What is a Black Hole?

The term “black hole” was coined in the 1960s by physicist Robert Dicke, aptly deriving from the Black Hole of Calcutta, an inescapable prison. But various fields of science assign different properties to these stellar objects—an issue professor Erik Curiel of the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy has analyzed in great detail. Curiel delves deep into the various scientific concepts of black holes. For instance, those who study quantum gravity define black holes as excitations in the quantum field, while astrophysicists consider them objects that produce an inescapable gravitational field.

More significant than these definitions, however, are the implications. Different properties of black holes can be invoked in various theoretical and experimental contexts. To bridge these gaps in the interpretations of black holes, Curiel connected quantum mechanics and thermodynamics: black holes are hypothesized to create black body radiation, a thermodynamic property, due to the quantum fields near their event horizons. A theory of quantum gravity would allow scientists to further understand this behavior known as the Hawking effect.

The Hawking effect has also led to questions about the very nature of matter and spacetime. “Black hole thermodynamics teaches us that matter can be transformed into spacetime curvature, and that spacetime curvature can be transformed into matter,” Curiel said. What we ordinarily think of as two wholly separate physical systems are much more intimately related than we had realized.