Matter | Pages 106-107

A Destructive Dance

Among the more lethal pairings in the cosmos is a binary star system in which one member has become a black hole. One such system, in the area of the constellation Cygnus, is an x-ray source known as Cygnus X-1, discovered in the early 1970s. The visible member of the pair is a blue supergiant with a mass about 30 times greater than the Sun. Stars of this type would not ordinarily emit x-rays, but studies show that hot gas from the star is flowing toward an unseen companion. Other analysis suggests that the x-ray-emitting region is an accretion disk formed when matter from the supergiant is drawn into the rotating black hole.

Black holes in space are perhaps as far removed as possible from tangible experience. But what if a black hole were somehow to appear in an Earthly urban setting? As depicted here, even earthquake-proof buildings wouldn't stand a chance. Drawn inexorably toward the invisible gravitational maw, New York's Empire State Building would accelerate to near the speed of light, stretching until it fractured in the warped and twisted fabric of space-time before descending through the blackness of the event horizon.