Graphite, the mineral form of carbon that makes up pencil leads, can slip apart into tiny flakes to teach us some pretty incredible things. These ultra-thin sheets, as common as they are, give us unique insight into the extraordinary worlds of black holes.
“Graphene is an atomically thin single sheet of carbon atoms that actually exists when you draw something with a pencil; in the debris field of your drawing, there’s little pieces of graphene,” says Marcel Franz, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia and Deputy Director at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute.
A decade ago, scientists discovered how to isolate single pieces of graphene, and observing these atomic sheets of carbon atoms revealed new properties. And those are properties that are related to black holes, and maybe even wormholes, says Franz.
“Black holes are these enigmatic objects that have some very interesting properties when you try to think about them as both relativistic objects and quantum mechanical objects,” adds Franz.
“Believe it or not, there are very clear parallels in physics between physics of black holes and what happens in a small flake of graphene. It comes down to mathematical description. The two are described by basically the same mathematical equations that you can write down on paper, and one can learn from the physics of black holes about graphene, and vice versa.”
The parallels allow theoretical physicists like Franz to do something that would otherwise be impossible: study the physics of black holes up close, right inside our labs on Earth.
“There’s no conceivable experiment that we can think of that would probe the physics of a black hole from up close,” says Franz.
“It’s amazing that you can answer some of the questions that pertain to the physics of black holes by studying a flake of graphene or some other similar material in the lab.”