Segments in this Video

Introduction: Black Hole Apocalypse (02:06)


Nova explores black holes, among the strangest, most mysterious and most powerful objects in the universe. They can swallow entire stars, and some are a million times as massive as the sun. What exactly are they? Are they crucial to our existence?

Greatest Mysteries in Universe (01:52)

There are apocalyptic objects in the universe that defy our understanding of nature, astrophysicist Janna Levin explains. Black holes are completely invisible, yet powerful beyond imagination; they can even slow time. They may be necessary for the universe to even exist.

Evidence of Ancient Collision (04:39)

Levin discusses a scientific experiment that originated in Washington more than 50 years ago. On Sept. 14, 2015, it allows scientists to hear a historic chirp, evidence that a pair of black holes collided a billion years ago.

Strange Phenomena (02:10)

Levin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other astrophysicists discuss the bizarre traits of black holes. They are invisible, physical objects with infinite density. They warp light and distort time. A person who fell in one would be squeezed as thin as a noodle.

What is Gravity? (03:58)

Everyone is familiar with gravity, but the way it works was once a great mystery. Sir Isaac Newton established his laws of motion, which we still use today; but his findings have since been superseded by Albert Einstein’s concept of space-time.

Gravity and Black Holes (03:52)

As Einstein unveils his theory of relativity, German physicist Karl Schwarzchild is calculating artillery trajectories during World War I. Upon receiving Einstein’s papers, he discovers that a concentration of mass could warp space to such an extreme that it creates a region of no return.

How Black Holes Are Born (05:54)

In the 1930s, physicists Subramanian Chandrasekhar and Robert Oppenheimer learn that the most massive stars end their lives differently than smaller ones. Princeton physicist John Wheeler popularizes the term “black hole” in the 1960s. Graduate student Jocelyn Bell discovers a neutron star in 1967.

Black Hole Encounter (05:18)

Levin describes what might happen if we could visit a black hole. Strange things begin to occur as her theoretical ship approaches: gravitational lensing makes nearby stars appear distorted, and extreme gravity slows down time relative to Earth.

Finding Invisible Objects (03:12)

In 1931, physicist Karl Jansky picks up mysterious radio waves emanating from deep space. Later, scientists mount Geiger counters on captured German rockets to discover the cosmos is full of x-rays. These developments greatly enable the search for black holes.

Discovery of Cygnus X-1 (07:03)

Paul Murdin revisits his discovery of a black hole in the Cygnus system. As a young researcher, he uses the largest telescope in England to hunt for binary stars. He seems to find a pair, but only one of the stars is visible.

Existence of Black Hole Confirmed (05:19)

Astrophysicist Mark Reed recalls how he was able to use the phenomenon of parallax to calculate the distance of Cygnus X-1 from Earth. Equipped with this measurement, he is able to calculate the celestial object’s mass and prove it is a black hole.

Visiting Binary System (03:59)

Levin describes what it might be like to visit Cygnus X-1, which is surrounded by an accretion disk, a rotating, disk-shaped cloud of gas and dust. The black hole leaches material from its companion star, which it spews back into space.

Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources (06:37)

Maarten Schmidt’s study of quasars in the 1960s upends much of what scientists think they know about the universe. These stellar bodies move away at a high rate of speed as the universe expands. Scientists believe they are powered by supermassive black holes.

Peering Into Milky Way's Center (06:11)

Could our own galaxy contain supermassive black holes? If so, they would be found in the direction of the constellation, Sagittarius. Levin and astronomer Andrea Ghez explain how Ghez mapped star movements and solved this mystery.

Are Supermassive Black Holes Common? (04:49)

Are there black holes at the center of every galaxy? Levin discusses the Hubble Space Telescope, the scientific innovation that would make answering that question possible. Tod Lauer is one of the Nukers, a team of scientists whose focus is galactic nuclei.

Trip to Andromeda Galaxy (05:01)

Levin describes what space travelers might find if they visited Galaxy M31. She describes a rotating black hole at its center that is 100 million times the mass of the sun and has an event horizon that would swallow most of our solar system.

How Do Black Holes Grow? (03:54)

Stars can collapse to create ordinary black holes, but supermassive black holes are bigger by many orders of magnitude. Researchers Shep Doeleman, Priyamvada Natarajan, and others describe how these behemoths consume material and grow over time.

Tidal Disruption Event (05:04)

The Chandra X-ray Observatory receives high-resolution images of objects that emit x-rays, taken from up to 86,000 miles above Earth’s surface. Researcher James Guillochon studies a short-lived and extremely violent event that was first noticed by a colleague.

Direct Collapse Theory (05:33)

Researchers Natarajan, Dale Kocevski, and Eilat Glikman explain the conundrum that quasars present when trying to understand how supermassive black holes grow. There are limits to how quickly a black hole can feed, but one theory suggests how black holes could form from enormous gas clouds.

Key Players in the Universe? (04:15)

Astrophysicists now believe there is a supermassive black hole at the center of every galaxy; but are they essential to galaxy formation? It appears that black holes and galaxies form in tandem, and they grow in a synchronized fashion.

Promising Developments (03:07)

NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to spot events that occurred further back in time than the Hubble telescope. Shep Doeleman spearheads the Event Horizon Telescope, a project that aims to do the impossible: to take a picture of a black hole.

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Project (12:12)

Levin and others explain the role that a historic project played in confirming one of Einstein’s theories. Nobel Prize winners Rai Weiss and Kip Thorne recall their contributions to the first recorded detection of gravitational waves, one of the holy grails of 20th century physics.

Violent Mergers (05:37)

The pulse is the result of two massive black holes whipping around each other hundreds of times a second before explosively merging. The result is a single, larger black hole that is 62 times the mass of the sun. LIGO has detected several more collisions.

Credits: Black Hole Apocalypse (00:48)

Credits: Black Hole Apocalypse

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Black holes are the most enigmatic and exotic objects in the universe. They’re also the most powerful, with gravity so strong it can actually trap light. And they’re destructive. Anything that falls into them vanishes—gone forever. But now, astrophysicists are realizing that black holes may be essential to understanding how our universe unfolded—possibly leading to life on Earth and us.

Length: 113 minutes

Item#: BVL191960

Copyright date: ©2018

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