People sometimes ask, "Is the universe a black hole?" Or worse, they claim: "The universe is a black hole!" No, it's not, and it's worth getting this one straight.

If there's any quantitative reasoning behind the question (or claim), it comes from comparing the amount of matter within the observable universe to the radius of the observable universe, and noticing that it looks a lot like the relationship between the mass of a black hole and its Schwarzschild radius. That is: if you imagine taking all the stuff in the universe and putting it into one place, it would make a black hole the size of the universe. Slightly more formally, it looks like the the universe satisfies the hoop conjecture, so shouldn't it form a black hole?

But a black hole is not "a place where a lot of mass has been squeezed inside its own Schwarzschild radius." It is, as Wikipedia is happy to tell you, "a region of space from which nothing, including light, can escape." The implication being that there is a region outside the black hole from which things could at least imagine escaping to. For the universe, there is no such outside region. So at a pretty trivial level, the universe is not a black hole.

You might say that this is picking nits, and the existence of an outside region is beside the point if the inside of our universe resembles a black hole. That's fine, except: it doesn't. You may have noticed that the universe is actually expanding, rather than contracting as you might expect the interior of a black hole to be. That's because, if anything, our universe bears a passing resemblance to a white hole. Our universe (according to conventional general relativity) has a singularity in the past, out of which everything emerged, not a singularity in the future into which everything is crashing. We call that singularity the Big Bang, but it's very similar to what we would expect from a white hole, which is just a time-reversed version of a black hole.

That insight, plus four dollars or so, will get you a grande latte at Starbucks. The spacetime solution to Einstein's equation that describes a universe expanding from the Big Bang is very similar to the time-reversal of a black hole, but you don't really learn much from making that statement, especially because there is no outside; everything you wanted to know was already there in the original cosmological language. Our universe is not going to collapse to a future singularity, even though the mass is enough to allow that to happen, simply because it's expanding; the singularity you're anticipating already happened.

Still, some folks will stubbornly insist, there has to be something deep and interesting about the fact that the radius of the observable universe is comparable to the Schwarzschild radius of an equally-sized black hole. And there is! It means the universe is spatially flat.

You can figure this out by looking at the Friedmann equation, which relates the Hubble parameter to the energy density and the spatial curvature of the universe. The radius of our observable universe is basically the Hubble length, which is the speed of light divided by the Hubble parameter. It’s a straightforward exercise to calculate the amount of mass inside a sphere whose radius is the Hubble length (M = 4π c3H-3/3), and then calculate the corresponding Schwarzschild radius (R = 2GM/c2). You will find that the radius equals the Hubble length, if the universe is spatially flat. Voila!

Note that a spatially flat universe remains spatially flat forever, so this isn't telling us anything about the universe now; it always has been true, and will remain always true. It's a nice fact, but it doesn't reveal anything about the universe that we didn't already know by thinking about cosmology. Who wants to live inside a black hole, anyway?