What happens if you fall into a black hole?

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.

Artist's drawing of the black hole Cygnus X-1, pulling matter from the blue star beside it. (Credits: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

Artist’s drawing of the black hole Cygnus X-1, pulling matter from the blue star beside it. (Credits: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

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.]

2 thoughts on “What happens if you fall into a black hole?

  1. Lately I’ve been contemplating black holes and string theory. Recently, I encountered a problem and I’m not sure where to find the answer. My question is based on an aspect of String Theory where the fifth dimension contains all of time (from the Big Bang to the demise of our universe) as well as all possibilities due to chance, choices and the actions of others.

    I’m taking issue with a general statement that “all information is lost if it is engulfed by a black hole”. I don’t understand how this can possibly be if string theory is plausible (I’m not necessarily saying that it is).

    Let’s say I pushed my boss into a black hole… As he crossed the event horizon (or the ‘apparent horizon’) he would be “spaghettified” before the black hole’s immense gravity would eventually crush him into his constituent quarks whose mass would be added to the singularity… While there’s likely no chance of him emerging, I am left scratching my head if I must accept that his information would be lost forever…

    If string theory is plausible and I push my boss into a black hole, wouldn’t my boss’ information still exist in the fifth and higher dimensions? In order for his information to have been completely destroyed (again, assuming string theory is plausible) wouldn’t the black hole have to consume all possibilities of my boss ever existing?

    • Thanks for your response. That’s a good question! You’re asking about what people sometimes refer to as the “information paradox.” I’m not sure about what string theory might or might not say about this. But you’re right about the general idea: if something (or your boss) falls into a black hole and is torn to bits by it, what happens to their physical information? This remains an unresolved problem in physics. Some physicists believe that your boss’s “information” would be conserved somehow or somewhere, possibly in the form of Hawking radiation or in extra dimensions, if they exist. But for all intents and purposes, there’ll be nothing left of your boss and like Humpty Dumpty, he or she would be gone forever.

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