Occasionally, when a star explodes, its field of gravity will cause that star’s remains to collapse in upon itself, in a world-shaking cascade of unstoppable force and motion.
With relentless and self-destructive inertia, such implosions will then continue inward until the very atoms they’re made up of cave in and crumple. If a star is large enough — that is, at least triple the size of our sun — it may continue imploding until it becomes so dense that it ceases to be at all, that it starts to be something else, nothing else — a black hole.
“Black holes, as we understand them today, comprise almost entirely empty space,” wrote physicist Jim Al-Khalili in Black Holes, Wormholes & Time Machines. “In fact they are literally holes in space, inside which the properties of space and time are completely altered.”
In a black hole, there is only gravity, rushing everything nearby and everything inside to a single unseen point of unbearable density. Any star or asteroid or anything that comes too near a black hole has its every atom torn into microscopic shreds, instantaneously rearranged and compacted, and perhaps — some scientists suggest — whisked away to another place, in the form of a collection of random particles.
In the Milky Way alone, it’s estimated that there are more than ten million black holes, hidden among the darkness between stars. At the Milky Way’s center, scientists believe that there is what is called a “supermassive black hole,” a black hole as many as tens of billions of times larger than our sun, a black hole around which our entire four-hundred-billion-star galaxy revolves. There are even some black holes that move, propelled through space by the force of exploding stars, quietly devouring everything in their paths and growing. Astronomers noted one such rogue black hole in the Milky Way in 2002, moving at almost 250,000 miles-per-hour in our direction, and another much larger one, farther off, in 2005.
Perhaps the most surprising place to find a black hole, however, would be right here, in New Mexico.
In Albuquerque, at Sandia National Laboratories, in and beneath a nondescript, flat-roofed compound, scientists have created an amazing piece of technology they call the Z Machine. Inside the Z Machine, power is discreetly siphoned from the city and drawn into concentric circles of enormous generators. Electricity from these numerous generators is then shot through switches, hurled into a vacuum chamber, torn across a vein-like network of fine steel filaments, and blasted from every side into a minuscule space barely as big as a spool of thread. There, the machine’s over-twenty-million amps of electricity slam to a sudden, violent, fiery halt, and there, for an instant, that tiny space can get hotter than the inside of the sun, and there, in the moment that follows, that captive little star collapses in on itself, in much the same way that black holes are formed.
“The world’s first man-made black hole [has been] created in a lab,” read a December 2, 2006 notice in the news section of Craigslist.com. “[A] photograph was taken at 1/100,000 of a second after the initial implosion. The black hole was contained four seconds thereafter in a vacuum chamber so it could not suck in the Sandias and New Mexico.”
Other mentions of this alleged occurence are scattered all across the Internet, and the idea of a miniature black hole, a manmade black hole — roiling, pitch-dark and deep, in the Duke City’s suburbs — is certainly an intriguing one. The truth, however, is that such a thing has never happened.
“It’s true,” said Neal Singer, the Z Machine’s media contact. “That’s not right”—and he quickly explained where the confusion may have come from.
Singer said, “When the Z Machine fires, there is a radiation pattern that it produces that is similar to that around black holes and neutron stars.”
Scientists are able to subject tiny pieces of iron to this radiation, and learn a lot about the effects of black holes and neutron stars—stars formed by even larger stars that have collapsed in on themselves—but they aren’t currently able to create actual black holes. They’re only able to impersonate certain of their effects.
“We can’t build [a black hole] on Earth,” Singer said. “Check back in a hundred years.”
With increasing power since the late 1990s, though, the Z Machine has nevertheless accomplished some unbelievable and unprecedented things. It’s given scientists the chance to study the effects of intense radiation without having to detonate nuclear bombs. It’s melted diamonds into puddles. And it’s taken scientists thrillingly close to harnessing the power of fusion — a clean, limitless, almost miraculous power.
Someday, it may even change our lives forever — or, perhaps, end them.
It’s admittedly a very remote possibility, but if the Z Machine ever did manage to create an actual black hole, and if that black hole could be large enough that it wouldn’t immediately evaporate in a flash of radiation, then that black hole might just destroy the planet.
“If you were to play back the tape of what went wrong very slowly, you would see something very peculiar,” says Exitmundi.nl, a website devoted to unique end-of-the-world scenarios. “Suddenly you would see the Earth deform. Obviously, not a very good sign. Our planet is flattened out to become a disk. Beams of radiation shoot out from where the poles used to be. And then, zzzp, the planet’s gone.”
And that would be it, the end — not just of life on Earth, but of the Earth itself.
And it would be brought to you by New Mexico.