If You’re Curious About Black Holes Ripping Stars Apart, There’s A Calculator For You

Artist's impression of a gas cloud being ripped apart by a black hole. ESO/S. Gillessen/MPE/Marc Schartmann

Over the last few years, astronomers have observed several instances of a black hole ripping apart a star that got too close. We have also observed black holes merging with each other using gravitational waves, and possibly the first collision between a neutron star and a black hole.

While nothing can escape a black hole, as a collision takes place energy is released. And the energy emissions from such events are on a scale that we struggle to comprehend. No everyday analogy can do them justice. The huge values we detect paint quite the picture and if you are interested in getting those numbers out yourself, particle physicist Álvaro Díez has just the tool for you.

Díez has created a Black Hole Collision Calculator available to use for free. Just decide the mass of the black hole and the mass of the object falling in, and you'll get some fascinating numbers. He was inspired by all the recent news about black holes, including the extraordinary first picture of a supermassive black hole.

The math behind the calculator is not absurdly complex but Díez was committed to making it as accessible as possible. In addition to the handy calculator, he has included a clear explanation of what’s going on so that whoever comes across the tool will understand what they are calculating.

“I tried to make an interactive tool with which I could get more people interested in black holes and physics," Díez told IFLScience. "The idea of talking about black hole collisions and what happens to the event horizon came actually from a colleague when I was explaining these concepts to him in a less 'rocket-sciency' way.” 

The calculator is fascinating. For a quick test, we had a very small (and unrealistic) black hole, 14 times the mass of the Earth, cannibalizing our planet. Such a black hole would be roughly the size of a basketball and a collision with Earth would release the amount of energy produced by the Sun over 26.9 million years.

Díez is upfront in admitting that the calculator has limitations. There is a lot we still don’t know about black holes and the calculator doesn’t make use of the most complex equations. For example, the black holes are assumed to be non-rotating and do not emit gravitational waves. Given that we know that real black holes do, we can think of the energy released as a lower limit for what actually happens in space.

This calculator is part of the Omni Calculator project, where a small group of scientists, PhD students, and enthusiasts come together and build these tools to make science more accessible to everyone. The website has 896 free calculators to solve problems as diverse as improving your race time to working out bank interests.

“I've always been fascinated by the wonders of science and nature, and for me, there's nothing better than sharing that knowledge with people,” Díez continued. “Not only do you empower others, but you get to share things that make people go 'wow!' whenever they hear something like the amount of energy that a black hole can produce. I feel science is amazing, wonderful, useful and it doesn't need to be scary even if it's about black holes (they're weird as hell)!”


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