I don't have any formal education in physics and I have found it hard to find a succinct and somewhat simple to comprehend explanation of what we think is the actual reality of a black hole. I'm asking after seeing a statement saying that the mass of the central supermassive black hole in the Phoenix Cluster was 20 billion solar masses and the diameter we think to be approximately 118 billion kilometres across.

Is someone able to point me to a resource or give me a simple explanation as to what we think a black hole actually is in shape? Is it a solid sphere with a central point and a radius of approximately 59 billion kilometres? A spinning disc with a face that is 118 billion kilometres across and if so what are the other measurements?

Am I thinking about this all wrong with regards to trying to understand it as a shape at all? If I understand correctly, mass doesn't give any indication of size as it is dependent on density. Is a black hole just basically a somewhat spherical body of mass like any other that just has an absolutely massive density and spin?


1 Answer 1


I should start off by saying that black holes are enigmas. In describing our universe, we have the General Theory of Relativity (GR) to help us describe gravity and objects which are very massive. We also have quantum mechanics (QM) and quantum field theory to help us describe small objects such as particles. For the most part, these two realms are completely separate and these two important theories don't mix. After all, you don't need QM to describe the physics of orbiting the Sun, and you don't need GR to describe electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus.

A problem arises though, when you begin talking about objects which require both QM and GR, and black holes fall very nicely into this regime. Often we find that when we mix the two theories, we wind up with nonsensical answers. It is highly probable that our understanding of the mechanics of a black hole is incomplete. What we really need is a quantum gravity theory to talk about black holes and as yet we don't have one.

That being said, let me lay out the basic structure of a black hole based on what current theory suggests to be true. Fortunately, black holes are relatively simple in structure, as dictated by the No-Hair Theorem (which basically says you only need a few parameters to completely describe the state of a black hole, as opposed to what you'd need to fully describe the physics of a person or even an atom). The (somewhat simplified) anatomy of a black hole is shown below.

enter image description here

In this diagram there are a few important parts. The first being the singularity. When you put a bunch of mass together, gravity acts to squeeze that mass into a ball. That is what drives the fusion in our Sun and makes our planet round. Normally there is some resistive force that stops the matter from collapsing completely, such as the structural integrity of rocks in the Earth or fusion in the Sun. At some point though, if you pack on enough mass, that resistive force can't hold out and gravity wins. In this case, all the matter collapses down as far as it can go. It becomes a point of matter known as a singularity. This singularity has no size, it is literally (and mathematically) a point. All the mass of the black hole exists here. So when they say a black hole is 20 billion solar masses, they mean that the singularity contains the matter equivalent to 20 billion Suns, all confined to that single point.

The other important concept for a black hole is the event horizon. I should stress that the event horizon is not a physical object in space. It is a mathematical boundary. Without getting into the nitty-gritty and in basic terms, the event horizon is where our current physics "stops working". We cannot describe inside the event horizon with our current physics because we are in that region where both QM and GR are important and they don't play well together. The event horizon is also the boundary where, if crossed, you're trapped forever in the black hole. There's a lot more physics involved with the event horizon, but that's the gist. Usually when someone refers to the size of a black hole, they're talking about the event horizon. Thus if they say the black hole is 118 billion kilometers across, they mean that the event horizon has a diameter of 118 billion kilometers. Note, from the image above, that the radius of the event horizon is easily calculated from only the mass of the singularity (and a few physical constants).

There are further components to a black hole such as the ergosphere or photon sphere, and often black holes have accretion disks of material around them. I'll leave those concepts to another question though.

  • $\begingroup$ As you say - event horizon is where our current physics "stops working" - so there's no good reason to say there's singularity in the middle. It only describes how GR fails to tell us what's really there. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 23, 2016 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Mithoron Yes and no. There's no great reason to think that there actually is a singularity inside the event horizon. We only say that there is because the Schwarzschild Solution to the GR field equations indicates a singularity. It could be though that a quantum gravity theory, which would truly describe the physics inside a black hole, indicates some other object exists inside the event horizon. That doesn't necessarily mean GR is wrong and there isn't a singularity though. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr
    Aug 23, 2016 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, but right now your answer isn't consistent, so you should edit it. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 23, 2016 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer zephyr. I see other people have raised this and I was thinking about it whilst reading your answer. What indication do we have that a singularity even exists? If our maths breaks down at the event horizon how have we come to the conclusion that the mass must all be contained in a central point that does not actually have any size? It is very hard to conceptualize something that exists yet doesn't take up any space? It sounds more like a mathematical concept than a possible reality and I don't understand what leads us to believe that this is true? $\endgroup$
    – Kanero
    Aug 24, 2016 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ I can't see a way to edit the comment I just left sorry but I see that you've listed the Schwarzschild Solution to the question I had about what indicates a singularity. My apologies for missing that in your comment. I'll read up about this now. I think my questions from here go too deep in to things I don't yet understand to continue asking here. Thanks for the research points. $\endgroup$
    – Kanero
    Aug 24, 2016 at 8:36

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