The Key to Understanding Black Holes Might Involve Bathtubs

Not unlike Soundgarden's song "Black Hole Sun," but with bathtubs

Bathtubs aren't just useful for getting people clean.
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It seems like scientists are learning more new things about black holes every month — if not faster. That’s included recent insights on what these all-devouring celestial bodies sound like — something that’s likely to inspire the more cosmically-minded among the doom metal set, among many others. The latest breakthrough in understanding black holes comes from something not generally associated with ambitious scientific research — the humble bathtub.

Or, in this case, a not-so-humble bathtub. If you’re familiar with a (possibly apocryphal) declaration made by Archimedes — the ancient thinker referenced most recently in the film Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny — you’ll know that bathtubs and science have a closer connection than one might initially suspect. And yes, this includes learning new things about black holes.

At The Guardian, Hannah Devlin spoke with Silke Weinfurtner, the professor heading a research effort into black holes at the University of Nottingham. Weinfurtner and her colleagues work with what Devlin describes as “a large, hi-tech bathtub,” which has the effect of both revealing new properties of black holes and demystifying them for a wider audience.

“[I]t helps to remind yourself, ‘Wait a second, it happens in my bathtub. Maybe it’s not so strange after all,’” Professor Weinfurtner told The Guardian.

As Devlin explains, the scientists are looking for parallels between the way fluid goes down a drain and the way space and time bend near a black hole. In this case, the fluid in question is highly cooled helium — but parts of the experiment will be familiar to anyone who’s stared at water circling a drain. It’s a striking combination of the mundane and the high-tech — and it might just improve humanity’s knowledge of the cosmos.

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