Thought Experiments


Are White Holes Real?

Sailors have their krakens and their sea serpents. Physicists have white holes: cosmic creatures that straddle the line between tall tale and reality. Yet to be seen in the wild, white holes may be only mathematical monsters. But new research suggests that, if a speculative theory called loop quantum gravity is right, white holes could be real—and we might have already observed them.

Image: Flickr user C.P.Storm, adapted under a Creative Commons license.

A white whole is, roughly speaking, the opposite of a black hole. “A black hole is a place where you can go in but you can never escape; a white hole is a place where you can leave but you can never go back,” says Caltech physicist Sean Carroll. “Otherwise, [both share] exactly the same mathematics, exactly the same geometry.” That boils down to a few essential features: a singularity, where mass is squeezed into a point of infinite density, and an event horizon, the invisible “point of no return” first described mathematically by the German physicist Karl Schwarzschild in 1916. For a black hole, the event horizon represents a one-way entrance; for a white hole, it’s exit-only.

There is excellent evidence that black holes really exist, and astrophysicists have a robust understanding of what it takes to make one. To imagine how a white hole might form, though, we have to go out on a bit of an astronomical limb. One possibility involves a spinning black hole. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the rotation smears the singularity into a ring, making it possible in theory to travel through the swirling black hole without being crushed. General relativity’s equations suggest that someone falling into such a black hole could fall through a tunnel in space-time called a wormhole and emerge from a white hole that spits its contents into a different region of space or period of time.

Though mathematical solutions to those equations exist for white holes, “they’re not realistic,” says Andrew Hamilton, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. That is because they describe universes that contain only black holes, white holes and wormholes—no matter, radiation or energy. Indeed, previous research, including Hamilton’s, suggests that anything that falls into a spinning black hole will essentially plug up the wormhole, preventing the formation of a passage to a white hole.

But there’s a light at the end of the wormhole, so to speak. General relativity, from which Hamilton draws his predictions, breaks down at a black hole’s singularity. “The energy density and the curvature become so large that classical gravity is not a good description of what’s happening there,” says Stephen Hsu, a physicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Perhaps a more complete model of gravity—one that works as well on the quantum scale as it does on large ones—would negate the instability and allow for white holes, he says.

Indeed, a unified theory that merges gravity and quantum mechanics is one of the holy grails of contemporary physics. Applying one such theory, loop quantum gravity, to black holes, theorists Hal Haggard and Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University in France have shown that black holes could metamorphose into white holes via a quantum process. In July, they published their work online.

Loop quantum gravity proposes that space-time is made up of fundamental building blocks shaped like loops. According to Haggard and Rovelli, the loops’ finite size prevents a dying star from collapsing all the way down into a point of infinite density, and the shrinking object rebounds into a white hole instead. This process may take just a few thousandths of a second, but thanks to the intense gravity involved, the effects of relativity make the transformation appear to take much, much longer to anyone watching from afar. That means that minuscule black holes born in the infant universe could “now be ready to pop off like firecrackers,” forming white holes, according to a report in Nature. Some of the explosions astronomers thought were supernovae may actually be the wails of newborn white holes.

The black-to-white conversion could resolve a nettlesome conundrum known as the black hole information paradox. The notion that information can be destroyed is anathema in physics, and general relativity says that anything, including information, that falls into a black hole can never escape. These two statements are not at odds if black holes simply act as locked safes for any information they slurp up, but Stephen Hawking showed 40 years ago that black holes actually evaporate over time. That led to the disturbing possibility that the information contained within them could be lost too, triggering a debate that rages to this day.

But if a black hole instead turns into a white hole, then “all the information is recovered,” says Haggard. “We are quite excited about this mechanism because it avoids so many of the thorny issues that surround this discussion.”

The new work is preliminary, however, and it is far from clear whether loop quantum gravity is an accurate description of reality. The only glimpse we get of white holes might turn out to be those we model in labs and kitchen sinks. But Carroll says that’s okay. Just thinking about these possibly mythical cosmic creatures can improve physicists’ intuition, “even if the real world is messy and not like those exact situations,” he says. “That’s the way in which white holes are very useful.”

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Inside Black Holes
Physicist Andrew Hamilton is your guide on a visual journey inside a variety of kinds of black holes.

Nautilus: “White Holes” Could Exist—But That Doesn’t Mean They Do
Matthew Francis on white holes and their implications for the symmetry of time.

Ask an Astronomer: What is a white hole?
Astronomer Karen Masters provides an introduction to the physics of white holes.

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Maggie McKee

    Maggie McKee is a freelance science writer focusing mainly on astronomy and physics. She worked at New Scientist as both a reporter and physical sciences news editor from 2003 to 2012 and in 2012 was one of the winners of the first European Astronomy Journalism prize. She studied physics at Grinnell College and science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now lives near Boston with her husband and a passel of four-legged friends.