Science & Technology

Gravitational waves get to play a starring role in ‘Black Hole Apocalypse’ on TV

Black holes are the collapsed stars of the show on “Black Hole Apocalypse,” a two-hour “NOVA” presentation that’s premiering Wednesday on PBS. But the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, also known as LIGO, gets its share of the spotlight as well.

“LIGO both opens and closes the show,” said Barnard College astrophysicist Janna Levin, who wrote a book about the gravitational-wave quest and hosts the “NOVA” program. “It’s the most important thing going on right now for black hole astrophysics.”

Some of the opening scenes are set at LIGO Hanford in Washington state, one of the two places where scientists made the first-ever detection of a black hole merger in 2015. Fred Raab, who headed LIGO Hanford at the time, says that the project was “extremely controversial” in the beginning.

“There were many people who feared that LIGO would suck the money out of the room,” Raab says. “And so there was a lot of controversy. What everybody could agree on was this was extremely difficult.”

Fortunately, LIGO became a reality and eventually delivered the goods. “Black Hole Apocalypse” delivers the goods as well: This is the show to watch if you’re looking for a visually rich tutorial about black holes — those concentrations of matter so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull.

The show doesn’t shy away from delving into subjects ranging from Schwarzschild radii to the spaghettification of anything or anyone who falls past a black hole’s event horizon. The space traveler who gets stretched into cosmic spaghetti in “Black Hole Apocalypse” is Levin herself, who rides a fanciful spaceship to the edge of a black hole to show what would happen.

Most of the demonstration was handled with computer-generated imagery, but Levin told GeekWire that playing her part as host still required more stagecraft than she’s used to.

“Floating around in space in my spacesuit was interesting,” she joked. “It’s physically very grueling. You’re standing, you’re doing this for 14, 16 hours sometimes. It was definitely different. I’m still a physicist, first and foremost.”

Like the movie “Interstellar,” which drew upon Nobel-winning Caltech astronomer Kip Thorne’s calculations to fine-tune the look of a black hole, the TV show takes pains to depict how black holes form, how they feed upon in-falling debris to grow larger, and how they distort space, time and light.

It’s been more than a century since physicists first realized that black holes were theoretically possible, and decades since the first widely accepted detection of a black hole, Cygnus X-1. But new findings, and new mysteries, continue to swirl around the subject like a black hole’s accretion disk.

One newly published study has concluded that the supermassive black holes in galactic centers play a crucial role in controlling star formation. Another study, published just today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, found that the powerful jets thrown off by spinning black holes can periodically change their direction in the sky.

Levin said the unfolding mysteries are what she finds so alluring about black holes. “I always love to end with the unanswered questions,” she said.

For example, what will the Event Horizon Telescope see when it captures the best-ever image of the supermassive black hole that lies at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy? What will LIGO see when a neutron star and a black hole collide?

Levin said her own scientific work focuses on how the smash-up of black holes and magnetized neutron stars just might create the “most powerful electronic circuits in the universe.” The resulting magnetic blast from a black-hole battery should be observable by LIGO as well as instruments on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

Even two hours isn’t enough time to hit all the high points when it comes to black hole science. The show’s producers had to leave out a discussion about the quantum aspects of black holes, and there’s nary a word about a black hole’s Hawking radiation or the possibility of creating microscopic black holes at the Large Hadron Collider. But that doesn’t bother Levin.

“Maybe we’ll do ‘Black Hole Apocalypse 2,’ ” she said. “We’ll see.”

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