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Bode's Galaxy (M81, left) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82) in Ursa Major are thought to harbor black holes.
Credit: Panther Observatory, Johannes Schedler



BlackMax and Black Arts
Oct 23, 2009

Black holes are undetectable by any instrument, so a computer simulation has been created for the Large Hadron Collider to act as a substitute for observations.

"Our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. Our scientific temper is devout."
--- William James

It is said that in the deepest reaches of space live electromagnetic monsters whose sole duty in the cosmic hegemony is to devour matter and inertia, sucking it down into an infinitely deep maw that masticates space as well, crushing it until nothing, not even a memory remains. Those fantastic, insatiable colossi, inhabiting the most frightening dreams of existence, are known as black holes.

Black holes begin their demon-lives as big innocent stars, tumbling along in their galactic nurseries with no indication that they will eventually become infected with attributes that will turn them into gluttonous fiends, consuming their neighbors and blasting out sterilizing beams of radiation that are capable of destroying worlds.

Pulses of high-frequency gamma rays, beams of intense ultraviolet light, and belches of explosive energy that span the breadth of the Universe are said to mark their mordant habitations, while gravitational forces beyond our ability to measure, or conceive, exert their might on the tensile strength of time itself, twisting it into a hopelessly tangled Möebius knot, where past and future have no meaning.

What could cause mere stars, said to be commonly born from nebular progenitors, to suddenly take on a terrible aspect and become the dark monsters of astronomy? According to the modern science of astrophysics, it is gravity that exerts its influence on the stellar mob and leads some of them down paths of ferocity. That mild-mannered agency of succor, that gentle-seeming impetus, holding matter in place and permitting Mother Earth to clasp us close and cover us with her life-giving atmospheric blanket, can assume another face and another affect.

Gravity also possesses a fiendish visage, along with a might that can overcome all other forces and all resistance, even the most compacted and rigid material that our imaginations can create. Gravity can pull inward so violently that no outward repulsion prevents it from compressing large stars down to points of zero volume and infinite mass—computational entities sometimes described as "singularities" by astrophysicists.

Gothic descriptions notwithstanding, a singularity is a point where some factor in an equation becomes infinite, while another factor approaches zero. For example:

Lim 1/x = ∞

This is the classic problem of dividing by zero. When factor "x" drops to nothing, dividing 1 by the limiting factor produces an infinite result. Most children are taught in elementary school that dividing by zero is not proper numerical manipulation.

Instead, a flight into the mathematical fantasy of General Relativity was required, where master calculators allowed black holes to become the reified monstrosities that so enamor modern cosmologists and astrophysicists. Cosmologists use the singularity product to describe conditions that existed before the Big Bang, while astrophysicists use it to overcome almost any problem that appears in galaxy studies.

Galaxies spin too fast for a certain theory? There must be a black hole hiding somewhere inside, providing additional, unseen gravitational power. Galaxies emit tremendous quantities of light energy or cosmic rays? There has to be a black hole inside the core, sending out light-years long jets because matter is being compressed and superheated before it falls down into infinite darkness. What else could it be?

Due to the inherent difficulties associated with black hole observations in space—not even light can escape their putative event horizons—Case Western Reserve University physicists have turned to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as a possible means for detecting and studying black holes. It is hoped that full-scale operation of the LHC will generate enough power for protons to collide, releasing particles into the ATLAS detector.

ATLAS acts like a camera, documenting the many different entities that are predicted to erupt from the proton-proton collisions inside the LHC. A software algorithm known as BlackMax is supposed to simulate the particles that will be detected when hypothetical "microscopic black holes" are formed by the fragmented protons. LHC physicists hope that BlackMax will provide an indication of how those particles will be distributed should black holes form in the collider.

Of course, BlackMax, being a computer simulation, is constructed along theoretical lines. A theory of particle distribution was first proposed, then those theoretical parameters were incorporated into the software program. Theoreticians hope that, along with the Standard Model of particle physics, BlackMax will enable them to figure out if the isotropic spray of proton collision fragments conforms to how black holes are supposed to behave when they fall apart.

The zealous attempt to confirm the existence of black holes appears to have no bounds. No expense is too great, no imaginary construct is too ironic, and no machine is too large for mathematicians to use. The desperate search for that which can neither be seen nor felt has little in the way of governing principles.

One of the greatest ironies in the LHC black hole study is that the physicists are forcing units of positive charge together. In other words, they are generating a beam of electricity, splitting it, and then sending it back on itself as if it were a collection of little balls instead of a waveform. They then analyze what they believe are even tinier little balls that are somehow contained within the particles, as if they are components within a shell. Instead of streams of charge potential, the ATLAS detector is supposed to be collecting images of the tiny pieces of proton as they whizz by.

This example of ironic science—that is, science based on mathematical principles that can only be tested indirectly according to abstract theory—is doomed to failure from an empirical standpoint. No concrete, pragmatic data will be revealed; instead a self-fulfilling prophecy is all that will arise.

If BlackMax proves to be useless, all that is necessary is to write another program that will simulate foregone conclusions with greater attention to detail. This may be done any number of times until the data matches the theory closely enough. The physicists can then announce that black holes have been detected and they act like thus and such. Another announcement might be that the particles seen by ATLAS confirm the theory of how they should be distributed, therefore the theory must be correct. Regardless of the outcome, it is sure to be an exercise in circular reasoning and affirmation of the consequent.

Stephen Smith



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