What Do Black Holes Actually Feel Like?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Written by Nathan Sharp

For many of us, it's the stuff of nightmares. Getting sucked into a black hole, never to return - and not knowing what will happen to you. Don't worry... A Black Hole isn't about to swoop in and swallow you up anytime soon, but if it did... What would it feel like? What do you think would happen?


What Do Black Holes Actually Feel Like?

Black holes are undeniably one of the scariest but also most intriguing things in existence. Over the years, literature and movies have conceptualized them as expansive, malicious, and incredibly threatening forces that devour everything in their path, including space and light itself. And that is definitely true. They are scary, and they do consume everything in their way. But are black holes actually as frightening as fiction proposes? And what would happen if you found yourself falling towards one?

There are a few different types of black hole to contend with, the most common being stellar black holes and supermassive black holes. The stellar kind are created upon the implosion of a star. Once a massive star runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star literally collapses in upon itself. Most stars will explode and leave behind a white dwarf or a neutron star. However, those with an end mass above the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit (TOV for short) will continue their collapse until a stellar black hole is formed. This hole is relatively small but incredibly dense, resulting in an unbelievable amount of gravitational force. Imagine a sun several times larger than our own collapsing into an area the size of New York but retaining its pre-New York mass. What you get is a very small but incredibly heavy mass of matter, that’s dense enough to distort and essentially punch a hole into space itself.

Supermassive black holes, on the other hand, and as their name kind of suggests, are much larger. Scientists still aren’t quite sure how these are formed, but they are sure that they’re mostly found at the center of galaxies. In the middle of our Milky Way, for example, is the site of a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A-star.

Now suppose you were falling towards one of these black hole types? What exactly would you feel and experience? Well, it does depend on size. But, supposing that you’ve somehow withstood the vacuum of space, you really wouldn’t feel much at all - although it’d certainly be an alarming experience. For most of the time, you’d simply experience weightlessness, as you wouldn’t initially feel the full effects of the black hole’s gravity. So, falling towards a black hole (at least at first) may actually be a rather pleasant and even relaxing experience. Of course, how peaceful you’d find the feeling of weightlessness depends on how calm you are about your severely ‘lost in space/never to return’ situation. All things considered, no one would blame you for panicking!

Eventually you’d cross the black hole’s event horizon - which isn’t a physical part of the black hole, but the theoretical location wherein nothing, not even light, can escape it. Think of it like a ship entering a dangerous whirlpool. Eventually, there comes a moment when it’s simply impossible to steer the ship to safety. The event horizon is that location, where the pull of the black hole is so extreme. And if light can’t escape, you sure as heck can’t retrace your steps, either.

As the falling observer, you wouldn’t actually know when you had crossed the event horizon. It’s not like entering the “black” part of a black hole. Rather, the hole itself would appear directly below your feet, as if you were on a slide and the hole was the ground. To you, it may grow larger and more expansive as you slowly descend, and the universe around you would distort. But you’d still never knowingly cross the horizon itself. In other words, you would never fully fall into that pit of darkness. It would rather seem to be waiting for you, perpetually ready to swallow you whole. But still, all along the way, you would physically feel nothing.

In the case of smaller black holes, you’d probably be dead long before you even crossed the event horizon. However, with supermassive black holes, you could find yourself floating for a long, long time. And if the black hole was big enough, you could cross the event horizon long before you actually expire.

Most black holes are also very, very cold, despite the ring of Hawking radiation surrounding them. Supermassive black holes have a temperature of almost absolute zero, even colder than the temperature of space, which is about 2.7 Kelvin, or roughly -454 degrees Fahrenheit. So, even if you were suited and booted enough to withstand the vacuum of space and its extreme temperatures, you’d inevitably feel the chill inside one of these things.

More crucially still, throughout your fall, time would begin to distort. You’d feel like the seconds were passing normally, but an outside observer would see it differently. Say that an onlooker could somehow see your wristwatch as you fell into the hole. To them, the watch would appear to tick slower and slower and slower, and your body would eventually seem to pause in space. They wouldn’t see you actually cross the horizon – you’d simply appear like a rigid statue at the edge of the black hole, while your hypothetically indestructible wristwatch takes longer and longer to tick. But for you, time would seem to continue at a normal speed, and your watch would eventually bypass what the outside observer can see. But unfortunately, you wouldn’t see into the future.

Next comes the fun part. Because sooner or later you’d feel the effects of the black hole’s tidal force. The tidal force is the actual force of gravity at the black hole’s very centre, known as its singularity. So, if you were falling in feet first, the force of gravity would be stronger at your toes than it would be at your head. This would result in a super-stretched feeling as your legs are drawn towards the center of the black hole faster than the upper half of your body. And here comes the REALLY fun part! Eventually this force would become so strong that you would be ruthlessly ripped apart by gravity and crumpled into a little string of atoms, before fatefully descending into the singularity. Fittingly enough, this process is called spaghettification.

Luckily for you, you wouldn’t actually feel much of what we can only imagine would be unbelievable pain. From start to finish, spaghettification is a blink-of-the-eye event – with a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton, J. Richard Gott, calculating that death would occur in one-tenth of a second, regardless of the size of the black hole. So, after slowly and weightlessly falling towards the hole, you’d very quickly feel a sense of pain and an immense pull, before being torn apart molecule by molecule. Your atomic remains would then travel to the singularity and simply cease to exist.

And what happens then? Suppose your consciousness somehow remained? The truth is, no one knows. Some people believe that black holes are wormholes to other dimensions or areas of space. But others have rubbished that idea, arguing that a black hole’s center is simply…nothingness, where physics and reality as we know them just disappear. It’s like trying to think about what the nothingness was like before you were born. It’s inconceivable for us.

All in all, black holes are clearly pretty intimidating, but not entirely something to be feared. In fact, they do have the decency to grant you a very short and relatively painless death. You simply feel nothing for a large majority of your time near and in a black hole. Yes, space itself will distort around you, as you slowly descend into an apparently bottomless void, but any fear, panic or extreme nausea you might feel would be entirely mental. Because your physical body wouldn’t feel a thing… Until you experience a quick and painful pang as the singularity draws you in. But you’d be dead before your brain had even properly processed it.

Death via black hole would feel like little more than a quick tug at your feet, almost as if someone was trying to steal your shoes. And that’s quite a comforting thought, unless you really love your shoes.