Judging by the number of folks charged with driving under influence I am guessing the penalty is rather light. Of...

A snapshot of science's power to amaze

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson


Sunday, April 14, 2019

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.

Indulge me. I'm just back from vacation. Before charging back into the frenzied melee of the 24/7 news cycle, let's pause to reflect on the majesty of the cosmos.

Let's take a moment to marvel at how weird and wondrous the universe turns out to be. 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.

To see such an object is to gaze into the ultimate abyss. Dumbstruck awe is the only reasonable response.

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 science is 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 had to be shipped around on high-capacity hard drives. Winter observations from a telescope in Antarctica were delayed until the weather abated and the drives containing the data could be flown out.

All of that information was combined and analyzed, a process that took many months. The image that emerged was revealed at coordinated news conferences, including one at the National Press Club led by Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Doeleman served as director of the Event Horizon Telescope project, named after the spherical boundary that surrounds a black hole and marks the point of no return.

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.

Which is exactly what M87 looks like. Just wow.

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

Eugene Robinson is a columnist and an associate editor at The Washington Post. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2009.


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