estimated to be more than 3 million times as massive as the Sun. Its Schwarzschild radius is thought to stretch out almost 5 million miles—or 11 times the radius of the Sun.

Variations in size would have major impact for our trapped astronauts. A small black hole would almost immediately crush them—offering them not even a moment’s respite to contemplate their fate. If, on the other hand, they were “lucky” enough to fall into a large black hole, they would have ample time to soak in their surroundings—a flood of lethal radiation—while taking a gut-wrenching plunge to its center. As they sank into the abyss, tidal forces would stretch them out along their path of motion while squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste in the other directions. In either case, quick or slow, the ultimate result would be a complete pulverization of every molecule in the astronauts’ bodies.

One is reminded of the scene in the film Arsenic and Old Lace, when mad Dr. Einstein (played by Peter Lorre) decries his cohort’s decision to apply slow torture instead of quick murder to the captured protagonist (played by Cary Grant). The trembling plastic surgeon begs his coconspirator to just get the killing over with. “Not the Melbourne method!” he pleads to no avail. “Two hours!” Nevertheless, the choice of a two-hour technique offers the leading character precious time to be rescued.

Given sufficient time, could astronauts find a way to escape a black hole’s crushing singularity? That would depend on whether a highly theoretical conjecture about such objects turns out to be true.

PORTALS TO THE UNKNOWN

On the face of it, a black hole represents a one-way journey to a crushing death. But that’s just the classical picture. According to quantum notions, captured material does slowly leak out—in a trickle of energy, called Hawking radiation, that exudes from the event horizon over the course of trillions of years. Whether or not



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement