Computer simulations: approaching and entering a black hole

One of J.B.S. Haldane’s bon mots was this: “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Science is loaded with things that, a priori, we could never have imagined would exist.  Frogs, for example, violate any notion I have of what an animal could evolve into.  But the queerest things of all that lie beyond our imagination are in physics. One of these is the existence of black holes. (See here for a good introduction.)

Ever wonder what it would be like to take a spacecraft near a black hole, or even enter it (which is, as John McLaughlin says, “Bye bye!”)? Two physicists from Stuttgart, Thomas Müller and Daniel Weiskopf, have just published a paper in The American Journal of Physics describing a computer program for envisioning what the sky would look like around a black hole.

They’ve also created a website with three cool movies that simulate what you’d see in three situations (New Scientist describes what you’re seeing in each case):

1.  You’re rotating around the hole at a fixed distance from it.

2.  You’re approaching the hole.

3.  You’re being sucked toward the hole.

And, if you can use the program, you can create all kinds of other black-hole tours.


Müller, T. and D. Weisskopf.  2010.  Distortion of the stellar sky by a Schwarzchild black hole.  Am. J. Physics 78:204-214.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I love the rotation around the black hole. When I have time, I will download the source code.

  2. Posted February 11, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    This is not unlike investing in mutual funds.

    Pretty hip mobius strip effect on the 2nd video.

  3. Posted February 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    As for the bon mot. In 1963 I asked Clyde Tombaugh whether he thought the universe was shaped like a saddle or a sphere and his response was to scratch his chin for a moment and say that very bon mot!! I think a lot of us are afraid that the universe is very queer indeed.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      If those were the alternatives, the recent knowledge that the universe is perfectly flat seems queer indeed! 😀

      Perfectly flat, zero energy, ever expanding, ripe with symmetries: simple as can be.

      I’ll put that the queerness is in the details.

  4. Dave B.
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    It would be easier to appreciate the distorting effect if something familiar, such as the earth, or even just a grid pattern, was used as a background instead of stars. (But at least the stars are not completely unfamiliar. I spotted Orion on the right side.)

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Um, the symmetry of the GUI is affecting the simulations, unless I’m mistaken.

    I also note that some of those effects (light cone narrowing and red/blue shift) are the same as when you approach light speed. It would be interesting to see the difference. (I.e. special relativity when you is the large energy object due to approaching light speed, as opposed to general relativity when the black hole is due to its energy density.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 12, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      “you is” – you are. [“Damn it!” Stretching for the coffee cup.]

  6. Jacopo
    Posted February 17, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    A footling observation, but on reading this:

    “Frogs, for example, violate any notion I have of what an animal could evolve into.”

    My ‘potential source of creationist quote-mining alarm’ went off!

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