30 September 2009 by Rachel Courtland
THE mammoth black holes at the centre of most galaxies may be pushing the universe closer to its final fade-out. And it is all down to the raging disorder within those dark powerhouses.
Disorder is measured by a quantity called entropy, something which has been on the rise ever since the big bang. Chas Egan and Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University in Canberra used the latest astrophysical data to calculate the total entropy of everything in the universe, from gas to gravitons. It turns out that supermassive black holes are by far the biggest contributors to the universe’s entropy. Entropy reflects the number of possible arrangements of matter and energy in an object. The number of different configurations of matter a black hole could contain is staggering because its internal state is completely mysterious.
Egan and Lineweaver found that everything within the observable universe contains about 10104 units of entropy (joules per Kelvin), a factor of 10 to 1000 times higher than previous estimates that did not include some of the biggest known black holes (www.arxiv.org/abs/0909.3983, submitted to The Astrophysical Journal).
If entropy were ever to reach a maximum level, that would mean the heat death of the universe. In this scenario no energy can flow, because everything is the same temperature and so life and other processes become impossible. “Our results suggest we’re a little further along that road than previously thought,” Egan says.
But although black holes do boost the universe’s total entropy, it is not clear….
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