Black holes born with magnetic fields quickly shed them

New simulations show one way the voids might lose their ‘hair’

simulation of a black hole's magnetic field

A black hole (left in this simulation) will cast off its magnetic field (indicated with green lines) when surrounded by moving plasma (velocity indicated in red and blue). Small loops of the magnetic field encapsulate blobs of plasma, some of which are expelled from the black hole while others fall into it.

A. Bransgrove et al/PRL 2021

Like a shaggy dog in springtime, some black holes have to shed. New computer simulations reveal how black holes might discard their magnetic fields.

Unlike dogs with their varied fur coats, isolated black holes are mostly identical. They are characterized by only their mass, spin and electric charge. According to a rule known as the no-hair theorem, any other distinguishing characteristics, or “hair,” are quickly cast off. That includes magnetic fields.

The rule applies to black holes in a vacuum, where magnetic fields can simply slip away. But, says astrophysicist Ashley Bransgrove of Columbia University, “what we were thinking about is what happens in a more realistic scenario.” A magnetized black hole would typically be surrounded by electrically charged matter called plasma, and scientists didn’t know how — or even if — such black holes would undergo hair loss.

Black holes can be born with magnetic fields or gain them later, for example by swallowing a neutron star, a highly magnetic dead star (SN: 6/29/21). When Bransgrove and colleagues simulated the plasma surrounding a magnetized black hole, they found that a process called magnetic reconnection allows the magnetic field to escape the black hole. The magnetic field lines that map out the field’s direction break apart and reconnect. Loops of magnetic field form around blobs of plasma, some of which blast outward, while others fall into the black hole. That process eliminates the black hole’s magnetic field, the researchers report in the July 30 Physical Review Letters.

Magnetic reconnection in balding black holes could spew X-rays that astronomers could detect. So scientists may one day glimpse a black hole losing its hair.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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