How to Create a Black Hole Out of Thin Air

By John Mercury December 26, 2023

How many ways are there to leave this universe?

Perhaps the best known exit entails the death of a star. In 1939 the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder, of the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that when a sufficiently massive star runs out of thermonuclear fuel, it collapses inward and keeps collapsing forever, shrink-wrapping space, time and light around itself in what today is called a black hole.

But it turns out that a dead star might not be needed to make a black hole. Instead, at least in the early universe, giant clouds of primordial gas may have collapsed directly into black holes, bypassing millions of years spent in stardom.

That is the tentative conclusion recently reached by a group of astronomers studying UHZ-1, a speck of light dating from not long after the Big Bang. In fact, UHZ-1 is (or was) a powerful quasar that spat fire and X-rays from a monstrous black hole 13.2 billion years ago, when the universe was not quite 500 million years young.

That is unusually soon, cosmically speaking, for so massive a black hole to have come into being through stellar collapses and mergers. Priyamvada Natarajan, an astronomer at Yale and the lead author of a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and her colleagues, contend that in UHZ-1 they have discovered a new celestial species, which they call an overmassive black hole galaxy, or O.B.G. In essence, an O.B.G. is a young galaxy anchored by a black hole that became too big too fast.

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