the impact zone
the witnesses
the cause?
current seminar
soapbox archives
ask doctor jack
who is doctor jack?
guest columnists
vurdalak in the news
vurdalak at the movies
vurdalak on the tube
vurdalak on the
tunguska links
black hole links


Posted on September 20, 2004

Soapbox Seminar #9

Where do Baby Black Holes Come From?

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on...

— John Lennon, “Across The Universe”

Now that we’ve gotten the universe more or less bootstrapped into existence, it’s about time we introduced our main character — the star, so to speak, of this little production we’re calling The Vurdalak Conjecture. Vurdalak his own self.

But first we’ve got to set the stage. The biggest stage of all time. The Big Bang.

And here I’m going to sub-let my soapbox to a good buddy. Bill and I go back a ways, and though I went into physics (mongst other things) and he became (mongst other things) a writer, we’ve always stayed in touch. The more so since some of my work kind of meshed with his novel-in-progress. I’ve been giving him a hand with the science parts from time to time, and as payback, he put me in the book, under the same “Jack Adler” pseudonym I’ve been using for these seminars.

(And, no, I don’t get to play the hero — my character’s mostly just there to make the science slide down a little easier. Still, it was fun to see “myself” in print. And — who knows? — maybe it’ll get a few people outside the physics community thinking about my ideas.)

Be that as it may, Bill’s offered to let me share one of his outtakes with you, seeing as it bears directly on the matter at hand. So, sit back and enjoy — Bill’s grip on the physics maybe isn’t as tight as it could be. But he doesn’t take the liberties some writers do.[1] And he does have a way with words.

* * *

The universe-seed comes into being vested in inconceivable heat and light. There are no physics to describe it. Poetry comes closer: “infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Yet it is more than even Blake knew or could say. It is all of space encapsulated in a multi-dimensional nexus of infinite density and infinite temperature and infinite curvature. It is the source, the wellspring, the place where everything begins.

Billions of years hence, theoreticians inhabiting a small blue speck circling a dim ember of this long-ago glory will give it a name to match their utter bafflement at it. They will call it a “singularity.”

A singularity is a place where nature’s laws break down, where theory fails, where the gridlines fade off into blank spots on the map marked “Here be dragons.” And dragons there be, albeit distilled down to their fiery essence.

For, in this first instant, nothing that we would recognize as existence exists. The four “fundamental” forces of nature have yet to separate out from the natal flux. The first atomic particles will not begin sullying the radiance with gross materiality for another twenty microseconds — eons away on the cosmological clock. All eleven dimensions of spacetime remain curled in a tight, fetal coil.

While the moment lasts, the embryonic universe is in the highest state of self-similarity, of symmetry, of simplicity, attainable. The greatest perfection possible, consistent with the burden of being.

It cannot last. The nexus folds through hyperdimensional Calabi-Yau origamis in intervals too brief to have a name. Infinitesimal superstrings, the vibratory bedrock of reality, settle into topologies whose harmonics will eventually weave the whole menagerie of subatomic particles. The Planck time — an era so inconceivably short that it would take ten decillion of them laid end to end to make a nanosecond — draws to a close.

* * *

And, as it does, things change. Crossing the Planck threshold, four of the eleven dimensions of superspace break out of their Kaluza-Klein confinement: Length, height, depth, and time too spring into existence as macrocosmic properties, shattering the aboriginal symmetry. With the birth of four-dimensional spacetime, gravity, too, comes into existence, splitting off from the hitherto unitary superforce.

Physicists call such a change in state a “phase transition.” Think of steam condensing into water, or water freezing into ice.

Phase transitions are accompanied by a loss of symmetry. Pour that same water and ice into tumblers, and place them symmetrically on a small table set for four. There’s no way of telling which water tumbler — the one on the right or on the left — belongs to a given place setting. Until, that is, the first guest breaks the symmetry by sitting down and drinking from one or the other. The choice forces the hand of the other diners, imposing an arbitrary left- or right-handed chirality on the erstwhile perfect balance of the arrangement.

But without such choices the meal could not begin.

When microcosmic symmetries break in a phase transition, the macrocosm experiences it as a qualitative change. This first change is qualitative in spades.

It triggers Inflation.

* * *

Inflation happens because the newly-unleashed dimensions (length, height, depth, remember?) have nowhere to go but up and out. At about one tenth of a sextillionth of a nanosecond after the Big Bang, space — the first frontier — undergoes an enormous expansion, instantaneously increasing in size a million, trillion, trillion times. The spatial wavefront propagates outward into no-space far faster than the speed of light. To do so, it exploits a little-known loophole in this otherwise ultimate speed limit: While the theory of relativity holds that no material object or message can move through space faster than lightspeed, space itself gets to move as fast as it likes.

Now the dominos begin to fall in earnest. The rapid expansion at the dawn of the inflationary epoch cools the early universe to less than a billion, trillion times the temperature at the heart of the sun, kicking off a second phase transition. This time, the strong nuclear force is the “ice” that fractures out of the unified energy field, leaving only the electromagnetic and weak forces still locked in a diminished symmetry — and them for just another picosecond or so. The multiplying imperfections are enough to set up small density fluctuations in the evolving cosmic plasma. A phenomenal radiation pressure magnifies even the most minuscule coagulations to the point of incipient gravitational collapse.

The stage is finally set.

* * *

That was mighty pretty, wasn’t it? And not all that far off the mark, in a “Physics for Poets” kind of a way. But still ...

It’s just that, well. it all comes out sounding a touch too cut-and-dried for my taste. I’m not saying our theories are wrong, by any means. In fact, I’d have to say they whip the next nearest contenders, hands down. On the other hand, this is the beginning of the universe we’re talking about, after all — an event we can’t ever hope to observe or reproduce (leastways, I don’t think so, not that everybody agrees with me). So, I just wish we didn’t have to make out like we’re so all-fired sure of ourselves. When we’re not.

Take that inflationary epoch, for instance. There’s nothing in the basic physics says the universe had to start out by doubling in size a hundred or so times in the blink of an eye, blowing itself up like some sort of cosmic beachball. No, when Alan Guth thought up inflation, it wasn’t out of any theoretical revelation telling him things had to be that way. He was just tinkering around, looking to plug some holes in the standard Big Bang cosmology.

Some pretty serious holes, in fact — holes that were threatening to sink the Bang lock, stock, and barrel. Doesn’t matter how “elegant” your theory is, if it can’t explain what we see. And what we see is:

  • The “horizon problem.” That’s the one that asks how come the universe looks pretty much the same no matter which way you’re pointed, even though there shouldn’t have been enough time back at the beginning for all its different parts to interact and influence one another.

  • Or the “flatness problem.” How come the outward push from the Big Bang almost perfectly counterbalances the inward pull of gravity? More important than it maybe sounds: A little more push, and the early universe would’ve flown apart in all directions before any stars or galaxies had a chance to form. A little less and it’d have immediately collapsed back in on itself in a “Big Crunch” — no stars or galaxies in that scenario either.[2]

  • Or the “monopole problem.” How come — no, let’s save that one for later.

Inflation solves all those, and more, basically by suggesting that the universe we can see is only the teensiest part of what’s really out there. It’s a nice piece of work. It’s also a piece of reverse engineering. Because without things like the “horizon problem” and the “flatness problem” and the “monopole problem” we wouldn’t have needed an inflationary phase-transition at all.

And, in fact, there are other ways around the Big Bang’s troubles that don’t involve inflation. There’s holographic cosmology, for instance ...

But that’s a side issue. For right now, the thing to keep hold of is this: All of our theories about the very earliest moments of the universe call for Honest-to-God enormous radiation pressures. And none of them rule out the possibility of pressure fluctuations, whether from false vacuum collapse, or the QCD phase transition, or you name it.

And, on these scales, uneven pressure distribution’s all it takes.

Streaming in from all sides, light pressure squeezes billions of tons of elementary particles into a space not much larger than an atom. That’s well within the Schwarzschild radius for that amount of mass. A primordial black hole nucleates.

It’s not alone. At the height of the light-storm, no mass is too small to be pummeled into a singularity, and any inhomogeneity will do.

So primordials’ll form, all right, but will they survive? Funny question, huh? I mean, black holes are supposed to last forever, right?


But to see why it’s wrong, we’ve got one more detour to take.

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.


— Where’s Jack going with this?


If you’ve just gotta know, sign up here, and we’ll notify you
the instant he posts the next lecture in his "Soapbox Seminar" series,


"Can’t Win, Can’t Break Even, Can’t Get out of the Game"

coming soon!


[Notes and Further Reading]

Join Our Discussion Group
Sign Up for Soapbox Seminars
Ask Doctor Jack
Contact Doctor Jack

Doctor Jack rolls out another new Soapbox Seminar every other week or so... check out the most recent one here!

current seminar

[1] Actually, Bill took greater liberties writing about me. Fact is, the one time I did go to Tunguska, I wasn’t in any danger of getting killed! Except maybe from those Siberian mosquitoes. [Return to text]

[2] You could think of the “flatness problem” like this: Did you ever try balancing a pencil on its point? Then you know that any error, any imbalance, no matter how small, gets real big real quick. Contrariwise, if you come back an hour later and that pencil’s still standing on its point, you can be pretty sure that there wasn’t any error at the outset. (Or that somebody’s pulling a fast one somehow.)

What that means is, if the universe today is flat to within measurement error, a couple percent or whatever, it must’ve been flat to within one part in a gazillion right at the start. There are four possible explanations for such unbelievable precision:

  • It just plain has to be that way, according to whatever rules there are. What kind of rules might those be? Well, for starters, take a look back at the soapbox before this one, where I talked about rest-mass and gravitational potential adding to zero. Maybe the one balance implies the other.

  • We got lucky. Any universes that isnn’t “flat” enough from the get-go will implode or explode before anybody can evolve to notice how wrinkly things are.

  • Inflation “ironed out” any imbalance. That’s Alan Guth’s position, and it’s still probably the way to bet.

  • But there’s a dark-horse candidate in the race too, an explanation that claims the pencil isn’t just balancing on its own — there’s some force acting to correct any deviations. The current name for that force is “dark energy,” and it’s got kind of a tangled history

When Einstein first tried applying general relativity to the cosmos as a whole, what he found was that the universe is unstable. That didn’t go down so well back in 1917, when just about everybody was convinced the universe’d been around forever. So Einstein kludged his equations with a so-called “cosmological constant,” a force that acted against the force of gravitational attraction and kept the galaxies and such nice and stationary. Twelve years later, after Edwin Hubble had established that the universe was actually expanding, Einstein recanted, calling his cosmological fudge factor “the greatest mistake of my life.” Nowadays, it’s back, in the form of dark energy. And, according to some estimates, it may make up as much as 70 percent of the whole universe. [Return to text]


[Top of Page]


Bill DeSmedt, Singularity, Seattle WA: Per Aspera Press, November 2004.

Alan H. Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins, Reading MA: Perseus Books, 1997.

Stephen W. Hawking, “Gravitational Collapsed Objects of Very Low Mass, ” Monthly Notices, Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 152 (1971), pp. 75-78.

[Top of Page]

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.