Fisher-Price falls into a black hole

Contributed by
Feb 4, 2008

There are more misconceptions about black holes than probably any other area of astronomy (though I bet cosmology would give BHs a run for their money). A lot of TV shows and movies have exacerbated this, but now a toy enters the ring. Fischer-Price has created a series of action figures (or, as I like to call them, dolls) called Planet Heroes. And what are heroes without a nemesis? So they have introduced Professor Darkness (not to be confused with Captain Harkness or Butters' alter ego).

For some reason, they have associated Prof. Darkness with black holes, as you can see from the package:

Sure, you may ask, how hard is it to make fun of a product with the tag line, "With his corrupt little minions and negatronic cloud, he has vowed to destroy the solar system!"? Well first of all, I was considering this very line as the motto for my website, but then I realized that

1) my minions aren't (necessarily) corrupt, and

2) "negatronic" isn't a word. But it should be.

Also, I'll note that they have a hole in the plastic urging tots to stick their finger in it. Need I say it? It's a black hole! Don't put your finger on it!

Anyway, I applaud Fisher-Price for at least trying to get their description of black holes right, I suppose, but they missed the mark a bit. Well, more than a bit.

The description (seen at the bottom of the picture) has two lines:

A black hole happens when a giant star explodes and collapses.

Can be found anywhere in the solar system.

The first part is close, but unfortunately makes things worse. A black hole can form when the core of a very massive star collapses. Complicated physics ensue (as many details as you could possibly want will be forthcoming in my book), and the utter layers of the star explode outward while the inner core collapses inward. If the core is massive enough, a black hole will result.

Many people get confused about how a star which explodes outwards can form a black hole. But only the outer layers of the star explode; the inner part is what forms the black hole. So Fisher-Price got close, but wound up only confusing things more.

The second one is a bit scary. Black holes are in the solar system! Run for your lives!

First off, I think FP made the all-too-common mistake of confusing the solar system with the Milky Way galaxy. A lot of folks do this (heck, Joss Whedon did in Firefly at least once), but it still makes things difficult for people to understand the scale of space. Our solar system is huge on human terms -- it takes our probes decades to get to Pluto, for example -- but it is crushed into insignificance by the size of the galaxy. The Milky Way is 100,000 light years across, while our solar system is charitably a light week across. That makes the galaxy five million times bigger than the solar system.

And that's only diameter. The galaxy has depth, too. Its volumes is approximately... let's see... carry the three... a bajillion times that of the solar system. It's no contest.

The galaxy is filled with black holes; no doubt millions of them wander the deep black. But even so, the nearest is probably many dozens or even hundreds of light years away.

And if one were in our solar system, we'd know it. Things would be bad. Again, I give lots of nightmarish details in my book (due this fall from Viking! Order two!), but in general the planets would be out of place, comets would be screaming down from the outer reaches of the system, gamma and X-rays would be flooding out... we'd know. It's hard to hide a black hole.

So let me wrap up by saying black holes are cool, but grossly misunderstood. Fisher-Price is also cool, and attacking it, even gently and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, may be silly. But I love taking the opportunity of someone else's error to actually do some real astronomy education. If you want to buy those

dolls action figures for someone you know, why, go ahead! But point the kid to a reputable astronomy site, too. After they're done playing some fantasy, show them how cool the real Universe is too.

Tip o' the ergosphere to Stanley Wen for pointing this out to me on Facebook.

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