In terms of "coolest ways to die," it's hard to beat "sucked into a black hole." The question's just: what would that entail, exactly? No one has first-hand experience. Would you spend weeks floating past its event horizon, before eventually being ripped apart? Or would you—as string theorist Joseph Polchinski recently proposed—soar into a "seething maelstrom of particles... hit a wall of fire and be burned to a crisp in an instant"?
As it turns out, the answer to that question could change the way we understand the physical universe.
In this month's Nature, Zeeya Merali writes about the coolest current debate in physics. Until recently, most physicists agreed that black hole death involved being ripped apart (and then crushed)—a process they called, charmingly, "spaghettification." But calculations by string theorist Joseph Polchinski seem to indicate that you'd actually get burned alive in a wall of fire at the black hole's event horizon.
Here's how Merali describes the two methods on an accompanying podcast:
Wall of Fire
So: obviously this is an important debate for stoned college kids. But why is it important to physicists? As it turns out, the "Wall of Fire" model precludes Einsteinian relativity—but "fixing" it breaks our current understanding of quantum physics. Physicists are still debating the models: "To completely understand the firewall paradox, we may need to flesh out that dictionary," Harvard's Juan Maldacena told Merali, "but we won't need to throw it out." Another way of resolving all of this: toss someone in a black hole and see what happens.
[Nature, NASA illustration via AP]