Even a black hole yields the light of discovery

Scientists have captured the first direct image of a supermassive black hole. Photo Credit: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

There are few phrases that conjure metaphysical dread more vividly than the words “black hole.”They have captured the imagination of …

Scientists have captured the first direct image of a supermassive black hole.
Scientists have captured the first direct image of a supermassive black hole. Photo Credit: Tartine Manufactory

There are few phrases that conjure metaphysical dread more vividly than the words “black hole.”

They have captured the imagination of humans since a German physicist used Albert Einstein’s equations more than 100 years ago to theorize that black holes existed. And what an image they conjured — an abyss in outer space so dense and so deep that nothing, not even light, could escape it.

That’s why people worldwide greeted the unveiling Wednesday of an actual image of a black hole, the first ever produced, with equal parts awe, shock and joy. When you see the unseeable and ponder the unthinkable, the mind reels.

The announcement was so epic, it was made simultaneously in seven cities around the world, including Washington. As with many space discoveries, the numbers are numbing. The image of a fiery ring around a dark center was produced by 200 scientists who used eight telescopes on four continents to produce the equivalent of 2 billion high-quality photographs and analyzed them over two years. The black hole itself in the galaxy Messier 87 is some 55 million light-years from Earth. It’s 38 billion kilometers in diameter, one project physicist said, nearly large enough to swallow our solar system, and its mass is 6.5 billion times greater than that of our sun.

That singular photo is the result of one of humanity’s grandest explorations, and no one left Earth. But it’s the very essence of humankind. We thirst for knowledge, we seek answers to questions that befuddle us, we understand that science will guide our understanding. And we look to the heavens for inspiration and imagination.

More than one astro-wag referred to the photo as the Eye of Sauron, the pulsing ball of energy that symbolizes the evil title character Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Those of us who feel trapped in an earthly version of a black hole can find comfort in the writings of the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who believed it is possible to escape from such an abyss. The rest of us can gaze at this new sight, and dream.

The Editorial Board