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Gravity's Engines

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Repeating the observations of Galileo, Scharf notes that Earth, of course, is not at the center of the universe; it’s not even at the center of our galaxy. What does reside in the heart of the Milky Way, unbeknownst to scientists until only recently, is a “supermassive black hole” – a “dark star” that, like a worrisome whirlpool, sucks in the matter around it and yet, at the same time, throws off profound amounts of energy.

Astrophysicists estimate that it may be four million times the mass of our own sun and joins uncountable numbers of other black holes set in the dark maws of space.

The projection of radiation and elemental particles from the lips of black holes, called “event horizons,” seems to have affected not only the way that galaxies are constructed but where individual stars, among billions and billions, settle into place, Scharf notes. More minutely, but of great relevance to us, it also appears that black holes affect how gravity holds planets and moons in delicate orbits.

The paradox of black holes is that although being pulled into one would spell certain doom, they likely are responsible for the convergence of forces that gave Earth its miraculous positioning as a star-circling orb conducive to life as we know it.

Fundamentally, what exactly is a black hole? As Scharf explains, it’s the ultimate expression of gravity. Black holes are not “things” so much as  “regions of spacetime” comprised of ultra-dense matter in which super-gravitational forces prevent everything, including light, from escaping. The more that a black hole consumes, the theory goes, the bigger it becomes.

While black holes are conceptual outgrowths of Albert Einstein’s theory of relatively, even Einstein had his doubts about whether black holes would actually exist. Scharf is among a bold generation of 21st-century physicists, versed in quantum mechanics, that have confirmed them from afar.

Black holes are believed to be created when stars burn themselves out and collapse unto themselves due to hyper-gravity, squishing their mass into super compactness. Their density then pulls in other objects around it, capable even of bending time as it inescapably dips over the event horizon.

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