Q: What happens if you fall into a black hole?
– Jane Doe, Calif.
Ramin Skibba, a science communicator and astrophysicist at UC Santa Cruz, illuminates:
When a dying star much bigger than our sun burns the last of its fuel, it finally collapses under its own weight, explodes, and leaves behind a black hole. If you fell into the black hole, even in a sturdy spacecraft, powerful tides from its gravity would rip you into a ribbon of atoms.
According to Albert Einstein’s relativity theory, the laws of physics break down near extremely massive objects. Black holes have such densely compressed mass that they warp the very fabric of space around them. If you got too close, it would inevitably suck you in. Along the way, you would perceive distorted colors and shapes as if through carnival mirrors. Your clocks would run differently, too; black holes bend not only space, but time itself.
Suppose you fell in feet first. Your legs would feel a much stronger gravitational force than your head. In a fraction of a second, this tide would stretch you and tear you apart like taffy. The resulting shrapnel and debris would spiral into the hole, vanishing forever.
Astronomers see evidence of this at the centers of galaxies, where the largest black holes grow. It happens to entire stars that venture too close, then get shredded in blazes of energy.
[Thanks to Rob Irion for editing help with this piece, which is written to resemble the short Q&A-style articles previously published in Scientific American.]