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Black Holes

  • Date Submitted: 10/06/2010 11:56 AM
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The term black hole is of very recent origin. It was coined in 1969 by the American scientist John Wheeler as a graphic
description of an idea that goes back at least two hundred years, to a time when there were two theories about light:
one, which Newton favored, was that it was composed of particles; the other was that it was made of waves. We now
know that really both theories are correct. By the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics, light can be regarded as
both a wave and a particle. Under the theory that light is made up of waves, it was not clear how it would respond to
gravity. But if light is composed of particles, one might expect them to be affected by gravity in the same way that
cannonballs, rockets, and planets are. At first people thought that particles of light traveled infinitely fast, so gravity
would not have been able to slow them down, but the discovery by Roemer that light travels at a finite speed meant that
gravity might have an important effect.
On this assumption, a Cambridge don, John Michell, wrote a paper in 1783 in the Philosophical Transactions of the
Royal Society of London in which he pointed out that a star that was sufficiently massive and compact would have such
a strong gravitational field that light could not escape: any light emitted from the surface of the star would be dragged
back by the star’s gravitational attraction before it could get very far. Michell suggested that there might be a large
number of stars like this. Although we would not be able to see them because the light from them would not reach us,
we would still feel their gravitational attraction. Such objects are what we now call black holes, because that is what
they are: black voids in space. A similar suggestion was made a few years later by the French scientist the Marquis de
Laplace, apparently independently of Michell. Interestingly enough, Laplace included it in only the first and second
editions of his book The System of the...


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