Teachers' Conference: Supermassive Black Holes and their Destructive Tidal Forces

Coordinators: Kate Alexander

Most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, harbor supermassive black holes at their centers. When a star wanders too close to one of these black holes, it can be torn apart by the black hole's incredible tidal gravitational field; this stellar destruction by tides transforms the spherical star into a “spaghettified” stream of stellar debris. In a matter of months, a fraction of this debris stream heats up and falls into the black hole, producing a flare of light. Studying this process, called a tidal disruption event (TDE), tests our understanding of physics in extreme conditions and illuminates the environment immediately surrounding the black hole, which is otherwise invisible. This conference will cover the physics of supermassive black holes and the effects of their disruptive tidal forces, incorporating recent observational and theoretical advances in the rapidly-developing study of TDEs. We will also discuss activities that participating teachers can use to illustrate some of these concepts in the classroom.