Even if you could measure three black
holes’ locations as precisely as physically possible, you still might not know
where the black holes would go. Such a trio’s complex dance can be so chaotic
that the motions are fundamentally unpredictable, new computer simulations
The paths of three black holes orbiting each other can be calculated based on their positions and velocities at one point in time. But in some cases, the orbits depend so sensitively on the black holes’ exact positions that the uncertainty of quantum physics comes into play. Tiny quantum uncertainties in specifying the locations of objects can explode as the black holes’ gyrations continue over tens of millions of years, astrophysicist Tjarda Boekholt and colleagues report in the April Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. So the distant future of the black holes’ orbits is impossible to foresee.
Such extreme sensitivity to initial conditions is known as chaos. The new study suggests, in the case of three black holes, “quantum mechanics imprints into the universe chaos at a fundamental level,” says astrophysicist Nathan Leigh of Universidad de Concepción in Chile, who was not involved with the research.
In chaotic systems, tiny changes can generate
wildly different outcomes. The classic example is a butterfly flapping its wings, thereby altering weather patterns, possibly
producing a distant tornado that otherwise wouldn’t have formed (SN: 9/16/13). This chaos also shows up
in the orbits of three black holes and other collections of three or more objects,
making such orbits difficult to calculate, a conundrum known as the three-body