A black hole is a volume from which photons, or any matter, can not escape. More formally, the coordinate speed of light at the event horizon - the boundary of a black hole - is zero, as measured by a sufficiently separated observer.

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How close would you have to be to the merger of two black holes, for the effects of gravitational waves to be detected without instruments?

Assume two black holes in the most common size range, spiraling into each other until they merge. The event releases significant amounts of energy via gravitational waves, which warp the space-time. ...