Black holes have captivated the imaginations of scientists and the general public alike since their existence was first theorized. These enigmatic cosmic entities, characterized by their incredibly powerful gravitational pull, have been the subject of extensive research. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of California–Santa Barbara, the University of Warsaw, and the University of Cambridge delves into a specific class of black holes called extremal Kerr black holes. These black holes, which exhibit stationary properties and possess coinciding inner and outer horizons, have been found to possess unique characteristics that could potentially act as “amplifiers” of unexplored physics.
A Paradigm Shift in Understanding
The notion that generic extremal black holes differ from previous understanding emerged as a result of a project initiated during a visit to UC Santa Barbara. Maciej Kolanowski, one of the researchers involved in the study, initiated discussions with Gary Horowitz (UCSB) and Jorge Santos (Cambridge) on the subject of extremely cold black holes. The team quickly realized that these extremal black holes possess distinct features that challenge prior beliefs. In their previous paper, Kolanowski, Horowitz, and Santos demonstrated that extremal black holes with a cosmological constant are subject to infinite tidal forces, rendering them inhospitable to life. However, in scenarios where the cosmological constant is assumed to be zero, as is the case in many astrophysical situations, this effect dissipates.
Building upon this previous work, Grant Remmen, an expert in effective field theories (EFTs), proposed the idea that higher-derivative terms in the gravitational EFT, which are quantum corrections to the Einstein equations, might give rise to singularities on the horizons of extremal black holes. Collaborating with Horowitz, Kolanowski, and Santos, Remmen set out to test this conjecture through a series of intricate calculations. The calculations considered Einstein gravity coupled with its leading quantum corrections.
A Surprising Discovery
Extremal black holes rotate at the highest conceivable rate, with their horizons moving at the speed of light. The research team’s calculations revealed that the higher-derivative EFT corrections cause the horizons of extremal black holes to become singular, exhibiting infinite tidal forces. This contrasts sharply with typical black holes, where tidal forces only become infinite at the center. Remarkably, the singularity extends from the black hole’s center all the way out to its horizon, defying conventional expectations. The magnitude of the divergence in tidal forces and the potential existence of tidal singularities near the horizon are strongly influenced by the EFT coefficients. Therefore, the results of the study suggest that new physics at higher energies can significantly impact the spacetime geometry in the vicinity of extremal black hole horizons.
The unexpected presence of a singularity at the horizon of extremal black holes holds significant implications for our understanding of physics. The coefficients of the EFT terms are determined by the types of particles and their couplings at high energies and short distances. Strikingly, the results indicate that the singularity arises even for the EFT coefficients generated by the Standard Model of particle physics. This finding challenges the notion of decoupling between different scales of distance in physics. Typically, the low-energy EFT can be applied without detailed knowledge of high-energy physics. However, in the case of rapidly spinning black holes, this foundational principle breaks down, rendering the low-energy EFT ineffective at the horizon.
The calculations performed by the research team shed light on the potential of extremal Kerr black holes as gateways to uncharted physics. While the horizons of these black holes can be vast, it was not anticipated that they would exhibit infinitely large curvature or infinite tidal forces in the EFT. Yet, that is precisely what the results of the study indicate. Moving forward, the researchers are eager to explore whether these singularities can be resolved through ultraviolet physics. A pressing question that remains unanswered is whether the horizon’s sensitivity to new physics persists all the way to the Planck scale or if it is somehow moderated at the short-distance scale associated with the EFT.
The investigation into extremal Kerr black holes has unearthed unforeseen phenomena that challenge our existing understanding of physics. These remarkable cosmic entities possess properties that are sensitive to quantum corrections and new physics. The implications of these findings could potentially revolutionize our understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe and pave the way for new avenues of exploration into the mysteries of black holes.