What’s the difference between a black hole and a neutron star?
When a massive star nears the end of its life, it starts running out of nuclear fuel. Without the support of a continuous explosion, the star begins to collapse, crushed under its own weight.
What happens then depends on how much weight that is. The most massive stars collapse completely, into the densest form anything can take: a black hole. Einstein’s equations say a black hole is a single point, infinitely dense: get close enough and nothing, not even light, can escape. A quantum theory of gravity would change this, but not a lot: a quantum black hole would still be as dense as quantum matter can get, still equipped with a similar “point of no return”.
A slightly less massive star collapses, not to a black hole, but to a neutron star. Matter in a neutron star doesn’t collapse to a single point, but it does change dramatically. Each electron in the old star is crushed together with a proton until it becomes a neutron, a forced reversal of the more familiar process of Beta decay. Instead of a ball of hydrogen and helium, the star then ends up like a single atomic nucleus, one roughly the size of a city.
Now, let me ask a slightly different question: how do you tell the difference between a black hole and a neutron star?
Sometimes, you can tell this through ordinary astronomy. Neutron stars do emit light, unlike black holes, though for most neutron stars this is hard to detect. In the past, astronomers would use other objects instead, looking at light from matter falling in, orbiting, or passing by a black hole or neutron star to estimate its mass and size.
Now they have another tool: gravitational wave telescopes. Maybe you’ve heard of LIGO, or its European cousin Virgo: massive machines that do astronomy not with light but by detecting ripples in space and time. In the future, these will be joined by an even bigger setup in space, called LISA. When two black holes or neutron stars collide they “ring” the fabric of space and time like a bell, sending out waves in every direction. By analyzing the frequency of these waves, scientists can learn something about what made them: in particular, whether the waves were made by black holes or neutron stars.
One big difference between black holes and neutron stars lies in something called their “Love numbers“. From far enough away, you can pretend both black holes and neutron stars are single points, like fundamental particles. Try to get more precise, and this picture starts to fail, but if you’re smart you can include small corrections and keep things working. Some of those corrections, called Love numbers, measure how much one object gets squeezed and stretched by the other’s gravitational field. They’re called Love numbers not because they measure how hug-able a neutron star is, but after the mathematician who first proposed them, A. E. H. Love.
What can we learn from Love numbers? Quite a lot. More impressively, there are several different types of questions Love numbers can answer. There are questions about our theories, questions about the natural world, and questions about fundamental physics.
You might have heard that black holes “have no hair”. A black hole in space can be described by just two numbers: its mass, and how much it spins. A star is much more complicated, with sunspots and solar flares and layers of different gases in different amounts. For a black hole, all of that is compressed down to nothing, reduced to just those two numbers and nothing else.
With that in mind, you might think a black hole should have zero Love numbers: it should be impossible to squeeze it or stretch it. This is fundamentally a question about a theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity. If we took that theory for granted, and didn’t add anything to it, what would the consequences be? Would black holes have zero Love number, or not?
It turns out black holes do have zero Love number, if they aren’t spinning. If they are, things are more complicated: a few calculations made it look like spinning black holes also had zero Love number, but just last year a more detailed proof showed that this doesn’t hold. Somehow, despite having “no hair”, you can actually “squeeze” a spinning black hole.
(EDIT: Folks on twitter pointed out a wrinkle here: more recent papers are arguing that spinning black holes actually do have zero Love number as well, and that the earlier papers confused Love numbers with a different effect. All that is to say this is still very much an active area of research!)
The physics behind neutron stars is in principle known, but in practice hard to understand. When they are formed, almost every type of physics gets involved: gas and dust, neutrino blasts, nuclear physics, and general relativity holding it all together.
Because of all this complexity, the structure of neutron stars can’t be calculated from “first principles” alone. Finding it out isn’t a question about our theories, but a question about the natural world. We need to go out and measure how neutron stars actually behave.
Love numbers are a promising way to do that. Love numbers tell you how an object gets squeezed and stretched in a gravitational field. Learning the Love numbers of neutron stars will tell us something about their structure: namely, how squeezable and stretchable they are. Already, LIGO and Virgo have given us some information about this, and ruled out a few possibilities. In future, the LISA telescope will show much more.
Returning to black holes, you might wonder what happens if we don’t stick to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Physicists expect that relativity has to be modified to account for quantum effects, to make a true theory of quantum gravity. We don’t quite know how to do that yet, but there are a few proposals on the table.
Asking for the true theory of quantum gravity isn’t just a question about some specific part of the natural world, it’s a question about the fundamental laws of physics. Can Love numbers help us answer it?
Maybe. Some theorists think that quantum gravity will change the Love numbers of black holes. Fewer, but still some, think they will change enough to be detectable, with future gravitational wave telescopes like LISA. I get the impression this is controversial, both because of the different proposals involved and the approximations used to understand them. Still, it’s fun that Love numbers can answer so many different types of questions, and teach us so many different things about physics.
Unrelated: For those curious about what I look/sound like, I recently gave a talk of outreach advice for the Max Planck Institute for Physics, and they posted it online here.