and now for something surprisingly simpler
Usually a new discovery in deep space tends to further complicate our picture of the universe, almost as if the cosmos says “oh yeah, you think you have a good idea of how this works?” and throws a monkey wrench into the works, or sometimes, the whole screaming, angry monkey. So when it comes to phenomena as complex and exciting as black holes, surely there can’t be any data that makes them easier to understand. But this time, when physicists wanted to figure out if jets from black holes followed the same patterns as the mass of the objects went up, nature was willing to cooperate. As it turns out, the powerful jets of material shot from the accretion disks of black holes of 20 solar masses and 20 million solar masses follow the same mechanism. How do we know that? By plotting their strength against the mass of the black hole. If the data follows a linear trend, we know that the physics don’t require a new process to explain the numbers.
So what exactly is happening around black holes? As you may already know, black holes aren’t the cosmic vacuum cleaners far too many sci-fi movies made them out to be. They simply stay where they were very violently born and their immense tidal forces accelerate anything straying nearby into their maws. But black holes are tiny on an astronomical scale and only eat so much at a time. Whatever doesn’t fall directly into their event horizons is whipped around them until it heats up into a glowing accretion disk we can detect. And some of this material gets trapped in the powerful magnetic fields around the black hole and is launched into deep space at 99.9% of the speed of light in the form of highly energetic jets which produce powerful gamma rays. This process seemed to be the same for every black hole observed, but there’s no way to be sure if the black holes affected the jets beyond kinetic energy unless you start comparing gamma ray bursts to one another and plotting them along a trend line.
If the trend is exponential, that means new physics are needed to explain the sudden surges in power as we go up in the jet’s energy and vice versa. But the observed trend between kinetic energy of the jets and the power of the gamma ray bursts is linear, which means that it’s rather likely that the process behind forming the jets is the same across the entire spectrum of known black holes. The black hole’s mass affects how much is can swallow at a time and how powerful the jets it emits could be. The power of the jets affects the observed gamma ray bursts when a new black hole is formed and when it’s in the middle of a large meal consisting of stars and gas floating through interstellar space. So if we know that when we up the jets’ power, we also make the GRB stronger in a predictable way, that tells us that we can more or less confidently scale up what we learn about smaller black holes to their immense siblings, and estimate black holes sizes based on the GRBs’ strength. And that’s very useful for learning more about these prolific and extremely influential gravitational ghosts of giant stars.
See: Nemmen, R., et al. (2012). A universal scaling for the energetics of relativistic jets from black hole systems Science, 338 (6113), 1445–1448 DOI: 10.1126/science.1227416