microns): about the size of those really tiny black ants with the big antennae that find their way into absolutely everything. About the size of a peppercorn.

Speaking of peppercorns, let’s start this bizarre odyssey in the kitchen. I measured the height of my kitchen counter as exactly three feet. But because I’m a thousand times smaller, the counter is a thousand times higher. In other words: two-thirds the height of the intimidating Mount Thor:

mount_thor

(Source.)

I remember this counter as being a lot smoother than it actually is. I mean, it always had that fine-textured grainy pattern, but now, those textural bumps, too small to measure when I was full-sized, are proper divots and hillocks.

I don’t care how small I am, though: I intend to have my coffee. Anybody who knows me personally will not be surprised by this. It’s going to be a bit trickier now, since the cup is effectively a mile away from the sugar and the jar of coffee crystals, but you’d better believe I’m determined when it comes to coffee.

Though, to be honest, I am a little worried about my safety during that crossing. There’s a lot more wildlife on this counter than I remember. There’s a sparse scattering of ordinary bacteria, but I don’t mind them: they’re no bigger than ants even at this scale, so I don’t have to confront their waxy, translucent grossness. There is what appears to be a piece of waxy brown drainage pipe lying in my path, though. It’s a nasty-looking thing with creepy lizard-skin scales up and down it. I think it’s one of my hairs.

I’m more concerned about the platter-sized waxy slab lying on the counter next to the hair. There are two reasons for this: First, I’m pretty sure the slab is a flake of sloughed human skin. Second, and most important, that slab is being gnawed on by a chihahua-sized, foot-long monstrosity:

8f87b071ca15a175804fa780020feade

I know it’s just a dust mite, but let me tell you, when you see those mandibles up close, and those mandibles are suddenly large enough to snip off a toe, they suddenly get a lot more intimidating. This one seems friendly enough, though. I petted it. I think I’m gonna call it Liam.

My odyssey to the coffee cup continues. It’s a mile away, at my current scale, but I know from experience I can walk that far in 20 minutes. But the coffee cup is sitting on a dishcloth, drying after I last rinsed it out, and that dishcloth is the unexpected hurdle that shows up in all the good adventure books.

The rumpled plateau that confronts me is 10 meters high (32 feet, as tall as a small house or a tree), and its surface looks like this:

cover-12-3_1

(Source.)

Those creepy frayed cables are woven from what looks like translucent silicone tubing. Each cable is about as wide as an adult man. If I’d known I was going to be exposed to this kind of weird-textured information overload, I never would’ve shrunk myself down. But I need my coffee, and I will have my coffee, so I’m pressing forward.

But, you know, now that I’m standing right next to the coffee cup, I’m starting to think I might have been a little over-ambitious. Because my coffee cup is a gigantic ceramic monolith. It’s just about a hundred meters high (333 feet): as tall as a football field (either kind) is long–as big as a 19-story office building. I know insects my size can lift some ridiculous fraction of their body weight, but I think this might be a bit beyond me.

All’s not lost, though! After another twenty-minute trek, I arrive back at the sugar bowl and the jar of coffee. Bit of a snag, though. It seems some idiot let a grain of sugar fall onto the counter (that grain is now the size of a nightstand, and is actually kinda pretty: like a huge crystal of brownish rock salt), which has attracted a small horde of HORRIFYING MONSTERS:

pharoh-ant4-x532-new

(Source.)

That is a pharaoh ant. Or, as we here in the Dirty South call them, “Oh goddammit! Not again!” In my ordinary life, I knew these as the tiny ants that managed to slip into containers I thought tightly closed, and which were just about impossible to get rid of, because it seemed like a small colony could thrive on a micron-thin skid of ketchup I’d missed when last Windexing the counter.

Trouble is that, now, they’re as long as I am tall, and they’re about half my height at the shoulder. And they’ve got mandibles that could clip right through my wrist…

Okay, once again, I shouldn’t have panicked. Turns out they’re actually not that hostile. Plus, if you climb on one’s back and tug at its antennae for steering, you can ride it like a horrifying (and very prickly-against-the-buttock-region) pony!

I’m naming my new steed Cactus, because those little hairs on her back are, at this scale, icepick-sized thorns of death. I’m glad Cactus is just a worker, because if she was a male or a queen, I’m pretty sure she would have tried to mate with me, and frankly, I don’t like my chances of coming out of that intact and sane. Workers, though, are sterile, and Cactus seems a lot more interested in cleaning herself than mounting me, for which my gratitude is boundless.

I’ve ridden her to my coffee spoon, because I’m thinking I can make myself a nice bowl of coffee in the spoon’s bowl.

I’ve clearly miscalculated, and quite horribly, too: the bowl of this spoon is the size of an Olympic swimming pool: 50 meters (160 feet) from end to end. Plus, now that I’m seeing it from this close, I’m realizing that I haven’t been doing a very good job of cleaning off my coffee spoon between uses. It’s crusted with a patchy skin of gunk, and that gunk is absolutely infested with little poppy-seed-sized spheres and sausages and furry sausages, all of which are squirming and writing a little too much like maggots for my taste. I’m pretty sure they’re just bacteria, but I’m not going to knowingly go out and touch germs. Especially not when they’re just about the right size to hitch a ride on my clothes and covertly crawl into an orifice when I’m sleeping.

You know what? If I can’t have my coffee, I think this whole adventure was probably a mistake. I think I’m going to return to my ordinary body. Conveniently (in more ways than one), I’ve left my real body comatose and staring mindlessly at the cabinets above the counter. He’s a big beast: a mile high, from my perspective. An actual man-mountain. I’ll spare you the details of climbing him, because he wears shorts and I spent far too long climbing through tree-trunk-sized leg hairs with creepy-crawly skin microflora dangerously close to my face.

Now, though, I’m back in my brain and back at my normal size. And now that my weird little dissociative fugue is over, I can tell you guys to look out for part two, when I’ll tell you all the reasons there’s no way to actually shrink yourself down like that and live to tell about it.

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physics, science, silly, thought experiment

The Overkill Oven

As I was lying in bed last night, I started wondering: “What if I had an oven that could heat its contents up to nuclear-fusion temperatures?” This is why I have trouble sleeping: my brain is very badly-wired. But still, that’s a perfect question for this blog. But as I was preparing to write the article, I got to thinking: Why limit myself to nuclear-fusion temperatures? Nuclear fusion only requires a few billion Kelvin. There are processes (particle-accelerator impacts and cosmic-ray collisions) that reach a trillion trillion kelvin!

Overkill Oven 450 Kelvin

Here’s my new oven. You’ll notice it has quite a few temperature knobs. That’s because, if I tried to fit 10^24 Kelvin all on one knob, that knob would have to be the size of a galaxy before the 100-Kelvin interval marks were far enough apart to see with the naked eye. The cool thing about the decimal number system, though, is that I only (“only”) need 24 knobs, each only marked with 10 intervals, to set temperatures hot enough to melt protons.

This new oven has a couple of interesting features. The first is the patented ceramic bowl-schist lining. Bowl-schist is an exotic metamorphic rock I imported from a parallel universe. Its heat conductivity is so low you could put a block of it next to a supernova and it’d be just fine. The second important feature is the power supply. Naturally, I can’t plug a fancy oven like this into a standard 240-Volt U.S. oven socket. Instead, the cable passes through a very narrow wormhole into the Handwavium Universe, which is stuck mid-big-bang, and therefore is absolutely flooded with energy. With all that set up, let’s cook! To celebrate my new oven, I think I’ll make a big beef roast, with some potatoes, peas, carrots, onions, and herbs and spices.

0.001 Kelvin

The trouble with the Oven of Doom is that the controls are a little difficult to get used to. But hey, I play Dwarf Fortress, so I’m no stranger to shockingly opaque controls. Still, starting out, I accidentally set the oven almost to zero Kelvin. I didn’t realize this until I saw the fur of oxygen and nitrogen ice growing all over my roast. Luckily, the Death Oven is also completely hermetically sealed during operation, to prevent operator death, so I didn’t freeze out all the air in the house. And defrosting was easy.

450 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 450 Kelvin

After that initial hiccup, my roast is coming along nicely. I’m making a brisket roast, so I should probably cook it long and low and slow, so it gets nice and tender. I just hope I don’t run out of patience before

1,000 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 1000 Kelvin

Well that could have gone better. In my defense, this oven has a lot of knobs, and if there’s anything resembling a knob or switch, I am compelled to fiddle with it. The roast was on fire for a few minutes, but once most of the fat burned off, it settled down. Now I’m left with an oven full of glowing orange soot and carbonized meat and vegetables. I can probably find some creature willing to eat it…

5,000 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 5000 Kelvin

The trouble with having a fancy high-power oven is that it’s really tempting to turn it up unnecessarily high in the hopes of getting your food finished as quick as possible. I think there might be something to all this “slow food” stuff I keep hearing about. Trying to cook my roast at 5,000 Kelvin has reduced it to a cloud of white-hot soot with a pale yellow vapor of sodium, potassium, and iron simmering over it. Still, at least I can be sure it’s safe for the people who insist on having their beef well-done.

10,000 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 10000 Kelvin

You know, I should probably close the shutter over that porthole… It’s getting awfully bright in there. I’m pretty sure the roast hasn’t escaped, but truth be told, when I look in there, all I see is this screaming blue-white fog of ionized carbon. On the plus side, if I hurry up and buy a second roast, I can cook it with the light from the first one.

100,000 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 1e5 K.png

I think I’m starting to understand now why the oven’s window is more of a peephole. It’s only three inches across, but already I shouldn’t be able to stand in front of it without my legs evaporating. Actually, I shouldn’t be able to have the peephole open without my house exploding in a horrendous fireball. The oven’s emitting more power from radiant heat alone than the Three Gorges Dam. But I can hold my hand in front of the porthole, no problem. I think I’m starting to see why the department store I bought it from was called BS & Sons…

5,000,000 Kelvin

Overkill Oven 5e6 K.png

I don’t think I have the right to keep calling this thing a roast, do I? It’s really just a soup of highly-ionized carbon, oxygen, iron (from the myoglobin in the meat, and from what used to be my nice new roasting pan), nitrogen, sulfur, and trace metals. On the plus side, I’ve got my own pet solar flare now!

10,000,000 Kelvin

It’s not all bad news, though. The oven is now self-powering. All those hydrogen atoms that used to be part of things like fats, proteins and starches have long since evaporated into a searing plasma. Now, though, they’re colliding fast enough that they’re starting to fuse. Not only am I getting extra energy from this, but I’m making homemade helium, too! Cooking’s fun!

100,000,000 Kelvin

Well, I’ve gone and overdone it again. I burned up all the helium I just made! Now it’s gone and fused to make more carbon vapor. I should probably call somebody about this. Frankly, at this point, I’m afraid to turn the oven off. I mean, since the thermal conductivity is pretty much zero, it’s never going to cool down. And if I open the door, I’m going to release as much energy as detonating 30 tons of TNT. I think I’ll just wall off the kitchen and pretend none of this ever happened…

500,000,000 Kelvin

I am now essentially cooking my roast with a continuous nuclear explosion. Also, I’m pretty sure that, even if I managed to cool it down, not even a physicist with a mass-spectrometer would be able to identify what the roast used to be. That’s partly because, of course, it’s been thoroughly vaporized. But also, the carbon nuclei have started fusing to form weird stuff like neon. If you find an organism that likes to eat neon, send it my way. I’ve got a roast for it.

1,500,000,000 Kelvin

My oven now contains as much energy as a half-kiloton nuclear explosion. The oxygen nuclei are fusing to form things like phosphorus, magnesium, and silicon. If the peephole wasn’t made of pure handwavium crystal, it would be emitting more power (briefly) than the Sun.

3,000,000,000 Kelvin

The good news is that I got my roasting pan back, and then some! All the light atoms have pretty much fused into heavier elements, which have fused to form Nickel-56. If I opened the door, I would be violently vaporized, but after the fallout cooled, the Nickel-56 would decay into Cobalt-56 and then Iron-56, and I’d be able to re-cast my roasting pan!

12,000,000,000 Kelvin

All that brilliant blue-white death-light that filled the oven is finally starting to fade. The bad news is that that’s only fading because the thermal radiation is so intense that it’s actually spontaneously turning into matter and antimatter, forming electron-positron pairs. The other bad news is that I’ve lost my roasting pan again: the energy of the particles in the oven has exceeded the binding energy per nucleon of iron, which is the tightest-bound atomic nucleus. In other words, my stupid iron atoms are starting to melt and shed protons and neutrons. Oh well. Maybe I’ll make some really exotic elements and get them named after me. And if IUPAC won’t name them after me, I’ll threaten to open my death-oven, which has long since become a weapon of mass destruction.

5,900,000,000,000 Kelvin

By now, the iron nuclei should have melted. All I need to do is heat them a little more to get that nice gooey brown crust. Except, I just checked, and I’m pretty sure the protons and neutrons are also melting. It’s just a very thin soup of quarks and un-named nonsense particles in there. Just like the Standard Model, amirite? Sorry. I shouldn’t be joking about particle physicists. Actually, speaking of particle physicists, could somebody call one of them? Because I’ve got three kilograms of pure quark-gluon plasma that they’ll probably want to study. You know, if they’re obscenely brave and not concerned about the 1.9 megatons of thermal energy packed into my oven. To be fair, if the door was gonna fail, I’m pretty sure it would have done it by now.

I’m really glad I spent the extra money on the Handwavium Universe power connector. In the 15 minutes it took me to obliterate my roast and put the entire Earth in jeopardy, the oven was drawing 8,830 terawatts. I’ll have to check the electrical panel, but I’m pretty sure 37 billion amps is above the rating of the breaker for the kitchen. Now all I need to do is call BS & Sons customer service and see if there’s a way to dump what’s left of my roast back into the Handwavium Universe. I don’t think I’ll be hurting anything: the HU is way hotter than my oven can get. Actually, the HU is so hot that the laws of physics themselves are above their melting point.

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biology, math, science, short, statistics, thought experiment

Short: Immortality Math

There are people out there who are quite seriously trying to make human beings immortal. It sounds like something from a bad 1970s pulp comic, but it’s true. Of course, when serious people say “immortal,” they’re not talking Highlander. They’re talking biological immortality, sometimes called by fancy names like “negligible senescence”: the elimination of death by aging. Whether we can (or should) ever achieve biological immortality is a question I’ll leave to people smarter than me, but either way, biological immortality doesn’t mean full immortality. It just means that you can no longer die from, say, a heart attack or cancer or just generally wearing out. You can still quite easily die from things like falls, car accidents, or having Clancy Brown chop your head off with a sword.

There are a number of organisms out there which are either believed or known to be biologically immortal, or at the very least, nearly so. These include interesting but relatively simple organisms like hydras and jellyfish, but also more complex organisms like the bristlecone pine (many living specimens of which are confirmed to be over 1,000 years old, and one of which is over 5,000 years old), and the lobster. (Technically, though, the lobster isn’t really immortal, since they most molt to heal, and each molt takes more energy than the last, until the molts grow so energy-intensive they exhaust the lobster to death.) For the record, the oldest animal for which the age is well-established was a quahog clam named Ming Hafrun, who died at 507 years old when some Icelandic researchers plucked it out of the water.

If a human was made biologically immortal, how long could they expect to live before getting hit by a bus or falling down the stairs (or getting stabbed in the neck by Christopher Lambert)? That’s actually not too hard to estimate. According to the CDC (see Table 18), there were 62.6 injury-related deaths per 100,000 Americans, in 2014. With a bit of naive math (I’m not adjusting for things like age, which probably inflates that statistic a fair bit, since older people are at a higher risk of falls and similar) that means the probability of death by accident is 0.000626 per year, or roughly 0.06%. Knowing that, it’s almost trivial to compute the probability of surviving X years:

probability of surviving X years = (1 – 0.00626)^X

This formula is based on one of my favorite tricks in probability: to compute the probability of surviving, you do the obvious and convert that to the probability of not-dying. And you can take it one step further. At what age would 90% of a biologically-immortal group still be alive? All you have to do is solve this equation for N:

0.9 = (1- 0.00626)^N

which is no trouble for Wolfram Alpha a math genius like me: a biological immortal would have a 90% chance of surviving 168 years. Here are a few more figures:

  • A 75% probability of living up to 459 years.
  • A 50% probability of living up to 1,107 years.
  • A 25% probability of living up to 2,214 years.
  • A 10% probability of living up to 3,677 years.
  • A 5% probability of living up to 4,784 years.
  • A 1% probability of living up to 7,354 years.
  • A one-in-a-thousand chance of living 11,031 years.
  • A one-in-a-million chance of living 22,062 years.

For reference, the probability of a member of a population surviving (in the US, in 2012, including death by biological causes) doesn’t drop below 75% until around age 70. To put it in slightly annoying media jargon: if we’re biologically immortal, then 459 is the new 70.

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silly, thought experiment

Short: Zeno from Coast to Coast

There’s an old joke. A mathematician and an engineer die in a car crash and go up to Heaven. They meet Saint Peter up there, and he leads them to a mile-long hallway with a big pearly door with a gold handle at the other end. Saint Peter says “Both of you have done good things and evil things in your lives. To test if you’re inherently good-natured and worthy of getting into Heaven, I’m going to put you through a challenge. Whenever I sound my trumpet, you’re allowed to walk half the remaining distance to the door. If you get to the door, you can open it and go to Heaven. But if you move more than I tell you to, or try to cheat, you’ll go to Hell.”

The two guys confer for a second. The mathematician says “It’s a trick. We’re going to Hell anyway: no matter how many times you divide the distance in half, it’ll never be zero. We’ll never actually reach the door.”

They don’t get a chance to say anything else: Saint Peter sounds his trumpet. Both guys walk half a mile, to the middle of the hallway. The mathematician is getting antsy. Saint Peter sounds his trumpet again, and they walk a quarter-mile. He sounds it again: they walk an eighth of a mile. Again: 330 feet. Again: 165 feet. By now, the mathematician’s shaking and sweating and turning beet-red. The engineer starts to say something to him, but the mathematician screams and starts running back the way he came. He doesn’t get ten paces before a hole opens beneath him and he falls into a pit of fire and brimstone.

After Saint Peter’s sounded his trumpet ten times, the engineer’s only a foot or so from the door. He turns back and looks at Peter and says “Is it all right if I reach out and turn the handle?” Saint Peter says “Of course.” The engineer opens the door. On the other side is Heaven, full of angels on clouds and such. Saint Peter says “Well, you opened the door. Go ahead and walk through.” The engineer walks through Saint Peter goes with him and says “One warning, though: all our rulers are warped, our T-squares are crooked, and our compasses are made out of rubber.” The engineer thinks for a second and says “I see. Look, is it still possible for me to go to Hell? Have they got an opening?”

That joke is one of the many warped forms of Zeno’s Paradox. It should be impossible to reach any destination, since first you have to cover half the distance, and then you have to cover a quarter of the distance, and then an eighth, and so on, and you never actually arrive. Well, I’m going to take that literally. I’m going to imagine traveling from the west coast of the United States (specifically, from The Riptide bar and honky-tonk on Taraval and 47th, in San Francisco, California) to the east coast (specifically, to the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina). That’s a distance of 4,014 kilometers. I’m going to imagine covering that distance in the same fashion as in that joke: covering half the remaining distance each time. I’m going to move once every ten seconds.

1/2

I travel 2,007 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m traveling at about 201 kilometers per second, meaning I carve a ram-heated plasma trail through the air, setting a swath of the United States on fire as I travel. If I were human (which I’m clearly not, if I’m doing this kinda shit), I’d be pulped by the acceleration required to follow the curvature of the Earth at these speeds. I stop not too far from Dodge City, Kansas. Good thing I already have to move again, because I’m pretty sure there’s an angry mob gathering.

1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4

I travel 1,003.5 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m still setting fire to every object I pass, blinding bystanders, and knocking down trees and buildings with my shockwave. I’ve broken every window in Wichita, Kansas and Springfield, Missouri. I pause, momentarily, in the westernmost tip of Kentucky. If I were human, I’d still have been pulped by the acceleration.

1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 = 7/8

I travel just under 502 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m moving as fast as some of the fastest shooting stars, but at ground level. I’m wrecking everything I pass in a way the Chelyabinsk meteorite could only aspire to. My shockwave and fireball cause burns, injuries, and structural damage in Knoxville and Nashville. I scream over the Blue Ridge Mountains and stop just short of Asheville, North Carolina, which I’ve been to, and which is a nice town.

1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 = 5/16

I travel 251 kilometers this jump. The centripetal acceleration required to follow the curve of the Earth is an almost-survivable 10 gees. I’m still meteoric, though, blasting through Asheville, narrowly missing Gastonia, and ruining the lives of everyone in south Charlotte. I stop not far past Charlotte. I didn’t plan it this way, but I’ve visited my hometown on my accidental rampage.

31/32

I travel 125 kilometers. Still fast enough to cause a hell of a shockwave and probably a bit of a plasma trail, but now I’m only going as fast as a high-velocity railgun projectile. To stick to the Earth, I have to accelerate downwards at 2.5 gees, which is very much survivable, especially for only ten seconds. I stop not far north of Lumberton, North Carolina, which I’ve never visited, but I’ve heard is another nice little town. We’ve got a lot of those in North Carolina, actually. It’s kinda cool.

63/64

I travel roughly 63 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m moving at the speed of a very ambitious bullet. My centripetal acceleration is just over half a gee. I stop in a track of farmland with not much around me.

127/128

This jump covers 31 kilometers at the speed of a sniper-rifle bullet. My acceleration is 0.15 gees, which is the kind of acceleration people experience in cars on a regular basis. I’m not far outside the city limits of Wilmington, NC, in the woods between a church and a water treatment plant (according to Google Earth.)

255/256

I’m still moving like a bullet, covering 15.7 kilometers in 10 seconds. I stop over a river in Wilmington’s northern outskirts, near a drawbridge and what looks like an oil-tank complex.

511/512

I travel 7,839 meters in 10 seconds, which brings me down to the muzzle velocity of an ordinary handgun. I come to a stop on the roof of a Home Depot in Wilmington.

1023/1024

This jump is 3,920 meters at around Mach 1. I’m still probably bursting eardrums wherever I pass, but those newly-deaf people should count themselves lucky: there’s a lot of people burned to ash on the West Coast.

2047/2048

1,960 meters at the speed of an ordinary airplane. I stop in a marsh on the bank of the estuary that separates Wrightsville Beach from Wilmington. People are no longer being injured by my passage, but they’re probably pretty horrified to see a human being moving this fast. Plus, it’s been over a minute and 45 seconds since my accidental rampage began. That’s probably fast enough for people to post pictures of my path of destruction on Twitter.

4095/4096

I only travel 979.911 meters this time at an almost-sensible 219 mph (352 km/h). I manage to cross the estuary, although I’m still in the damn marsh, not yet to Wrightsville Beach. I stop near what, on Google Maps (on November 27th, 2016, anyway) looks like a horrifying half-mile long translucent river-worm:

Weird Thing in Wrightsville.png

Some may say it’s just a boat wake. I say they’re just blinding themselves to the truth that Big Google Data Brother Government Conspiracy (LLC) is trying to hide from the people. That’s what you’re supposed to say when you find weird shit in Google Earth, right?

8191/8192

I’m still going way over the posted speed limit as I cover the next 489.956 meters. Still stuck in this damned marsh, too.

16383/16384

A 244.978-meter jump at a sensible 54 mph (88 km/h). I’m starting to feel a little like the mathematician in the joke: all of a sudden, things are moving painfully slow.At least I’m out of the stupid marsh, and passing through a fairly pleasant-looking seaside housing development.

32767/32768

122.489 meters covered at a very pleasant 27 mph (44 kph). I’m almost within the ordinary residential speed limit! I’m only a block from the Holiday Inn, so tantalizingly close. I must persevere! I wanna be the engineer in the joke, not the mathematician! Hell sounds terrible!

65535/65536

A nice neat number. 2^16. 10000000000000000, in binary. I travel 61.244 meters. Less than the length of any sort of football field. I’m moving at 6.1 meters per second. A decent sprinter could manage that. Usain Bolt could most certainly manage that.

131071/131072

30.522 meters this time. I’m jogging across the parking lot, almost a literal stone’s throw from the Atlantic.

262143/262144

15.311 meters covered this jump, and 15.311 left to go. I can look into the windows of the Holiday Inn, and see all the employees on their phones reading about the carnage in California.

524287/524288

7.656 meters. A man passing me in the Holiday Inn parking lot wonders why I’m walking so damn slow.

1048575/1048576

3.828 meters. I’m walking at less than 1 mile per hour, which feels really weird when I do it in real life. I’m starting to regret many decisions. Plus, people are starting to get suspicious of me.

2097151/2097152

1.914 meters left to go. If I fell flat on my face (which is starting to seem like a good idea…), my head would push the front door open.

1 – 2^(-22)

Less than a meter to go. As I stand almost within arm’s reach of the hotel’s front door, people are giving me looks usually reserved for those who start talking about lizard people at bus stops.

1 – 2^(-23)

Half a meter. Finally–finally–I can reach out and push the door open. And thus, my bizarre trip comes to an end. I’ve covered 4,013,716.5 meters in about 3 minutes and 45 seconds. I’ve killed many, many people and injured countless others. There will be an investigation. Even though this isn’t exactly the sort of thing the FBI is used to, they’ll probably do their damndest to figure out just who or what set the west coast on fire, smashed millions of windows, and made a sonic boom over North Carolina. There’s probably enough security camera evidence to find me. Until then, I’ll just catch some sun on Wrightsville Beach.

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physics, Space, thought experiment

Hypothetical Nightmares | Black Holes, Part 3

Imagine taking all the mass in the Milky Way (estimated to be around a trillion solar masses) and collapsing it into a black hole. The result wouldn’t be an ordinary black hole. Not even to astrophysicists, for whom all sorts of weird shit is ordinary.

The largest black hole candidate is the black hole at the center of the quasar S5 0014+813, estimated at 40 billion solar masses. In other words, almost a hundred times smaller than our hypothetical hole. As I said last time, as far as astronomical objects go, black holes are a fairly comfortable size. Even the largest don’t get much bigger than a really large star. Here, though, is how big our trillion-sun black hole would be, if we replaced the sun with it:

Galaxy Mass Black Hole.png

(Rendered in Universe Sandbox 2.)

The thing circled in orange is the black hole. When I started tinkering with the simulation, I was kinda hoping there’d be one or two dwarf planets outside the event horizon, so their orbits could at least offer a sense of scale. No such luck: the hole has a Schwarzschild radius of 0.312 light-years, which reaches well into the Oort cloud. That is, the galaxy-mass black hole’s event horizon alone would extend beyond the heliopause, and would therefore reach right into interstellar space. Proxima Centauri, around 4.2 light-years from Earth, is circled in white.

The immediate neighborhood around a black hole like this would be rough. We’re talking “feral children eating the corpse of a murder victim while two garbagemen fight to the death with hatchets over who gets to empty the cans on this street” kind of rough. That kinda neighborhood. No object closer than half a light-year would actually be able to orbit the hole: it would either have to fall into the hole or fly off to infinity.

That is, of course, if the hole isn’t spinning. As I said last time, you can orbit closer to a spinning hole. But I’m going to make a leap here and say that our galaxy-mass black hole isn’t likely to be spinning very fast. Some rough calculations suggest that, if it were rotating at half the maximum speed,the rotational kinetic energy alone would have several billion times the mass of the sun. I’m going to assume there’s not enough angular momentum in the galaxy to spin a hole up that much. I could be wrong. Let me know in the comments.

Spin or no spin, it’s gonna be a rough ride anywhere near the hole. Atoms orbiting at the innermost stable orbit (the photon sphere) are moving very close to the speed of light, and therefore, to them, the ambient starlight and cosmic microwave background ahead of them is blue-shifted and aberrated into a horrifying violet death-laser, while the universe behind is red-shifted into an icy-cold nothingness.

But, as we saw last time, once you get outside a large hole’s accretion disk, things settle down a lot. When it comes to gravity and tides, ultra-massive black holes like these are gentle giants. You could hover just outside the event horizon by accelerating upwards at 1.5 gees, which a healthy human could probably tolerate indefinitely, and which is very much achievable with ordinary rocket engines. The tides are no problem, even right up against the horizon. They’re measured in quadrillionths of a meter per second per meter.

Of course, if you’re hovering that close to a trillion-solar-mass black hole, you’re still going to die horribly. Let’s say your fuel depot is orbiting a light-year from the hole’s center, and they’re dropping you rocket fuel in the form of frozen blocks of hydrogen and oxygen. By the time they reach you, those blocks are traveling at a large fraction of the speed of light, and will therefore turn into horrifying thermonuclear bombs if you try to catch them.

But, assuming its accretion disk isn’t too big and angry, a hole this size could support a pretty pleasant galaxy. The supermassive black hole suspected to lie at the center of the Milky Way makes up at about 4.3 parts per million of the Milky Way’s mass. If the ratio were the same for our ultra-massive hole, then it could host around 200 quadrillion solar masses’ worth of stars, or, in more fun units, 80,000 Milky Ways. Actually, it might not be a galaxy at all: it might be a very tightly-packed supercluster of galaxies, all orbiting a gigantic black hole. A pretty little microcosm of the universe at large. Kinda. All enclosed within something like one or two million light-years. A weird region of space where intergalactic travel might be feasible with fairly ordinary antimatter rockets.

You’ll notice that I’ve skipped an important question: Are there any trillion-solar-mass black holes in the universe? Well, none that we know of. But unlike some of the other experiments to come in this article, black holes this size aren’t outside the realm of possibility.

I frequently reference a morbid little cosmology paper titled A Dying Universe. If you’re as warped as I am, you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s a good read, extrapolating, based on current physics, what the universe will be like up to 10^100 years in the future (which they call cosmological decade 100). If you couldn’t guess by the title, the news isn’t good. A hundred trillion years from now (Cosmological Decade 14), so much of the star-forming stuff in galaxies will either be trapped as stellar corpses or will have evaporated into intergalactic space that new stars will stop forming. The galaxies will go dark, and the only stars that shine will be those formed by collisions between high-mass brown dwarfs. By CD 30 (a million trillion trillion years from now), gravitational encounters between stars in the galaxy will have given all the stars either enough of a forward kick to escape altogether, or enough of a backward kick that they fall into a tight orbit around the central black hole. Eventually, gravitational radiation will draw them inexorably into the black hole. By CD 30, the local supercluster of galaxies will consist of a few hundred thousand black holes of around ten billion solar masses, along with a bunch of escaping rogue stars. By this time, the only source of light will be very occasional supernovae resulting from the collisions of things like neutron stars and white dwarfs. Eventually, the local supercluster will probably do what the galaxy did: the lower-mass black holes will get kicked out by the slingshot effect, and the higher-mass ones will coalesce into a super-hole that might grow as large as a few trillion solar masses. Shame that everything in the universe is pretty much dead, so no cool super-galaxies can form. But the long and the short of it is that such a hole isn’t outside the realm of possibility, although you and I will never see one.

The Opposite Extreme

But what about really tiny black holes? In the first post in this series, I talked about falling into a black hole with the mass of the Moon. But what about even smaller holes?

Hobo Sullivan is a Little Black Pinhole

Yeah, I feel like that sometimes. I mass about 131 kilograms (unfortunately; I’m working on that). If, by some bizarre accident (I’m guessing the intervention of one of those smart-ass genies who twist your wishes around and ruin your shit), I was turned into a black hole, I’d be a pinprick in space far, far smaller than a proton. And then, within a tenth of a nanosecond, I would evaporate by Hawking radiation (if it exists; we’re still not 100% sure). When a black hole is this small, Hawking radiation is nasty shit. It would have a temperature of a hundred million trillion degrees, and I’d go off like four Tsar Bombas, releasing over 200 megatons of high-energy radiation. Not enough to destroy the Earth, but enough to ruin the year for the inhabitants of a medium-sized country.

There’s no point in trying to work out things like surface tides or surface gravity: I’d be gone so fast that, in the time between my becoming a black hole and my evaporation, a beam of light would have traveled a foot or two. Everything around me is as good as stationary for my brief lifetime.

A Burial Fit for a Pharaoh. Well, for a weird pharaoh.

Things change dramatically once black holes get a little bigger. A hole with the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza (around 6 billion kilograms) would take half a million years to evaporate. It would still be screaming-hot: we’re talking trillions of Kelvin, which is hot enough that nearby matter will vaporize, turn to plasma, the protons and neutrons will evaporate out of nuclei, and then the protons and neutrons themselves will melt into a quark-gluon soup. But, assuming the black hole is held in place exactly where the pyramid once stood, we won’t see that. We’ll only see a ball of plasma and incandescent air the size of a university campus or a big football stadium, throbbing and booming and setting fire to everything for a hundred kilometers in every direction. The Hawking radiation wouldn’t inject quite enough energy to boil the planet, but it would probably be enough (combined with things like the fact that it’s setting most of Egypt on fire) to spoil the climate in the long run.

This isn’t an issue if the black hole is where black holes belong: the vacuum of space. Out there, the hole won’t gobble up Earth matter and keep growing until it destroys us. Instead, it’ll keep radiating brighter and brighter until it dies in a fantastic explosion, much like the me-mass black hole did.

Can’t you just buy a space heater like a normal person?

It’s starting to get cold here in North Carolina. Much as I love the cold, I’ve been forced to turn my heater on. But, you know, electric heating is kinda inefficient, and this house isn’t all that well insulated. I wonder if I could heat the house using Hawking radiation instead…

Technically, yes. Technically in the sense of “Yeah, technically the equations say yes.” Technically in the same way that you could technically eat 98,000 bacon double cheeseburgers at birth and then go on a 75-year fast, because technically, that averages out to 2,000 Calories per day. What I mean is that while the numbers say you can, isolated equations never take into account all the other factors that make this a really terrible idea.

A black hole with the mass of a very large asteroiod (like Ceres, Vesta, or Pallas) would produce Hawking radiation at a temperature of 500 Kelvin, which is probably too hot to cook with, but cool enough not to glow red-hot. That seems like a sensible heat source. Except for the fact that, as soon as you let it go, it’s going to fall through the floor, gobble up everything within a building-sized channel, and convert that everything into superheated plasma by frictional effects as it falls into the hole. And except for the fact that if you’re in the same neighborhood as the hole, you’ll simultaneously be pulled into it at great speed by its gravity, and pulled apart into a bloody mass of fettuccine by tidal forces. And except for the fact that, as the black hole orbits inside the Earth, it’s going to open up a kilometer-wide tunnel around it and superheat the rock, which will cause all sorts of cataclysmic seismic activity, and ultimately, the Earth will either collapse into the hole, or be blasted apart by the luminosity of the forming accretion disk, or some combination thereof.

Back to the Original Extreme

But there’s one more frontier we haven’t explored. (I was watching Star Trek yesterday.) That is: the biggest black hole we can reasonably (well, semi-reasonably) imagine existing. That’s a black hole with a mass of around 1 x 10^52 kilograms: a black hole with the mass of the observable universe. Minus the mass of the Earth and the Sun, which make less of a dent in that number than stealing a penny makes a dent in Warren Buffett’s bank account.

The hole has a Schwarzschild radius of about 1.6 billion light-years, which is a good fraction of the radius of the observable universe. Not that the observable universe matters much anymore: all the stuff that was out there is stuck in a black hole now.

For the Earth and Sun, though, things don’t change very much (assuming you set them at a modest distance from the hole). After all, even light needs over 10 billion years to circumnavigate a hole this size. Sure, the Earth and Sun will be orbiting the hole, rather than the former orbiting the latter, but since we’re dealing with gravitational accelerations less than 3 nanometers per second per second, and tides you probably couldn’t physically measure (4e-34 m/s/m at the horizon, and less further out, which falls into the realm of the Planck scale), life on Earth would probably proceed more or less as normal. The hole can’t inflict any accretion-disk horror on the Sun and Earth: there’s nothing left to accrete. Here on Earth, we’d just be floating for all eternity, living our lives, but with a very black night sky. If we ever bothered to invent radio astronomy, we’d probably realize there was a gigantic something in the sky, since plasma from the Sun would escape and fall into a stream orbiting around the hole, but we’d never see it. What a weird world that would be…

Then again, if the world’s not weird by the end of one of my articles, then I’m really not doing my job…

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