While mass media was busy misquoting Stephen Hawking and arguing about black holes, astrophysicists have been hard at work trying to solve still unanswered questions about them. Now a team has not only proven that a supermassive black hole exists in a place where it isn’t supposed to be, but in doing so have opened a new door to what things were like in the early universe.
The quintessential feature of a black hole is its “point of no return,” or what is more technically called its event horizon, yes just like the movie. When anything—a star, a particle, or wayward human—crosses this horizon, the black hole’s massive gravity pulls it in with such force that it is impossible to escape. At least, this is what happens in traditional black hole models based on general relativity. In general, the existence of this event horizon is responsible for most of the strange phenomena associated with black holes.
Black holes suck. Nothing can escape a black hole, not even light, which is why they are “black”. They are also an interesting bit of physics. Normally “classical” physics applies to things that are large enough to see [and even things that you can’t in some cases]. Conversely quantum mechanics deals with the “unseen”, atoms and their interactions. That is normally the end of the story, never shall the two meet.
In fact, because there is no clearly defined line between the quantum and the classical, there has been trouble blending the two theories. Which is unfortunate in that there are a few specific examples where the quantum world and the classical world collide, one of them just happens to be black holes.