When giants warped the universe

The discovery that massive black holes existed billions of years earlier than thought possible is forcing a major rethink about galactic origins. Graham Phillips reports.

They don't make them like they used to: supermassive black holes emerged billions of years earlier than thought.
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They gobble stars, bend space, warp time and may even provide gateways to other universes.

Black holes fire the imagination of scientists and science-fiction aficionados alike. But at least one thing about them wasn’t all that mind-bending: we’ve long understood black holes to be the end point in the life of a big star, when it runs out of fuel and collapses on itself.

However, in recent times astronomers have been confronted with a paradox: gigantic black holes that existed when the universe was less than a billion years old.

Since average-sized black holes take many billions of years to form, astrophysicists have been scratching their heads to figure out how these monsters could have arisen so early. It now seems that rather than being the end game in the evolution of stars and galaxies, supermassive black holes were around at their beginnings and played a major role in shaping them.

It was the little known English clergyman and scientist John Michell who, in 1783, first articulated the idea of “dark stars” whose gravity was so great they would prevent light from escaping them. The concept was astonishingly prescient even if parts of his theory – particularly those based on Newton’s idea that light particles had mass – were flawed.

The first accurate description of black holes came in 1916 from German physicist and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild. Schwarzschild was serving in the German Army at the time, despite already being over 40 years of age.

After seeing action on both the western and eastern fronts, Schwarzschild was sent home due to a serious auto-immune skin disease, pemphigus.

It was late 1915 and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity had just been published. Inspired, Schwarzschild lost no time writing a paper that predicted the existence of black holes; it was published just months before he succumbed to his disease in May 1916.

According to Einstein’s theory, the force of gravity was the result of a mass distorting the fabric of space-time. In the same way that a bowling ball dimples the fabric of a trampoline, a star’s mass dimpled the space-time fabric of its system, keeping planets circling around it.

The theory was underpinned by equations laying out the interaction of energy, mass, space and time. Schwarzschild’s achievement was to apply Einstein’s equations to a simplified scenario: a perfectly spherical star. One of the things that jumped out of his mathematical musings was an object with such a strong gravitational pull that not even light could escape it.

While Schwarzschild’s idea made sense in the theoretical realm of mathematics, most physicists did not expect to find an exemplar in the real universe.

By the 1960s, however, expectations were changing. Astronomers discovered the existence of extremely dense objects known as neutron stars. Detected by their unusual pulsing of electromagnetic radiation, they were the dense corpses of large stars that had exhausted their fuel. Without the force of the burning fuel pushing against their own gravity, they collapsed, compressing their matter until only the pressure of neutron against neutron halted the crush.

Neutron stars got astrophysicists thinking back to Schwarzschild’s idea. What happens when really big suns with even stronger gravity cave in? All the matter would be squeezed down to a point with an extraordinarily strong gravitational field.

Sometime in the 1960s, physicists coined the term “black hole”, and the hunt for something more than just a mathematical artefact was on.

The first evidence that black holes weren’t just theoretical came in 1964, when a rocket decked with sensitive instruments was shot into sub-orbital space. It detected suspicious X-rays emanating from the constellation of Cygnus (the swan).

The X-ray source became known as Cygnus X-1. By the early 1970s most astronomers inferred the X-rays were radiated by super-heated matter being sucked into the gravitational field of the black hole. It would take decades more, however, before the first conclusive evidence that black holes exist and obey Einstein’s equations of general relativity.

This came in September 2015 with the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States. These ripples in the fabric of space-time had been generated by two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago. Theorists had predicted that if such a titanic event occurred somewhere in our galaxy, the reverberations should be measurable on Earth.

LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves thus also confirmed the existence of black holes. Yet even as the evidence that black holes truly exist has firmed up, our understanding of how they arise seems to be crumbling.

The cracks in the theory grew gradually as astronomers accumulated evidence for the existence of a very different kind of black hole. While most black holes have a mass that is equivalent to 10-100 times that of our Sun, these monsters were equivalent to a million or a billion solar masses. With typical prosaicness, astronomers dubbed them supermassive black holes.

Unlike smaller black holes, they also resided at the centres of galaxies. Most surprising of all, far-reaching telescopes like the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope detected them in extremely distant galaxies.

Because of the extreme length of time it takes for their light to reach Earth, these galaxies provide snapshots of the universe in its infancy.

“A billion years after the big bang you have black holes that are as massive as the biggest black holes we find around us today,” says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University.

That simply doesn’t make sense according to the accepted understanding that black holes come only at the end of a star’s life. “It’s sort of like going to the delivery room in a hospital and finding giant babies.”

Were these monster babies the result of many black holes colliding? Or did they arise from moderately sized black holed that ballooned by feeding on gas and other stars? Neither of these scenarios sits well with astrophysicists.

“Getting from even a hundred solar masses up to several billion solar masses in less than a billion years is quite challenging,” says Mitch Begelman, an astrophysicist from the University of Colorado. “Black holes are not vacuum cleaners. That’s a popular misconception. It’s very difficult to get a black hole to swallow lots of stuff [in a short period of time].”

Loeb, who has been captivated by supermassive black holes since he got into astrophysics, thinks he might have a solution to the mystery: in 1994, he came up with the idea that a different kind of process gave birth to black holes in the early universe.

In the modern universe, a black hole takes billions of years to form. The black hole’s precursor star (which must be greater than 10 solar masses to muster the required gravitational force) must first burn through its fuel, then explode as a supernova before it collapses.

But while the biggest stars today reach the size of 300 solar masses, the early universe might have blazed with stars equivalent to as much as a million solar masses. Such a super star, according to Loeb’s calculations, would burn so feverishly it would use up its fuel in just a million years.

Then it would collapse directly into a black hole a million times the mass of the Sun – what Loeb calls “a direct collapse black hole”.

According to Loeb, the reason super stars were formed only in the embryonic universe, is because back then stars were made of simpler stuff: “The gas was pristine. It came from the big bang and had only hydrogen and helium,” he explains.

Lacking heavier elements to radiate heat, the clouds stayed relatively warm. That allowed them to grow without fragmenting, forming super stars.

By contrast, in today’s universe star dust contains heavy atoms like carbon, silicon and oxygen – forged in the nuclear furnaces of the first generation of stars and blown throughout the cosmos when those stars exploded.

As result, modern-day dust clouds can cool to extremely low temperatures and fragment, mostly forming stars about the size of the Sun.

If Loeb is right, early super stars gave rise to the direct collapsers, which gave rise to supermassive black holes. These monsters have had an enormous influence on how the universe evolved. They shaped galaxies in two ways.

First, they gobbled up clouds and stars in their immediate vicinity. Second, like some cosmic air blower, they beamed out jets of energy that propelled dust and gas out of their galaxy.

“Within tens of millions of years the black holes can remove the gas from the host galaxy,” Loeb says. By cleaning the galaxy of the raw material for star creation and growth, the black holes have capped the size of galaxies.

If not for the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, Loeb estimates, our galaxy could have grown a thousand times bigger than it is today. That would be some night sky to look up at.

“The growth of black holes seems to be a crucial element in galaxy formation,” Begelman agrees. “Galaxies would look very different if there weren’t these black holes.”

Of course, the absolute proof that direct collapse black holes exist will come when one is observed.

In the past year astronomers have seen some tantalising clues. One is a galaxy known as CR7, which hosts a source of light much brighter than its stars – perhaps the radiation caused by a black hole sucking in gas.

“You see evidence for a galaxy that has mainly hydrogen and helium,” Loeb says. “That could potentially be the birthplace of a direct collapse black hole.”

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Graham Phillips has a PhD in astrophysics and is the host of ABC TV’s science programme Catalyst.