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Hairy black holes?! Black holes might be distinguishable from one another, say scientists.

Black holes might emit distinct gravitational waves, contradicting an earlier model of the massive celestial objects.

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An artist's illustration shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun at the center, surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Reuters

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Black holes are a spot in the universe where you won’t see the sun shine in, to paraphrase that 1960s rock-musical Hair. But speaking of “hair”, a group of scientists says these singularities may have matter (sometimes referred to as “hair”) that could affect how they appear.

This is a tangled concept to figure out (so to speak), so let’s unpack what the new study in Physical Review Letters means.

When black hole understanding was still in its infancy in the scientific literature, physicist John Wheeler wrote a phrase that is now famous among scientists in that field: “Black holes have no hair.” His phrase referred to how black holes are defined, which he believed came down to only two factors: their mass, and their angular momentum, or the rotation velocity of the hole. (Some sources also say electric charge was included as a third factor.)

Say you have a black hole that was created out of a huge star that imploded. Even though the star itself had distinctive properties, this theory says they would vanish in a black hole. So to take that to a generality, Wheeler’s phrase said all black holes are essentially the same.

This understanding of black holes dates back to 1963, arising back to a “clean” black hole model first published by Roy Kerr. The new study agrees that Kerr’s work from 50 years ago works with general relativity, a theory from Einstein that (in very simple terms) says the laws of nature are consistent throughout the universe. (More at this past Universe Today article.) As the theory pertains to black holes, strong sources of gravity bend space and time.
Kerr’s theory, however, does not agree with extensions of Einstein’s work, the scientists said. These extensions are known as scalar-tensor theories and there are several variations on this topic. The physics deals with the interactions between two different types of fields, scalar and tensor. Scalar fields, according to this Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, assign values for every point of space observed. (Think a temperature map of Mars). Tensor fields measure these variables with relation to each other.

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