Black hole expert calls for Einstein general relativity rethink after physics ‘breakdown’

The German genius’ general theory of relativity was published more than a century ago, to refine Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Providing a description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time, or spacetime, this model is still used by scientists as an explanation of gravitation in modern physics. Einstein’s theory has important astrophysical implications as it alludes to the existence of black holes – cosmic phenomena in which space and time are distorted in such a way that nothing, not even light, can escape.

At the centre of a black hole, as described by general relativity, may lie a gravitational singularity, a region where the spacetime curvature becomes infinite.

That possibility was explored during a recent episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk podcast, where a question was sent in for guest and astrophysicist Janna Levin.

The listener asked: “Is the concept of a singularity something that might actually exist at the centre of a black hole, or are they a verbal description of a mathematical error representing where our understanding of gravity breaks down?”

Dr Levin responded: “I agree with the latter part which was stated as a question. 

“I think most of us suspect that the singularity is general relativity signalling its breakdown.

“It’s telling us that it’s no longer predicting the laws of physics well, it’s telling us that we need to look for something beyond general relativity to understand the singularity.

“That’s what Roger Penrose said in his 1965 paper that won him the Nobel Prize.

“He talked about cosmic censorship, that any terrible things like the singularity would be projected by the event horizon.”

But Dr Tyson quickly interrupted to disagree with part of the statement.

He said: “It’s only terrible because we have found the limitations of general relativity.

“We aren’t smart enough to figure out what is going on yet.

“That’s not terrible, that is exhilarating.”

Some scientists take issue with the idea of a singularity, as something infinitely dense has never been observed in the universe.

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles.

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In this theory, the smallest unit in the universe is what is known as a Planck Length to physicists.

Quantum mechanics expert Sean Carroll previously explained: “If infinity doesn’t exist, then singularities don’t exist.

“And if singularities don’t exist, then Einstein’s theory of general relativity is not correct.

“The simplest thing we can do is change some equations, change his theory of gravity.”

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