“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the effort to capture the image, during a Wednesday news conference in Washington, D.C. The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of a galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from Earth, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/science/black-hole-picture.html
The New York Times reported on the first image ever revealed of a massive black hole at the far reaches of the galaxy Messier 87 this week. Titled Darkness Visible, Finally: Astronomers Capture First Ever Image of a Black Hole, the article, by Dennis Overbye, was written with language that at times approached poetry and science fiction, with overtones of awe and wonder. Overbye used descriptors like monster, phrases such as portal into eternity, and described the image as the place where “according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream.”
The results of years of work by astronomers working in collaboration on several continents, Wednesday’s news was announced at six locations on Earth simultaneously. Overbye wrote, “When the image was put up on the screen in Washington, cheers and gasps, followed by applause, broke out in the room and throughout a universe of astrofans following the live-streamed event.”
It has taken a century of scientific investigation to prove that Einstein’s theory of relativity, from which his theory of black holes arose, is indeed true and no longer simply a theory. In the NYTimes article, Overbye quotes Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale, who said “Einstein must be delighted. His theory has just been stress-tested under conditions of extreme gravity, and looks to have held up.” And astrophysicist Kip Thorne wrote in an email, “It is wonderful to see the nearly circular shadow of the black hole. There can be no doubt this really is a black hole at the center of M87, with no signs of deviations from general relativity.”
It’s fascinating to read how the team of roughly 200 astronomers put together the data, collected from eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents. The data was taken during a period of ten days in April of 2017, and took the next two years to compile it into the stunning images revealed to the world this week. Here is a link to that article: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/10/science/event-horizon-black-hole-images.html
It is not easy to describe in words the elation that many of us feel at reading this week’s news, and seeing the black hole images for the first time in history. But a feeling of vindication is part of the larger and more complex web of feelings surrounding the evidence. In a world fraught with opinions passing as truth, outright lies and human egotism run amok, it is such a breath of fresh air to see, with human eyes, an image of a cosmic reality so vast that it is impossible to comprehend. The black hole that lies in the heart of galaxy Messier 87 is nearly seven billion times the mass of our own sun. This is a moment when even scientists will turn to poetry and prophetic words from long ago, as we attempt to grasp the incomprehensible as it is presented to us. In so many ways, for human beings, seeing is believing. This week, we are finally able to see a black hole, a cosmic force incomprehensibly huge.
I looked up quotes by Dr. Carl Sagan, who was a master of writing about science and humanity with eloquence and clarity. Here are some of his thoughts on the relationship between humans and the cosmos, taken from his seminal book, Cosmos, first published in 1980. With gratitude to Dr. Sagan, I offer them to you, dear readers.
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos, via https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3237312-cosmos