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Black Holes Encyclopedia
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Black Holes: Stranger Than Fiction

In the realm of science, truth often is stranger than fiction, and the imaginations of scientists often are as expansive as those of authors and screenwriters.

Consider the bizarre objects known as black holes.

Gravity trumps all the other forces of nature in these objects. It compresses the mass of a dozen Suns, or a million, or a billion into a pinpoint of almost infinite density. Space and time are squeezed out of existence, and the structure of the universe turns into a "foam" that's ruled by physical laws that scientists do not yet fully comprehend.

This gravitational influence extends far from a black hole's center. It warps the space around the black hole so strongly that nothing can escape from it - not light or radio waves or powerful spaceships. Hence the name "black hole," which was coined by physicist John Archibald Wheeler in the 1960s: Since a black hole emits no energy or matter, it looks completely black, like a hole in the universe. And the largest of these holes are enormous: They can encompass a volume of space that's bigger than our solar system.

Yet paradoxically, a black hole may shine brighter than almost anything else in the universe by surrounding itself with a disk of superhot gas. The gas -- stolen from the surface of a star in the case of small black holes, or the remnants of pulverized stars in the case of bigger ones - whips around at high speeds before it spirals into the black hole. Powerful magnetic fields may shoot some of the gas back into space at almost the speed of light, creating "jets" that can stretch across thousands of light-years.

All of these concepts sprang from the imaginations of astronomers and physicists who were studying the evolution of stars and galaxies - not from science-fiction authors. Although no one has ever seen a black hole directly, the models explain a great many objects that astronomers have seen - objects like quasars and X-ray binary stars, and perhaps gamma-ray bursts.

Yet science-fiction writers have put the concepts to good use. Roving black holes threaten quiet star systems, scientists watch as black holes collide, foolhardy space jocks wrestle to climb out of the gravitational well when they venture too close to a black hole's event horizon. Some of these ideas are well-grounded in the science of black holes. Others are pure fantasy. Even these stories, though, may inspire today's youngsters to pursue careers in astronomy - and eventually to use their own imaginations to help solve some of the mysteries of these bizarre yet fascinating objects.