Holes in the atmosphere of the universe: An empirical qualitative study on mental models of students regarding black holes





black holes, mental models, astronomy, university students, empirical study


Black holes are both interesting to many students and are part of several school and university curricula. However, it has not yet been documented in detail what kind of mental models of black holes students have. As such, this study qualitatively reports on the mental models of 53 university students, most of them with a non-physics major. The gestalts of the mental models found were mostly disc shaped holes or black spheres, though some funnels or ellipsoids were also described by the students. As for the functionality, students associated attractive functions with a black hole, though more elaborate descriptions such as time dilation or gravitational lensing and Hawking radiation were also named. All university students described a kind of black hole creation, though not all knew about their change in time and only described growth or could not give founded reasons for the change. Several participants showed potential problems by seeing their mental model as a direct replica of reality and assumed that black holes were literally holes. Conceptual problems regarding things “behind” the holes were raised. The results show that many rudimentary properties of black holes are known to university students without explicit education in that field, and a surprising amount of physics quantities were associated with them, although things like density or mass were described inadequately in several cases. Though mental models of black holes were not documented this extensively before, parallels in thinking with mental models in other areas of physics could be observed, making the findings consistent with literature.