A black hole is a theoretical region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, not even electromagnetic radiation (e.g. visible light), can escape its pull after having fallen past its event horizon. The term derives from the fact that the absorption of visible light renders the hole's interior invisible, and indistinguishable from the black space around it.
Despite its interior being invisible, a black hole may reveal its presence through an interaction with matter that lies in orbit outside its event horizon. For example, a black hole may be perceived by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit its center. Alternatively, one may observe gas (from a nearby star, for instance) that has been drawn into the black hole. The gas spirals inward, heating up to very high temperatures and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and earth-orbiting telescopes. Such observations have resulted in the general scientific consensus that—barring a breakdown in our understanding of nature—black holes do exist in our universe.
The idea of an object with gravity strong enough to prevent light from escaping was proposed in 1783 by the Reverend John Michell, an amateur British astronomer. In 1795, Pierre-Simon Laplace, a French physicist independently came to the same conclusion. Black holes, as currently understood, are described by the general theory of relativity. This theory predicts that when a large enough amount of mass is present in a sufficiently small region of space, all paths through space are warped inwards towards the center of the volume, preventing all matter and radiation within it from escaping.
While general relativity describes a black hole as a region of empty space with a point-like singularity at the center and an event horizon at the outer edge, the description changes when the effects of quantum mechanics are taken into account. Research on this subject indicates that, rather than holding captured matter forever, black holes may slowly leak a form of thermal energy called Hawking radiation and may well have a finite life. However, the final, correct description of black holes, requiring a theory of quantum gravity, is unknown.
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