This bizarre space object could fill in some crucial gaps in String Theory — and it's really weird

A topological soliton could be bending space-time like a black hole, but releasing scattered light into the universe — while filling in some crucial holes in string theory.
John Loeffler
A proposed visual representation of a topological soliton in space
A topographical soliton would look like a kaleidoscope in space.

Pierre Heidmann/John Hopkins University 

What if a black hole was a star that emitted light?

This might seem like a complete contradiction in terms, but that might be the best way to describe a newly proposed type of space object called a topological soliton, described in a new paper accepted for publication in Physical Review D.

The proposed object is entirely mathematical at the moment, but researchers at Johns Hopkins University believe that not only is the proposed object possible, it might even be out there in the universe.

"We were very surprised," said the paper's lead author and Johns Hopkins University physicist Pierre Heidmann. "The object looks identical to a black hole, but there's light coming out from its dark spot."

After the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed the existence of black holes back in 2015 (years before the first photograph of a black hole was ever taken), the Johns Hopkins researchers wondered what other objects could be passing for black holes but actually weren't.

"How would you tell when you don't have a black hole? We don't have a good way to test that," said study co-author Ibrahim Bah, also a Johns Hopkins physicist. "Studying hypothetical objects like topological solitons will help us figure that out as well."

Using very complicated math, the researchers were able to construct what they term a topological soliton and, using computer simulations, were able to reveal what the object might actually look like. Ultimately, you end up with a space-warping star-like object that bends and curves space around it but emits light like a kaleidoscope when looked at very closely.

And, the fact that something like this appears to be mathematically possible means that the likelihood of its actual existence in the universe would presumably be high, given the size of the universe.

"Light is strongly bent, but instead of being absorbed like it would in a black hole, it scatters in funky motions until at one point it comes back to you in a chaotic manner," Heidmann said. "You don't see a dark spot. You see a lot of blur, which means light is orbiting like crazy around this weird object."

What does a topological soliton even look like?

This bizarre space object could fill in some crucial gaps in String Theory — and it's really weird
Researchers were able to determine what a topological soliton would look like.

Fortunately, because we know how light behaves in the context of space-time and gravity wells, the researchers were able to construct what such an object would look like if it existed. By taking a normal picture of space and applying the mathematical equations that would show how light would move in the presence of such extreme gravity, we get a pretty trippy look at what such an object would look like up close.

The up-close part is important, because the light the soliton would emit is very weak and severely scattered, so it would look like a blurry black hole from far enough away.

What's also not clear is how something like this would even form, so for now the topological soliton is more of a way to study extreme objects predicted by string theory than something we should actually go out looking for in the night sky (were such a thing even possible).

"These are the first simulations of astrophysically relevant string theory objects, since we can actually characterize the differences between a topological soliton and a black hole as if an observer was seeing them in the sky," Heidmann said.

"It's the start of a wonderful research program," Bah adds. "We hope in the future to be able to genuinely propose new types of ultracompact stars consisting of new kinds of matter from quantum gravity."

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