John Michell used the term "dark star" in a November 1783 letter to Henry Cavendish, and in the early 20th century, physicists used the term "gravitationally collapsed object". Science writer Marcia Bartusiak traces the term "black hole" to physicist Robert H. Dicke, who in the early 1960s reportedly compared the phenomenon to the Black Hole of Calcutta, notorious as a prison where people entered but never left alive.
The idea of a body so big that even light could not escape was briefly proposed by English astronomical pioneer and clergyman John Michell in a letter published in November 1784. Michell's simplistic calculations assumed such a body might have the same density as the Sun, and concluded that one would form when a star's diameter exceeds the Sun's by a factor of 500, and its surface escape velocity exceeds the usual speed of light. Michell referred to these bodies as dark stars. He correctly noted that such supermassive but non-radiating bodies might be detectable through their gravitational effects on nearby visible bodies. Scholars of the time were initially excited by the proposal that giant but invisible 'dark stars' might be hiding in plain view, but enthusiasm dampened when the wavelike nature of light became apparent in the early nineteenth century, as if light were a wave rather than a particle, it was unclear what, if any, influence gravity would have on escaping light waves.
In 1915, Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity, having earlier shown that gravity does influence light's motion. Only a few months later, Karl Schwarzschild found a solution to the Einstein field equations that describes the gravitational field of a point mass and a spherical mass. A few months after Schwarzschild, Johannes Droste, a student of Hendrik Lorentz, independently gave the same solution for the point mass and wrote more extensively about its properties. This solution had a peculiar behaviour at what is now called the Schwarzschild radius, where it became singular, meaning that some of the terms in the Einstein equations became infinite. The nature of this surface was not quite understood at the time. In 1924, Arthur Eddington showed that the singularity disappeared after a change of coordinates, although it took until 1933 for Georges Lemaître to realize that this meant the singularity at the Schwarzschild radius was a non-physical coordinate singularity. Arthur Eddington did however comment on the possibility of a star with mass compressed to the Schwarzschild radius in a 1926 book, noting that Einstein's theory allows us to rule out overly large densities for visible stars like Betelgeuse because "a star of 250 million km radius could not possibly have so high a density as the Sun. Firstly, the force of gravitation would be so great that light would be unable to escape from it, the rays falling back to the star like a stone to the earth. Secondly, the red shift of the spectral lines would be so great that the spectrum would be shifted out of existence. Thirdly, the mass would produce so much curvature of the spacetime metric that space would close up around the star, leaving us outside (i.e., nowhere)."
Objects whose gravitational fields are too strong for light to escape were first considered in the 18th century by John Michell and Pierre-Simon Laplace. In 1916, Karl Schwarzschild found the first modern solution of general relativity that would characterize a black hole. David Finkelstein, in 1958, first published the interpretation of "black hole" as a region of space from which nothing can escape. Black holes were long considered a mathematical curiosity; it was not until the 1960s that theoretical work showed they were a generic prediction of general relativity. The discovery of neutron stars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967 sparked interest in gravitationally collapsed compact objects as a possible astrophysical reality. The first black hole known was Cygnus X-1, identified by several researchers independently in 1971.
The simplest static black holes have mass but neither electric charge nor angular momentum. These black holes are often referred to as Schwarzschild black holes after Karl Schwarzschild who discovered this solution in 1916. According to Birkhoff's theorem, it is the only vacuum solution that is spherically symmetric. This means there is no observable difference at a distance between the gravitational field of such a black hole and that of any other spherical object of the same mass. The popular notion of a black hole "sucking in everything" in its surroundings is therefore correct only near a black hole's horizon; far away, the external gravitational field is identical to that of any other body of the same mass.
In 1931, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated, using special relativity, that a non-rotating body of electron-degenerate matter above a certain limiting mass (now called the Chandrasekhar limit at 1.4 M☉) has no stable solutions. His arguments were opposed by many of his contemporaries like Eddington and Lev Landau, who argued that some yet unknown mechanism would stop the collapse. They were partly correct: a white dwarf slightly more massive than the Chandrasekhar limit will collapse into a neutron star, which is itself stable. But in 1939, Robert Oppenheimer and others predicted that neutron stars above another limit (the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit) would collapse further for the reasons presented by Chandrasekhar, and concluded that no law of physics was likely to intervene and stop at least some stars from collapsing to black holes. Their original calculations, based on the Pauli exclusion principle, gave it as 0.7 M☉; subsequent consideration of neutron-neutron repulsion mediated by the strong force raised the estimate to approximately 1.5 M☉ to 3.0 M☉. Observations of the neutron star merger GW170817, which is thought to have generated a black hole shortly afterward, have refined the TOV limit estimate to ~2.17 M☉.
In 1958, David Finkelstein identified the Schwarzschild surface as an event horizon, "a perfect unidirectional membrane: causal influences can cross it in only one direction". This did not strictly contradict Oppenheimer's results, but extended them to include the point of view of infalling observers. Finkelstein's solution extended the Schwarzschild solution for the future of observers falling into a black hole. A complete extension had already been found by Martin Kruskal, who was urged to publish it.
In this period more general black hole solutions were found. In 1963, Roy Kerr found the exact solution for a rotating black hole. Two years later, Ezra Newman found the axisymmetric solution for a black hole that is both rotating and electrically charged. Through the work of Werner Israel, Brandon Carter, and David Robinson the no-hair theorem emerged, stating that a stationary black hole solution is completely described by the three parameters of the Kerr–Newman metric: mass, angular momentum, and electric charge.
The term "black hole" was used in print by Life and Science News magazines in 1963, and by science journalist Ann Ewing in her article "'Black Holes' in Space", dated 18 January 1964, which was a report on a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Cleveland, Ohio.
At first, it was suspected that the strange features of the black hole solutions were pathological artifacts from the symmetry conditions imposed, and that the singularities would not appear in generic situations. This view was held in particular by Vladimir Belinsky, Isaak Khalatnikov, and Evgeny Lifshitz, who tried to prove that no singularities appear in generic solutions. However, in the late 1960s Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking used global techniques to prove that singularities appear generically. For this work, Penrose received half of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, Hawking having died in 2018. Based on observations in Greenwich and Toronto in the early 1970s, Cygnus X-1, a galactic X-ray source discovered in 1964, became the first astronomical object commonly accepted to be a black hole.
These results came at the beginning of the golden age of general relativity, which was marked by general relativity and black holes becoming mainstream subjects of research. This process was helped by the discovery of pulsars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, which, by 1969, were shown to be rapidly rotating neutron stars. Until that time, neutron stars, like black holes, were regarded as just theoretical curiosities; but the discovery of pulsars showed their physical relevance and spurred a further interest in all types of compact objects that might be formed by gravitational collapse.
In December 1967, a student reportedly suggested the phrase "black hole" at a lecture by John Wheeler; Wheeler adopted the term for its brevity and "advertising value", and it quickly caught on, leading some to credit Wheeler with coining the phrase.
In 1971, Hawking showed under general conditions that the total area of the event horizons of any collection of classical black holes can never decrease, even if they collide and merge. This result, now known as the second law of black hole mechanics, is remarkably similar to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease. As with classical objects at absolute zero temperature, it was assumed that black holes had zero entropy. If this were the case, the second law of thermodynamics would be violated by entropy-laden matter entering a black hole, resulting in a decrease in the total entropy of the universe. Therefore, Bekenstein proposed that a black hole should have an entropy, and that it should be proportional to its horizon area.
The first strong candidate for a black hole, Cygnus X-1, was discovered in this way by Charles Thomas Bolton, Louise Webster, and Paul Murdin in 1972. Some doubt, however, remained due to the uncertainties that result from the companion star being much heavier than the candidate black hole. Currently, better candidates for black holes are found in a class of X-ray binaries called soft X-ray transients. In this class of system, the companion star is of relatively low mass allowing for more accurate estimates of the black hole mass. Moreover, these systems actively emit X-rays for only several months once every 10–50 years. During the period of low X-ray emission (called quiescence), the accretion disk is extremely faint allowing detailed observation of the companion star during this period. One of the best such candidates is V404 Cygni.
In 1974, Hawking predicted that black holes are not entirely black but emit small amounts of thermal radiation at a temperature ℏc /(8πGMkB); this effect has become known as Hawking radiation. By applying quantum field theory to a static black hole background, he determined that a black hole should emit particles that display a perfect black body spectrum. Since Hawking's publication, many others have verified the result through various approaches. If Hawking's theory of black hole radiation is correct, then black holes are expected to shrink and evaporate over time as they lose mass by the emission of photons and other particles. The temperature of this thermal spectrum (Hawking temperature) is proportional to the surface gravity of the black hole, which, for a Schwarzschild black hole, is inversely proportional to the mass. Hence, large black holes emit less radiation than small black holes.
The link with the laws of thermodynamics was further strengthened by Hawking's discovery in 1974 that quantum field theory predicts that a black hole radiates blackbody radiation at a constant temperature. This seemingly causes a violation of the second law of black hole mechanics, since the radiation will carry away energy from the black hole causing it to shrink. The radiation, however also carries away entropy, and it can be proven under general assumptions that the sum of the entropy of the matter surrounding a black hole and one quarter of the area of the horizon as measured in Planck units is in fact always increasing. This allows the formulation of the first law of black hole mechanics as an analogue of the first law of thermodynamics, with the mass acting as energy, the surface gravity as temperature and the area as entropy.
Work by James Bardeen, Jacob Bekenstein, Carter, and Hawking in the early 1970s led to the formulation of black hole thermodynamics. These laws describe the behaviour of a black hole in close analogy to the laws of thermodynamics by relating mass to energy, area to entropy, and surface gravity to temperature. The analogy was completed when Hawking, in 1974, showed that quantum field theory implies that black holes should radiate like a black body with a temperature proportional to the surface gravity of the black hole, predicting the effect now known as Hawking radiation.
Although general relativity can be used to perform a semi-classical calculation of black hole entropy, this situation is theoretically unsatisfying. In statistical mechanics, entropy is understood as counting the number of microscopic configurations of a system that have the same macroscopic qualities (such as mass, charge, pressure, etc.). Without a satisfactory theory of quantum gravity, one cannot perform such a computation for black holes. Some progress has been made in various approaches to quantum gravity. In 1995, Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa showed that counting the microstates of a specific supersymmetric black hole in string theory reproduced the Bekenstein–Hawking entropy. Since then, similar results have been reported for different black holes both in string theory and in other approaches to quantum gravity like loop quantum gravity.
The proper motions of stars near the centre of our own Milky Way provide strong observational evidence that these stars are orbiting a supermassive black hole. Since 1995, astronomers have tracked the motions of 90 stars orbiting an invisible object coincident with the radio source Sagittarius A*. By fitting their motions to Keplerian orbits, the astronomers were able to infer, in 1998, that a 2.6×10 M☉ object must be contained in a volume with a radius of 0.02 light-years to cause the motions of those stars. Since then, one of the stars—called S2—has completed a full orbit. From the orbital data, astronomers were able to refine the calculations of the mass to 4.3×10 M☉ and a radius of less than 0.002 light-years for the object causing the orbital motion of those stars. The upper limit on the object's size is still too large to test whether it is smaller than its Schwarzschild radius; nevertheless, these observations strongly suggest that the central object is a supermassive black hole as there are no other plausible scenarios for confining so much invisible mass into such a small volume. Additionally, there is some observational evidence that this object might possess an event horizon, a feature unique to black holes.
The Hawking radiation for an astrophysical black hole is predicted to be very weak and would thus be exceedingly difficult to detect from Earth. A possible exception, however, is the burst of gamma rays emitted in the last stage of the evaporation of primordial black holes. Searches for such flashes have proven unsuccessful and provide stringent limits on the possibility of existence of low mass primordial black holes. NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope launched in 2008 will continue the search for these flashes.
In November 2011 the first direct observation of a quasar accretion disk around a supermassive black hole was reported.
One attempt to resolve the black hole information paradox is known as black hole complementarity. In 2012, the "firewall paradox" was introduced with the goal of demonstrating that black hole complementarity fails to solve the information paradox. According to quantum field theory in curved spacetime, a single emission of Hawking radiation involves two mutually entangled particles. The outgoing particle escapes and is emitted as a quantum of Hawking radiation; the infalling particle is swallowed by the black hole. Assume a black hole formed a finite time in the past and will fully evaporate away in some finite time in the future. Then, it will emit only a finite amount of information encoded within its Hawking radiation. According to research by physicists like Don Page and Leonard Susskind, there will eventually be a time by which an outgoing particle must be entangled with all the Hawking radiation the black hole has previously emitted. This seemingly creates a paradox: a principle called "monogamy of entanglement" requires that, like any quantum system, the outgoing particle cannot be fully entangled with two other systems at the same time; yet here the outgoing particle appears to be entangled both with the infalling particle and, independently, with past Hawking radiation. In order to resolve this contradiction, physicists may eventually be forced to give up one of three time-tested principles: Einstein's equivalence principle, unitarity, or local quantum field theory. One possible solution, which violates the equivalence principle, is that a "firewall" destroys incoming particles at the event horizon. In general, which—if any—of these assumptions should be abandoned remains a topic of debate.
In 2015, the EHT detected magnetic fields just outside the event horizon of Sagittarius A* and even discerned some of their properties. The field lines that pass through the accretion disc were a complex mixture of ordered and tangled. Theoretical studies of black holes had predicted the existence of magnetic fields.
On 14 September 2015, the LIGO gravitational wave observatory made the first-ever successful direct observation of gravitational waves. The signal was consistent with theoretical predictions for the gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes: one with about 36 solar masses, and the other around 29 solar masses. This observation provides the most concrete evidence for the existence of black holes to date. For instance, the gravitational wave signal suggests that the separation of the two objects before the merger was just 350 km (or roughly four times the Schwarzschild radius corresponding to the inferred masses). The objects must therefore have been extremely compact, leaving black holes as the most plausible interpretation.
On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo collaboration announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves, representing the first observation of a black hole merger. On 10 April 2019, the first direct image of a black hole and its vicinity was published, following observations made by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) in 2017 of the supermassive black hole in Messier 87's galactic centre. As of 2021 , the nearest known body thought to be a black hole is around 1,500 light-years (460 parsecs) away. Though only a couple dozen black holes have been found so far in the Milky Way, there are thought to be hundreds of millions, most of which are solitary and do not cause emission of radiation. Therefore, they would only be detectable by gravitational lensing.
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is an active program that directly observes the immediate environment of black holes' event horizons, such as the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. In April 2017, EHT began observing the black hole at the centre of Messier 87. "In all, eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents observed the galaxy in Virgo on and off for 10 days in April 2017" to provide the data yielding the image in April 2019. After two years of data processing, EHT released the first direct image of a black hole; specifically, the supermassive black hole that lies in the centre of the aforementioned galaxy. What is visible is not the black hole—which shows as black because of the loss of all light within this dark region. Instead, it is the gases at the edge of the event horizon (displayed as orange or red) that define the black hole.
On 10 April 2019, an image was released of a black hole, which is seen magnified because the light paths near the event horizon are highly bent. The dark shadow in the middle results from light paths absorbed by the black hole. The image is in false color, as the detected light halo in this image is not in the visible spectrum, but radio waves.
Another way the black hole nature of an object may be tested is through observation of effects caused by a strong gravitational field in their vicinity. One such effect is gravitational lensing: The deformation of spacetime around a massive object causes light rays to be deflected, such as light passing through an optic lens. Observations have been made of weak gravitational lensing, in which light rays are deflected by only a few arcseconds. Microlensing occurs when the sources are unresolved and the observer sees a small brightening. In January 2022, astronomers reported the first possible detection of a microlensing event from an isolated black hole.
On 12 May 2022, the EHT released the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. The published image displayed the same ring-like structure and circular shadow as seen in the M87* black hole, and the image was created using the same techniques as for the M87 black hole. However, the imaging process for Sagittarius A*, which is more than a thousand times smaller and less massive than M87*, was significantly more complex because of the instability of its surroundings. The image of Sagittarius A* was also partially blurred by turbulent plasma on the way to the galactic centre, an effect which prevents resolution of the image at longer wavelengths.
In April 2023, an image of the shadow of the Messier 87 black hole and the related high-energy jet, viewed together for the first time, was presented.