By now, unless you have been living under a flat rock somewhere, you have probably seen an image of a black hole. This image seems to be in just about as many media outlets as possible, so you know what the black hole and its environs look like, right? Not necessarily. But, you say, you have seen a photograph. Well, actually, no you haven’t. That system is so far away that to get the necessary resolution you need to gather light over a very wide array, so the image was obtained from a very large number of radio telescopes and the image was reconstructed by a sequence of mathematical processes. Nevertheless, the black sphere and the ring will represent fairly accurately part of what is there.
No radiation can escape from a black hole so the black bit in the middle is fair, however the image as presented gives no idea of its size. Its radius is about 19 billion km, which is a little under five times the distance from the sun to Pluto. This is really a monster. Ever wondered what happens to photons that are emitted at right angles to the gravitational field? Well, at 28 billion km or thereabouts they go into orbit around the black hole and would do that for an infinite time unless they get absorbed by dust falling in. The bright stuff you see is outside the rotating photons, and is travelling clockwise at about half light speed.
The light is obviously not orange and the signals were received as radio waves, but when emitted they would be extremely high energy photons. We see them as radio waves because they have lost that much energy climbing out of the black hole’s gravitational field. One way of looking at this is to think of light as a wave. The more energy the light has, the greater the frequency of wave crests passing by. As the energy lowers due to gravity lowering the energy of the light, the wave gets “stretched” and the number of crests passing by lowers. At the edge of the black hole the wave is so stretched it takes an infinite amount of time for a second crest to appear, which means no light can escape. Just outside the event horizon the gravity is not quite strong enough to stop it, but a gamma ray wave might take 100,000 of our years for the next crest to pass when it gets to us. The wave is moving but it is so red-shifted we could not see it. Further away from the event horizon the light is a little less stretched, so we see it as radio waves, which is what we were looking at in this image, even if it still started as gamma rays or Xrays.
It has amused me to see the hagiolatry bestowed upon Einstein regarding this image. One quote: “Albert Einstein’s towering genius is on display yet again.” As a comment, I am NOT trying to run down Einstein, but let us be consistent here. You may note Newton also predicted a mass at which light could not escape. In Newtonian mechanics the energy of the light would be given by E =mc^2/2, while the gravitational potential energy would be GMm/R. This permits us to calculate a radius where light cannot escape as R = 2GM/c^2, which happens to be exactly the same as the Schwarzchild radius from General Relativity.
Then we see statements such as “General relativity describes gravity as a consequence of the warping of space-time.” Yes, but that implies something that should not be there. General Relativity is a geometric theory, and describes the dynamics of particles in geometric terms. The phrase “as a consequence of” should be replaced with “in terms of”. The use of “consequence” implies cause, and this leads to statements involving cosmic fabric being bent, and you get images of something like a trampoline sheet, which is at best misleading. Here is another quote that annoys me: “Massive objects create a sort of dent or well in the cosmic fabric, which passing bodies fall into because they’re following curved contours (not as a result of some mysterious force at a distance, which had been the prevailing view before Einstein came along)”. No! Both theories are done a great disservice. Einstein gave a geometric description of how bodies move, but there is no physical cause, and it has the same problem, only deeper, than the Newtonian description had, because you must then ask, how does one piece of space-time know exactly how much to distort? Meanwhile, Newton gave a description of the dynamics of particles essentially in terms of calculus. Whereas Einstein describes effects in terms of a number of tensors, which most people do not understand, Newton invented the term “force”.
Now you will often see the argument that light is bent around the sun and that “proves” General Relativity is correct. Actually, Newtonian physics predicted the same effect, but general Relativity bends it twice as much as predicted by Newtonian physics, so yes, in that sense General relativity is correct if the bend is correctly found to be twice that of Newton. You will then see statements along the lines this proves the bent path is “due to the warping of spacetime”. That is, of course, nonsense. The reason is that in Einstein’s relativity E = mc^2, which is twice that of the Newtonian energy, as you can see from the above. The reason for the difference appears to be the cosmic speed limit of light speed, which Newton may or may not have considered, but had no reason to go further. Why do I say Newton might have considered it? Because as a postulate, the fundamental nature of the speed of light goes all the way back to Empedocles. Of course, he did not make much of it.
Finally, I saw one statement that “the circular nature of the black hole again confirms the correctness of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Actually, Aristotle provided one of the first recorded reasons why gravity leads to a sphere. Newton would certainly have predicted a basic sphere, and of course the algorithm used to make the image would not have led to any other result unless there were something really dramatically non spherical. The above is not intended to downplay Einstein, but I am not a fan of the hagiolatry that accompanies him either.