The news last week was filled with the beautiful image of a supermassive black hole, the first picture ever taken on one. In order to do this, it took 200 scientists, 60 institutes, and 18 countries from 6 continents in an amazing feat of cooperation for the glory of science.
Some cool facts
A few cool facts about the black hole in the Messier 87 galaxy:
It is slightly larger than our solar system. In fact, it is 100 billion kilometers wide and 6.5 billion times more massive than our sun.1
Closer black holes exist, such as the one in our own galaxy, but we didn’t choose to image them. The reason for this is that they are smaller. Although Messier 87 is outside our galaxy and inside another, its size made it easier to image. 1
We are not seeing the “black hole” because gravity is so strong at that point that not even light can escape. What we see is the light in orbit around it, the ergosphere.
At the center of the black hole everything is crushed into the smallest conceivable space, the singularity. Science doesn’t really know what goes on there, but I like call it the universe’s trash compactor.
According to Wikipedia, the galaxy that contains this black hole is no slouch on size. It is referred to as a supergiant elliptical galaxy in Virgo and one of the most massive galaxies in the universe. This makes sense when you are talking about such a massive black hole at its core.2
The achievement is due to the Event Horizon Telescope project using an array of observatories scattered from Hawaii to the South Pole. The information took up a petabyte of storage. I can’t even picture a terabyte in my computer so have no clue how big a petabyte is.3
The “picture,” which was formed from radio waves, was taken in April 2017. It took two years of working with the data to create the image.3
According to my “in-house” expert, this black whole contains almost all the mass of all the stars in our Milky Way galaxy, scrunched down into a volume somewhat equal to our solar system. That’s a lot more crowded than a Japanese subway during rush hour.
Science as a model of cooperation.
As cool as all these facts are, the one that I’m impressed with is that 60 institutes in 18 different countries cut through all the fame-seeking and political crap that weigh down countries themselves to pull together and create something nearly magical in its enormity. Given the current climate of isolationism and hate-mongering in America now, hearing how people reached past that for a common goal is pretty inspiring.
Having said that, I know science, particularly physics and astronomy, has turned to big collaborations and projects because it takes massiveness to see in the depths of space or the smallest particle. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is a fine example of a large collaboration, as was Hubble, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Still, science can also have competition as researchers race each other for Noble prizes and other highly sought awards. Yet scientists can come together for the greater good. People can learn to look beyond their differences and personal goals to achieve something magnificent. Countries can unite in the search of information and new frontiers in an atmosphere of the greater good.
Don’t you wish politicians could do the same?
All the information above came from these articles.
1Cooper, Brenda. (14 April 2019) “The first black hole image: what can we really see.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/apr/14/the-new-black-hole-what-can-we-really-see. Viewed 4/14/2019.
2Wikipedia (14 April 2019) “Messier 87” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_87 Viewed 4/14/2019.
3Drake, Nadia (10 April 2019) “First-ever picture of a black hole unveiled.” National Geographic.com. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/first-picture-black-hole-revealed-m87-event-horizon-telescope-astrophysics/ Viewed 4/14/2019.