We marvelled at the first image of an event horizon 55m light years away, but struggled to grasp its majesty and dimensions
Afew years ago, during a period of insomnia, I briefly got into the habit of contributing to the online project Galaxy Zoo. I would log on to a website that presented, one after another, singular images of tens of thousands of galaxies observed by the Hubble telescope, each billions of light years away. There were so many of these images that cosmologists had opened them up to thousands of amateur volunteers to help narrow down the field of those galaxies that warranted closer study.
Peering at my dimmed computer screen in the early hours, at catherine wheels of stars that perhaps no human eye had ever seen, I ticked the relevant boxes that would assist in classifying them – “elliptical or spiral?”; “smooth or fuzzy?” – and then paused for a while over the open-ended final question: “Is there anything odd in this image?” (An inquiry that always seemed to beg the reply: “You mean, beyond the fact that it is a rotating mass of incalculable solar systems that likely expired untold millions of years ago?”)
I stopped logging on after a few nights. What I’d thought might be a productive way of counting sheep turned out to be both unsettling and unhelpful. Despite my better instincts, I couldn’t sustain the patience the task required – the galaxies started to look dully familiar; I needed more surprise. And then I fretted that in disrespectful haste I might have overlooked some critical element of a formation and condemned it for ever to scientific obscurity.
I eventually gave up after I lay wide awake one night, having closed my laptop, wondering why on earth I had imagined that contemplating all the universe’s cold and ancient vastness in thumbnail images might be conducive to decent shut-eye.
I was reminded of all that last week when the extraordinary first image of a black hole was revealed at the press conference of the US National Science Foundation in Washington DC. The image, the result of a decade-long international project co-ordinating eight far-flung telescopes including one at the south pole, trailed all kinds of spectacular statistics. The black hole was in a galaxy, Messier 87, that was 55m light years away. It had an estimated mass equivalent to that of 6.5bn of our suns, condensed into a tiny speck. Creating the image was the equivalent of focusing on a teacup on the moon.
Immediately, this epochal vision had formed before our collective eyes, however, we obviously set about the urgent task of reducing all of its unfathomable implications down to earth. The me-first meme engine of Twitter soon got to work on it. It was Homer Simpson’s doughnut; it was my adorable cat’s evil eye; it was a spaghetti hoop on a universe of toast; it was the promise of quick release from Brexit woes. And almost as quickly, the black hole was seized upon in other corners of the internet by sermonisers of any faith and none; it was evidence of God’s wrath, or his purpose, or his absence.
By the time the following morning’s papers had landed, the hole was being framed to fit the usual formulas. The primary concern of the tabloid press appeared to be the question of whether the black hole was an imminent threat to us (or our house prices). Readers of that favourite cosmologists’ title, the Sun, were therefore asked the question of “whether you would survive falling into” a four-dimensional structure in which space and time lose their individuality and merge, as if it were an unguarded manhole. The general consensus was that you would not (not least because the difference in gravity between your head and your feet “would stretch you out like a piece of chewing gum”).
Meanwhile, the liberal media and their detractors had decided that the crucial thing about visual proof of a place of infinite density trapping light was an internet troll war about the gender of the prime mover in its discovery. The subject of that discussion, the inspirational 29-year-oldAmerican computer scientist Katie Bouman, who helped to create the algorithm that enabled the image, was at pains to argue that, honestly, the story was not really about her. But what did she know? By now, the black hole had been subsumed into that equally efficient obliterator of reality, the 24-hour news cycle.
Before it completely disappeared over its own event horizon, some facts that proved the scale of the achievement seemed worth clinging on to. One was the fact that even Einstein, whose field equations first predicted the possibility of a “singularity” that could collapse forever, could not bring himself quite to acknowledge the evidence of his own mathematics. The proof was extrapolated from his 1915 paper on general relativity by his contemporary Karl Schwarzschild. Though Einstein accepted the theoretical basis of that proof, even in 1939 he was producing a paper that offered, he said, “a clear understanding as to why ‘Schwarzschild singularities’ do not exist in physical reality”.
It says something about our historical moment – or about the intrinsic limits of our capacity for wonder – that the image of this physical reality is so effortlessly normalised. We probably do less stargazing, as a species, than at any previous moment in human history, but the old reflex to anthropomorphise the universe, to insist on ourselves in the centre of it, persists.
As TS Eliot observed in his meditation on Einstein’s space-time continuum in Burnt Norton, “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. The science proves the black hole is way beyond most of our understanding, but the evidence now in front of our eyes reminds us that the simplest principle of the universe remains the hardest for us to grasp: it’s not about us.
• Tim Adams is an Observer writer