Scientists have determined the mass of the largest things that could possibly exist in our universe. New results have placed an upper limit on the current size of black holes - and at fifty billion suns it's pretty damn big. That's a hundred thousand tredagrams, and you'll never get the chance to use that word in relation to anything else.
Black holes are regions of space where matter is so dense that regular physics just breaks down. You might think physical laws are immutable - you can't get out of gravitational attraction the same way you can get out of a speeding ticket - but beyond a certain level laws which determine how matter is regulated are simply overloaded and material is crushed down into something that's less an object and more a region of altered space.
While there's theoretically no upper limit on how big a black hole can be, there are hard limits on how big they could have become by now. The universe has only existed for a finite amount of time, and even the most voracious black hole can only suck in matter at a certain rate. The bigger the black hole, the bigger the gravitational field and the faster it can pull in matter - but that same huge gravitational gradient means that the same matter can release huge amounts of radiation as it falls, blasting other matter further away.
Based on this self-regulating maximum rate, scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Massachusetts, and the European Southern Observatory, Chile, have calculated an upper limit for these mega-mammoth masses. Fifty billion suns, that's 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 kg, otherwise known as "ridiculously stupidly big" and triple the size of the largest observed black hole, OJ 287.
There are potential problems with this calculation. Based as it is on the radiation outflow from a black hole, new discoveries could change this estimate - though only from "insanely massive" to "ridiculously ginormous."
Posted by Luke McKinney.
Image credit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2006-004 Supermassive black hole at Milky Way core.
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