Black Holes May Hold the Secret to Dark Energy

Case Western Reserve University physicist Glenn Starkman, Ph.D., is on the hunt for black holes, and he thinks he knows where to find one: deep underground, along the border between France and Switzerland.

The CERN laboratory's Large Hadron Collider is the world's most powerful particle accelerator.

The CERN laboratory's Large Hadron Collider is the world's most powerful particle accelerator. Photo: Getty

That sounds like an odd place to look, but that’s where the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator resides. The CERN laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider began its commissioning this fall, and its job is to send particle beams crashing into each other with such energy that the resulting collisions re-create the conditions that followed the Big Bang.

Protons colliding at these speeds blow apart and, under the right conditions, something amazing can happen. “We could make black holes,” Starkman says.

Black holes surfacing on Earth may sound frightening, but these black holes would be tiny and unstable. There would be no risk of them gobbling up their surroundings.

“They’ll only last about a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second,” he says. “Then they’ll fall apart.”

In fact, Starkman and other scientists analyzing the collisions won’t be able to see the black holes intact. They’ll see the fireballs that emerge from the black holes after they fall apart.

If that sounds anticlimactic, Starkman swears it won’t be. “If we’re able to produce black holes, we’ll start to better understand one of the great mysteries of physics—why quantum theory and gravity don’t seem to make sense together.”

Quantum theory works on a very small scale and applies to atoms, protons, electrons and other subatomic particles. Gravity and the theory of general relativity, however, work on a macro scale. Both theories fail when applied to the other’s domain; therefore, neither one offers a complete understanding of the universe.

“These tiny black holes—if we’re able to create them—will allow us to examine the quantum mechanics of gravity,” Starkman says.

That, in turn, may begin to explain where dark energy, the mysterious tension driving the expansion of the universe, comes from and why it behaves the way it does. Dark energy, much like quantum particles, defies gravity; it pushes matter apart, not together. This anomaly baffles scientists—and there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to explain it any time soon.

“We won’t really understand dark energy until we understand how quantum theory and gravity go together,” Starkman says. “Black holes may offer some important clues, but there’s a chance we won’t be able to make them. We’re hoping that we can.”