Black hole: A snap­shot of sci­ence’s power to amaze

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY EUGENE ROBIN­SON Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

For­get ev­ery­thing else for a mo­ment and be­hold in­fin­ity.

On Wed­nes­day, sci­en­tists un­veiled a fuzzy im­age that should blow ev­ery mind on the planet: the first-ever pic­ture of a black hole, which is a re­gion of space so dense that noth­ing can es­cape its grav­i­ta­tional pull, not even light. Black holes were pre­dicted by Albert Ein­stein’s the­ory of gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity, and their ex­is­tence has been in­ferred from decades’ worth of in­di­rect ob­ser­va­tion. But we’ve never ac­tu­ally seen one un­til now, and the ex­pe­ri­ence is hum­bling.

Black holes, which are not rare – one lurks at the cen­ter of our own galaxy, the Milky Way – can be thought of as por­tals that lead to some other realm that lies for­ever be­yond our reach. They are places where space and time cease to ex­ist, where the fa­mil­iar pa­ram­e­ters that de­fine our re­al­ity lose all meaning.

The black hole in ques­tion, known as M87, lies at the heart of a galaxy far, far away – 55 mil­lion light-years dis­tant, to be a bit more pre­cise. That an in­ter­na­tional team of as­tro­physi­cists was able to snap its photo is a re­minder that while so many of our in­sti­tu­tions have lost their way and squan­dered the pub­lic trust, sci­ence is still ca­pa­ble of do­ing mirac­u­lous things.

To see M87, they needed a te­le­scope as big as the earth it­self. To sim­u­late such a thing, they trained ex­ist­ing ra­dio tele­scopes at eight widely sep­a­rated sites around the globe on the tar­get si­mul­ta­ne­ously, gath­er­ing moun­tains of data – so much that the files were too large to be sent through the in­ter­net and had to be shipped around on high-ca­pac­ity hard drives.

An­other key mem­ber of the team was com­puter sci­en­tist Kather­ine Bouman, 29, soon to be an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Cal­tech, who de­vel­oped an al­go­rithm that made it pos­si­ble to com­bine the mas­sive amounts of data pro­duced by the par­tic­i­pat­ing tele­scopes. Those of us who be­lieve in the power of di­ver­sity pre­dicted that sci­ence would greatly ben­e­fit by open­ing its doors to women. We were right.

The great­est con­tri­bu­tion, of course, came from Ein­stein. A cen­tury ago, he de­scribed grav­ity not as a force of at­trac­tion be­tween masses (Isaac New­ton’s view) but as a warp­ing of space­time. His equa­tions made predictions that were coun­ter­in­tu­itive and even pre­pos­ter­ous – that the path of light from a dis­tant source would be curved by pass­ing near a mas­sive ob­ject, for ex­am­ple, or that time would pass more slowly near a strong grav­i­ta­tional field. On all counts, how­ever, he turned out to be right. Your mo­bile phone’s GPS would send you ca­reen­ing into brick walls if com­pen­sa­tion were not made for the time dis­tor­tion that Ein­stein de­scribed.

But even Ein­stein was dis­turbed when Karl Sch­warzschild, an­other Ger­man physi­cist, used the equa­tions of gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity to work out that if mat­ter be­came too dense it would col­lapse into a black hole. The idea seemed ab­surd. But Sch­warzschild’s math turned out to be right.

How is it even pos­si­ble to take a pic­ture of a black hole against the inky black­ness of space? How do you cap­ture an im­age of noth­ing? It turns out that some black holes, in­clud­ing the mas­sive M87, are sur­rounded by in­falling ma­te­rial that cir­cles rapidly like wa­ter go­ing down a drain. All of that ma­te­rial reaches such high speeds that it forms a hot, glow­ing disc – a blaz­ing dough­nut around the vo­ra­cious hole.

Hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of epic screw-ups that en­dan­ger our very ex­is­tence. But some­times, some­how, we still get it right.

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