Way back in 1974, Stephen Hawking theorised that the big. scary black holes throughout the universe weren't as big and bad as we thought.
In fact, every now and then they provide interstellar space with a light show - a phenomenon now called Hawking radiation. The only problem is, much like a lot of theories, is that Hawking radiation is hard to prove. To be fair, there aren't a lot of black holes just sauntering around Earth, thankfully. Getting a squiz at the radiation is also hard from afar due to it being rather dim, making the previous lightshow analogy from above quite the terrible one that I don't much feel like rectifying.
Thankfully, researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology up and made a black hole analog out of a few thousand atoms to confirm two of Hawking's most important predictions; that Hawking radiation arises from nothing and that it does not change in intensity over time, meaning it's stationary.
"A black hole is supposed to radiate like a black body, which is essentially a warm object that emits a constant infrared radiation," study co-author Jeff Steinhauer, an associate professor of physics at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, said. "Hawking suggested that black holes are just like regular stars, which radiate a certain type of radiation all the time, constantly. That's what we wanted to confirm in our study, and we did."
How do you grow a black hole?
Technion's Jeff Steinhauer in his lab where he detected Hawking radiation from a system of ultracold atoms.
The researchers' lab-grown black hole was made of a flowing gas of approximately 8,000 rubidium atoms cooled to nearly absolute zero and held in place by a laser beam. They created a mysterious state of matter, known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), which allows thousands of atoms to act together in unison as though they were a single atom.
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Using a second laser beam, the team created a store of potential energy, which caused the gas to flow like water rushing down a waterfall, thereby creating an event horizon where one half of the gas was flowing faster than the speed of sound, the other half slower. In this experiment, the team was looking for pairs of phonons, or quantum sounds waves, instead of pairs of photons, spontaneously forming in the gas.
A phonon on the slower half could travel against the flow of gas, away from the cliff, while the phonon on the faster half became trapped by the speed of the supersonic flowing gas, Steinhauer explained. "It's like trying to swim against a current that's faster than you can swim. Just like being in a black hole, once you're inside, it's impossible to reach the horizon."
Once they found these phonon pairs, the researchers had to confirm whether they were correlated and if the Hawking radiation remained constant over time (if it was stationary). That process was tricky because every time they took a picture of their black hole, it was destroyed by the heat created in the process. So the team repeated their experiment 97,000 times, taking more than 124 days of continuous measurements in order to find the correlations.
In the end, their patience paid off.
What did they find?
The gravity of a black hole is so powerful that not even light can escape its grasp, once a photon, or light particle, crosses beyond its point-of-no-return, called the event horizon. To escape this boundary, a particle would have to break the laws of physics and travel faster than the speed of light.
Hawking showed that although nothing that crosses the event horizon can escape, black holes can still spontaneously emit light from the boundary, thanks to quantum mechanics and something called "virtual particles."
As explained by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, even the complete vacuum of space is teeming with pairs of 'virtual' particles that pop in and out of existence. These fleeting particles with opposite energies usually annihilate each other almost immediately. But due to the extreme gravitational pull at an event horizon, Hawking suggested pairs of photons could be separated, with one particle getting absorbed by the black hole and the other escaping into space. The absorbed photon has negative energy and subtracts energy in the form of mass from the black hole, while the escaped photon becomes Hawking radiation. From this alone, given enough time (much longer than the age of the universe), a black hole could completely evaporate away.
"Hawking's theory was revolutionary because he combined the physics of quantum field theory with general relativity," Einstein's theory that describes how matter warps space-time,Steinhauer told Live Science. "It's still helping people to look for new laws of physics by studying the combination of these two theories in a physical example. People would like to verify this quantum radiation, but it's very difficult with a real black hole because Hawking radiation is so weak compared to the background radiation of space."
"We showed that the Hawking radiation was stationary, meaning it didn't change with time, which is exactly what Hawking predicted," Steinhauer said.
And just like that they proved that Hawking was on the money.
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