If light has no mass, then what draws it into a black hole? (Intermediate)

Photons (which are the "particles" that make up light) have zero rest mass. To understand why photons "fall" into a black hole, you need to know a bit of general relativity. What general relativity says is that any massive object warps the spacetime around it. You can think of this with a simple analogy. Imagine a stretched rubber sheet that is completely flat. This represents the spacetime when there is no mass. Now, if you put a heavy ball in the rubber sheet, it will cause a distortion in the sheet. This is exactly what happens in space, except that it is in 3 dimensions instead of two.

Further, a photon always travels by the shortest distance between two points. As spacetime is warped, the light appears to bend around a massive object. In reality, it is not that the object is attracting light, but it is just that the photons are traveling by the shortest distance in a curved spacetime.

Around a black hole, the distortion of spacetime is extreme. At the event horizon of a black hole, the spacetime curves into itself and as a result, light cannot escape from a black hole.

This page was last updated June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Jagadheep D. Pandian

Jagadheep D. Pandian

Jagadheep built a new receiver for the Arecibo radio telescope that works between 6 and 8 GHz. He studies 6.7 GHz methanol masers in our Galaxy. These masers occur at sites where massive stars are being born. He got his Ph.D from Cornell in January 2007 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Insitute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. After that, he worked at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii as the Submillimeter Postdoctoral Fellow. Jagadheep is currently at the Indian Institute of Space Scence and Technology.

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