Relativity, a Study in Spaghettification and Rings of Fire

Perception is relative. That’s essentially the crux of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. For example, if you’re standing on the side of the road and a car passes you going 55 mph, from your perception, the car is going really fast. Conversely, if you’re in a car on the highway going 50 mph and that same car passes you going 55 mph, it doesn’t seem to be going very fast. It’s all a matter of perspective. Sprinkle a little gravity across that theory, and you have Einstein’s general relativity. General relativity describes the effect gravity has on its surroundings such as spacetime and light.

Photo by JP Barnaby

With that in mind, the panelists Dr. Pamela Gay, Dr. Stephen Granade, Mira McKinnon, and Juliana Texley played a fascinating game where the audience had to determine if certain conditions required relativity in order to occur. In one example—an LCD display versus a CRT (cathode ray tube) TV—relativity governs the technology of the CRT TV because it projects electrons against the phosphor coated screen. Whereas, the LCD TV simply sends electric potential across the crystals on the screen. One happens because of relativity, the other doesn’t.

This artist’s concept shows a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies, and fundamental aspects of their behavior have baffled scientists. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the most interesting aspects of the panel included a discussion by McKinnon on black holes and firewalls. Black holes are objects with a gravitational pull so powerful, nothing—even light—can achieve escape velocity, causing anything crossing the event horizon to fall in being crushed and trapped forever. The firewall comes into play when particles get pulled across the event horizon (the edge of the black hole) into the gravitation of the black hole. As those particles break down, they release a bursts of energy around the singularity as a “ring of fire” or a “firewall” that would not be seen because the light from the energy wouldn’t escape the gravitation. Those are particles, but if a person fell feet first into a black hole, they’d be in a world of trouble. Because the gravity is more intense the closer the body is to the center of the black hole (the singularity), the feet would experience a stronger pull than the head, stretching out the body like a piece of spaghetti. Well, after it was charred by the firewall, and of course, before the gravitational force crushed it.

It’s a theoretical paradox, one of many in physics.

Author of the article

JP Barnaby, an award-winning gay romance novelist, is the author of over two dozen books, including Aaron and Painting Fire on the Air. When she's not hanging out with porn stars or being spanked by hot guys in leather, she binge watches shows like Daredevil and Agents of Shield. A physics geek, she likes the science side of Sci-Fi, and wants to grow up to be Reed Richards.