Black holes that lurk in the vast darkness of space are confounding enough to study, but imagine one you accidentally created emerging from your experiment.
At the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) National Accelerator Laboratory, a recent molecular imaging experiment ventured where no human-generated X-ray beam has gone before when researchers realized that some bizarre atomic behavior created what they are calling a “molecular black hole.”
SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) images organic molecules and biological processes that occur on an almost imperceptible scale. It beams electrons onto the molecules, which then scatter in a predictable manner that reflects their structure before they are annihilated by the overwhelming energy of the electron beam. No wonder scientists call it “diffraction before destruction.” Molecular behavior in the face of the beam before the inevitable nano-catastrophe happens is crucial to precisely measuring something that otherwise eludes the naked eye, except this time, the results were hiding something more.
The research team, who recently published a study on their findings in the journal Nature, got an unexpected shock when they blasted the beam into xenon atoms and molecules containing iodine atoms. “Blasted” is an understatement. Like some sci-fi horror movie only visible under a superpowered microscope, the beam gutted the atoms by stripping their outer shells and even their innermost electrons. What was left between the nuclei and outer electrons was a gaping chasm. This rocketed the overall charge into overwhelmingly positive territory and resulted in a destructive phenomenon that is supposedly against the laws of physics. The chasm sucked in all surrounding electrons, including its own and those of surrounding atoms. No preference.
“When we have really, really intense X–rays like we do, there’s enough X–rays that you knock out one electron and before there’s time for recombination you knock off another, and then knock off another, and so on and so forth,” said LCLS staff scientist Sebastien Boutet, co-author of the study. “What that ends up doing is stripping most of the inner shells, and then that very highly charged molecule unexpectedly sucked in a bunch of electrons from neighboring atoms as a consequence.”
If you thought all those electrons being sucked in sounded even remotely like what happens when matter enters the event horizon of a black hole, you’re right. The difference is that cosmic black holes use a monstrous amount of gravity to siphon matter in past to the point of no return. They also do it without any human interference. An immense amount of power is needed for exposed nuclei to overwhelm atoms in their vicinity and steal electrons much as a black hole devours a star. Nevertheless, the team couldn’t help but observe eerie similarities in the final effect.
After that many minds were blown, it’s no surprise the accelerator is getting an upgrade.