We Asked Astronomers About CNN's Black Hole-Based Malaysian Plane Theory

Last night, CNN's Don Lemon speculated that the missing Malaysia Airlines flight may have disappeared from the Earth because of a black hole. An Ivy League astronomer thinks that's unlikely. 

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Last night, CNN's own Don Lemon speculated that the missing Malaysia Airlines flight may have disappeared from the earth because of something "we don't really understand." That thing? Black holes. An Ivy League astronomer The Wire spoke with thinks that's unlikely.

Normally one finds black holes in space. What Lemon presupposes was: maybe also in the Indian Ocean? After raising the idea, he continued: "I know it's preposterous. But is it preposterous?" On air, Lemon's question was quickly shot down by Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general, who said that "a small black hole would suck in our entire universe so we know it's not that."

But The Wire wasn't satisfied with that answer. Just how dumb is the black hole theory? Based on answers from two experts, it is an extremely dumb theory.

A somewhat gruff Columbia astronomy professor named David J. Helfand told The Wire by email that, simply put, "black holes comparable to the mass of an airplane or somewhat bigger that could attract and swallow a plane do not exist."

Even if a black hole capable of swallowing a plane out of the sky did exist, Peter Michelson, a professor of physics and Stanford University added, "a lot of other things would be missing as well." when asked for examples of what we'd notice missing, Michelson said, "probably the Earth."

But don't worry, that's not going to happen. Helfand explained why the idea that a black hole could just appear somewhere, briefly opening up like a baseball glove to catch the plane and then close again and vanish, is not really accurate. "Black holes do not 'open up,'" he wrote, adding that "Black holes are simply extremely dense concentrations of mass in which gravity is so strong on the surface that light cannot escape. They can only be formed in extremely violent events involving energies vastly greater than those that exist on Earth."

Currently, there are two general types of black holes: the kind that forms when a massive star dies, and a second type with a much larger mass. Those larger black holes exist in the centers of galaxies. The first type has a mass of about 3 to 30 times that of the Sun, while the larger ones are 1-1000 million times the Sun's mass. Helfand adds: "If either type of black hole came anywhere near Earth, they would swallow the entire solar system, not just a jet plane." (NASA has a good plain-language primer on the two types of black holes here). 

But, with apologies to Lemon, could there be another form of more suitable plane-sucking black hole that we don't yet understand? Well, not really. While very small black holes might be possible, they'd be extremely unstable. Here's Helfand's answer:

The only other conceivable place black holes can form is in the Big Bang itself. While we have no evidence as yet that they did, they could , in principle, be of any mass. However, as Stephen Hawking showed many years ago, tiny black holes would have evaporated by now (through a process that is well-understood but too complicated to explain here)." 

"To show how silly this is," Helfand added, "a black hole, say, ten times the mass of a 777 (300,000 kg fully loaded) would be 0.0000000000000000000001 inches across (yes, that's 21 zeros)."

In conclusion: Do we, as a human species on Earth, understand everything there is to know in the universe about black holes? No. But we definitely know enough to answer conclusively whether one of them swallowed the missing plane. On the other hand: ratings.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.