Black holes fascinate the public and scientists alike because they are where it all breaks down: matter, unlucky stars and space flotsam, and our understanding of physics.

And while scientists have chipped away at their mysteries—from capturing the first image of one, to detecting the ripples in space-time they create when colliding—key parts of understanding black holes have escaped them. For example, Stephen Hawking suggested in 1974 that black holes actually emit a stream of warm radiation created by their extremely strong gravity; but of course, no one has been able to get close enough to a black hole to observe it.

Physicist William Unruh later suggested that the same type of radiation would appear if you were moving at a high enough acceleration; Einstein’s theory of general relativity confirms the equivalence between the two types of radiation. But Unruh radiation also has not been observed, since you would need to be accelerating tremendously fast just to see a tiny bit of the radiation—a G force on the order of a billion billion. (Fighter pilots top out at 10 Gs).

A team of physicists at the University of Chicago has built a quantum system to simulate the physics of this Unruh radiation. The breakthrough advances our understanding of these complex physics—and could ultimately help us explain how the largest and smallest phenomena in the universe fit together.

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Image courtesy Hu et al.