As a Democrat I was aware of Congress Walter B. Jones stance on the issue concerning ENC and the 3rd district. BYH to...

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.


Humans of Greenville


Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

Op Ed

June 10, 2019

The New York Times 

“Because it’s there.” For those who grew up on George Mallory’s famous explanation for his yearning to scale Mount Everest, with all the romance, danger and spirit of exploration it implied, that viral photograph of an endless line of climbers in…

June 10, 2019

Although it may not appear so, the leaders of both major political parties in North Carolina favor lowering the tax burden of large businesses. Their real dispute is about the scope and magnitude of the tax relief.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has consistently opposed recent state budgets, crafted by…

john hood.jpg

June 10, 2019

We are just weeks away from the first of 20 Democratic debates scheduled this primary season. It gets underway over two nights in Miami on June 26 and 27, and never before has there been a debate this early in the election and potentially this important.

The reason there are so many candidates, 23…


June 09, 2019

Gerrymandering has always been part of American politics. After all, the term was coined in 1812 after Massachusetts governor and Founding Father Elbridge Gerry endorsed a state senate district that resembled a salamander.

Until recently, federal courts have been highly reluctant to enter the…

Steve and Cokie Roberts

June 09, 2019

It is not unfair to point out that President Trump, on many important subjects, is just an ignoramus.

A vivid illustration of this unfortunate fact came this week in London, when it was revealed that Prince Charles, a knowledgeable environmentalist, had tried to educate the president on climate…

Eugene Robinson

June 09, 2019

"When you are told all your life you're dumb, unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me."

Jerry, from Youngstown, Tennessee, hesitated to be interviewed by Chris Arnade, because "I don't know my ABCs, so I can't really talk right." He told Arnade, the author of the new book…


June 09, 2019

Senate Republicans are pushing back on President Trump's plan to impose tariffs on Mexico. But if Mexican officials think these Republicans are going to save them from Trump's tariffs, it's time for them to think again.

So far, congressional Republicans have managed to remain bystanders in Trump's…


June 08, 2019

In 1940, some 3.6 million people lived in North Carolina, ranking the state 11th in the nation in population and first in the Southeast. Across the South as a whole, only Texas (6.4 million) was more populous.

If present trends continue, by 2040 North Carolina will have a population of about 12.7…

john hood.jpg

June 08, 2019

The Charlotte Observer

How much money is too much for a high school football coach? North Carolina’s second largest school district has provided something of an answer.

Last month, Vance High School coach Aaron Brand cashed in on a successful five-year run in Charlotte and accepted a coaching…

June 08, 2019

In 1788 the Hillsborough Convention convened to consider ratification of the U.S. Constitution and also to approve an “unalterable” seat of government. They did neither.

The Constitution, they determined, lacked assurances of personal rights the delegates deemed essential and, after…

Tom Campbell
229 stories in Op Ed. Viewing 1 through 10.
«First Page   «Previous Page        
Page 1 of 23
        Next Page»   Last Page»