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updated: 4/20/2011 8:52 AM

Wormholes allow travel between black holes

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  • The SVL is the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium.

      The SVL is the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium.
    Courtesy of Adler Planetarium

 

You wanted to know

"What are worm holes and how large are they?" asked students in Katherine Crawford's fifth-grade class at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein.

Physicist John Wheeler imagined a worm chomping through an apple, starting at the top and working its way through the core to finish its eating frenzy at the bottom of the apple, leaving a pathway.

This wormhole creates a path that would make the journey much quicker than traveling all the way around the outside of the apple to get from the top to the bottom.

Wheeler was illustrating Albert Einstein's theory that black holes could have a bridge between them, a wormhole that would permit travel from one black hole to another. Not only would the traveler venture from one place to another more quickly, but he or she would travel through a space-time dimension. More about space-time later.

"A wormhole is a hole in the structure of space and time," said Geza Gyuk, director of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

It helps to describe Einstein's theory of General Relativity.

"Instead of gravity being forces between objects, he proposed that gravity was a bending or warping of space," Gyuk said.

Gyuk illustrates Einstein's theory by relating a story about two people walking across the planet. Both start at the equator one mile apart. As they progress toward the North Pole, that one mile shrinks, yet the two maintain that they have continued walking due north. Checking coordinates, they would have remained one mile apart, but the planet is curved and the pathways come near to converging.

"What started out parallel at the equator slowly changed until, at the North Pole, the two people meet," Gyuk said.

Back to space-time. It's kind of like flying from east to west. If you get on a plane in New York, take a one-hour flight west crossing from the Eastern to Central time zones, you will land at the same time you started.

Space-time is pretty much the same thing. Entering the wormhole, you'll not only exit it much sooner than if you traveled completely around the space object, as Gyuk says, "You could travel from one black hole into another without traversing the space in between."

Here's the bad spot to the wormhole theory. Gravity could collapse the wormhole.

"The throat of the wormhole, which connects the two black holes, is unstable and would collapse instantly," Gyuk said. "To stabilize it, one would need massive quantities of exotic matter with negative mass, something we have never found."

Figuring out the size of a wormhole is tough.

"The size depends on the mass of the black holes and the amount of exotic matter that is used to stabilize it," Gyuk said.

No one can guess the length of this tunnel, either.

"The exit might not even be in the same universe as the entrance," Gyuk added.

Want to learn more about astronomy? Almost every day you can meet an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. Visit the Space Visualization lab from 2 to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and learn about science and technology or the planetarium's ongoing projects. See www.adlerplanetarium.org for more information.

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