Monday, October 13, 2008

Travel Word of the Week: Spaghettification

I have a love affair with words.  I love the feeling of new words rolling off the tongue.  And old words... those deep, nearly genetic links to days past.  So, one of our new features will be Words in the World.  

This week the word is:  spaghettification.

Spaghettification has been in the news of late.  It is what might happen to a person if they got too close to a black hole -- their body would be pulled and stretched out infinitely thin like a piece of spaghetti.  

The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum explains the process like this:

"Although so far no humans have come close enough to a black hole to experience its effects first hand, students are often fascinated by imagining what would happen if they ventured too close. Black holes are so massive that the forces due to gravity are many times stronger than they are here on Earth. Gravity is an attractive force that is responsible for the orbits of the planets, the fall of an apple from a tree, and our weight on the Earth's surface. The force due to gravity between two objects depends on three things: the masses of both objects and the distance between them. Newton's equation for gravitational force is F=GMm/R2. On Earth, gravity acts differently on our feet than our heads. The reason for this is because the force of gravity is inversely related to distance. Our feet are closer to the center of the Earth than our heads (unless we were doing a handstand!). Since the force due to Gravity is not that strong, and the distance between our heads and our feet is not great, we hardly notice the difference in forces. This is not the case near black holes. Near black holes, the force of gravity is so strong that the pull is much stronger on the point closest to the black hole. If you went in feet first, the difference between the gravity acting on your head and your feet would be different enough to stretch you out end to end and compress you in the middle like a piece of spaghetti. The difference in the gravitational force near a black hole is so large that this effect would happen to just about anything that got too close.

"This phenomenon is called "spaghettification" because the object approaching the black hole would be stretched long and thin like a piece of spaghetti. Unfortunately, humans could not survive this spaghettification process. Another, more general name for this effect is tidal force. A tidal force from a black hole is like the tidal forces of the Moon, which cause high and low tides in the oceans here on Earth. On the other hand, near a supermassive black hole, which is millions of times wider than other types of black holes, you would NOT be spaghettified before you reached the event horizon. The larger size of the supermassive black hole means that the tidal forces outside the event horizon are much weaker. However, you would still cross the event horizon of the black hole and not be able to escape. Likewise, the shorter a body is near a black hole, the less spaghettification will occur because there is less distance between the top and bottom of the body."

So, why is spaghettification in the news?  Well, there are people who are concerned that the research being done at CERN's new LHC Accelerator will create black holes which might hurt people at the facility -- or even swallow up the entire universe.  Interested?  Read the New York Times article about the accelerator's launch.

I'll leave the experts to worry about the end of the world.  Personally, as the granddaughter of a particle physicist, I am just enjoying the new vocabulary word!  

Your task:  use spaghettification in a sentence at least three times this week!  
Better yet, post a sentence or two below...

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