Monday, December 12, 2011

Merging Black Holes Pt. 1: An Introduction

There are monsters in the night sky. If you were unfortunate enough to pass by one, there would be nothing to stop the inexorable pull toward destruction. But for such behemoths, you wouldn't be able to see them. You could see the effects of their hunger (if they happened to be hungry) in bright, energetic X-rays. But that's all. That's all you could see of one of the mysteries of astrophysics today - supermassive black holes.

However, funny enough, these monsters may see and remember you. According to Stephen Hawking, black holes can dissipate, because the huge gravitational field may occasionally pop out particles (it's all about E=mc2, where energy is converted to mass). Over time, as more and more particles are ejected from the black hole, the mass that originally fed the black hole will once again return to the universe, making the black hole no more.

Artist rendition of a black hole. All images stolen shamlessly from the internet.
Massive black holes are everywhere in the universe, yet their formation is still largely unknown. Cosmological models suggest that massive black holes form from the mergers of smaller seed black holes, but can we reproduce this behaviour in simulations? Do these simulations generate surprises about relativity we previously didn't know about? In the next 5 posts, I'll discuss recent simulations of black hole mergers, some of the main techniques used for handling computational relativity, and possible observational signatures of these merging monster systems. Oh, and spoiler alert - there will be a surprise from these simulations, which suggests that there are some things about General Relativity that can continue to surprise us.
Feeding black hole.

Black holes are relatively simple objects compared to most physical systems. They are described by analytic solutions to Einstein's equations of General Relativity, and depend on only three parameters: charge, mass, and spin. For most astrophysical black holes, the description is further simplified because the charge is usually set to zero. This happens because in the accretion disk, the charged, ionized material rearranges itself to neutralize the black hole charge at large scales. More specifically, the gas is treated as having infinite conductivity and is therefore able to support infinite currents. These currents are generated from charge imbalances and move charges in such a way as to cancel charge imbalances, thus causing the whole system to neutralize.

Black holes also span a ridiculously large range of masses, from the predicted tiny holes from string theory to supermassive holes as large as some small galaxies. However, it is still unclear how supermassive black holes are formed. Population III stars are thought to be one of the most likely sources of the first seed black holes. These stars are the theorized first generation of stars, and consequently form from the primordial gas of pure hydrogen. A consequence of this is that the gas is unable to fragment during the formation process, meaning that these stars are extremely massive and live fairly short lives. It is predicted that the stars with masses of 25 and 140 times the mass of our sun formed the first seed black holes.

However, there is a problem with this scenario. This problem arises in the growth of these smaller seed black holes to the supermassive black holes seen today. If black hole growth proceeds purely by accretion, a liberal estimate of a growth timescale can be computed if the black hole accretes at the Eddington rate. If it is assumed that Population III stars form 100 solar mass seed black holes, then it would take roughly 0.8 Gyrs (or 800 million years) of continuous, uninterrupted accretion to form a black hole of 1 billion times the mass of our sun. But, according to observations, quasars at a redshift of z=6 have been observed. This means that massive black holes must have been in place when the Universe was only about 1 Gyr (1 billion years) old. This means that given even the best estimates for black hole growth, black holes would have had to start accretion in the universe's infancy. Therefore, there must be another mechanism that increases the black hole mass rather quickly.

The current cosmological understanding is that large black holes must then grow bottom up, where small seed black holes merge to form successively larger black holes. In this way, the formation of supermassive black holes can proceed at the quick pace observations seem to imply. But how common are black hole mergers? And if they did merge, do we know if they'll act the way we think they'll act? 
Rendition of a quasar.

In addition to the growth rate of black hole formation, supermassive black hole formation scenarios must also provide explanations for their role in galactic evolution. It is undeniable that large black hole formation is a common occurrence, since they reside in the vast majority of galaxies (in particular bulge galaxies). They are also known to be the source of quasars and active galactic nuclei. To date, though, the interaction between black hole formation and their environments are only just being explored.

But, even though this field is in it's infancy, it seems like a promising avenue to study how the universe works in conditions wholly alien to us - to push the boundaries of the physics we know into the physics of the unknown. 

* Note * This is just a compilation of knowledge I have read from people who actually do this kind of research. I haven't included references in the proper style for fear that someone may use this as a paper. But, I don't feel right about not acknowledging the people who provided us with this knowledge. If you are interested in this subject, please please please look at these sources!

Baumgarte, T. W. & Shapiro, S. L. 2011, Physics Today, Vol. 64 No. 10, pp. 32-37

Carroll, B. W. & Ostlie, D. A. 2007, An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics: 2nd ed., Pearson Education Inc.

Fan, X. et. al 2001, AJ, 121, 54-65

Madau, P. & Rees, M. J. 2001, ApJ, 551, L27-L30

Madau, P. & Quataert, E. 2004, ApJ, 606, L17-L20

Volonteri, M. 2010, Astron. Astrophys. Rev., 18, 279-315
This is a really good review paper on black holes, by the way!

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