Ian Sample, science correspondent Saturday July 29, 2006 The Guardian
They swallow everything that comes their way and exercise the world's finest minds, but the portrayal of black holes as awe-inspiring celestial menaces may be woefully inaccurate, a team of scientists claim. Indeed, they might not exist at all.
According to the researchers, the traditional astronomers' view of a universe liberally sprinkled with invisible, all-consuming black holes should be replaced with an alternative that sees strange, magnetic balls of plasma floating in their place.
If the finding is verified - an event some scientists do not see on the horizon - it would dramatically overturn a theory that emerged from an English geologist's calculations in 1784, was verified by Einstein and confined by four laws drawn up by Professor Stephen Hawking.
The scientists, lead by Rudy Schild at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, spotted what they claim to be the death knell for black hole theory while observing a quasar, lurking nine billion light years from Earth.
Quasars are believed to have black holes at their centres, but to test this assumption, the scientists set up 14 telescopes to keep an unprecedented watch on the object. By analysing the gentle flickering of the quasar, the team were able to probe the structure of its interior.
They discovered a gaping hole in a disc of material surrounding the centre of the quasar, as wide as 4,000 times the distance from the Earth to the sun. The hole, they believe, could only be caused by a vast ejection of material propelled by a strong magnetic field.
Because black holes do not have magnetic fields, Dr Schild's team suggest in The Astronomical Journal, the quasar must be powered by a dense ball of plasma called a MECO (magnetospheric eternally collapsing object). But according to the astronomers' theories the MECOs' existence precludes the possibility of black holes.
"I believe this is the first evidence that the whole black hole paradigm is incorrect," said Darryl Leiter, a scientist on the team told the New Scientist.
According to Gerry Gilmore at Cambridge University's Institute for Astronomy, the theory has yet to convince most scientists. He pointed to last year's groundbreaking experiments that gave the first direct observation of a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. "I'd have to say it's a minority view. It's almost certainly wrong," said Prof Gilmore. "Before we had observations of a black hole, there was a legitimate debate over whether black holes existed or not, but now it's hard to think how it could be anything else."