For the first time in history, humans have been able to see what a black hole looks like, a feat that was made possible through the use of sophisticated technology. The discovery was a significant milestone to the world of physics.
The black hole image was released on April 10. According to a New York Times article, the black hole is located in the M87 galaxy, which is 55 million light-years away from Earth. Prior to the discovery, black holes have only been simulated on computers, giving scientists a good idea of how one would appear.
The image was made possible by 29 year-old computer scientist Katie Bouman. Another New York Times article said that Bouman led the development of the algorithm that pieced together the black hole image. The articles states that her success has led her to become a hero in the field of STEM for women and girls.
It was already anticipated before the image’s release that a black hole photo may be released. Visiting physics professor Jed Rembold said that he was aware of the anticipated announcement but didn’t know the details.
“My initial reaction was curiosity,” Rembold said. “We were aware there was going to be an announcement, so there was a lot of speculation about what exactly it was. I wondered what they could actually be announcing.”
Assistant professor of physics Michaela Kleinert said that she told her students about the press conference the night before class. Some students decided to have a sleepover party that night and woke up at 6 a.m. to watch the press conference that announced the discovery.
“My students were very excited, and I was very excited,” Kleinert said. “Seeing that image is just amazing. There is nothing super surprising there. It looks exactly how we thought it would look. But it’s really nice to see that this is really happening.”
Rembold also shared the exciting news to his Introductory to Physics course: “I had my intro class later that morning, and we spent about 10 to 15 minutes talking about it, giving people a brief overview of what was going on if they missed it,” Rembold said. “Most have seen the news by that point. We talked about the technical details about how people managed to make this happen.”
One may be quick to notice that the black hole image does not look like what is seen in the movies. For example, the black hole in the film “Interstellar” has two rings of white light circling around a black void. In contrast, the black hole in the image looks more like a SpaghettiO. Even though it doesn’t look like what the average person may expect, Kleinert said that the black hole matches scientists’ expectations.
“The expectation is very much driven by what Hollywood wants,” Kleinert said. “They want something to look flashy and exciting. It’s very much an artist’s impression.”
Kleinert explained that black holes are objects so massive that not even light can escape their gravitational force. As particles spiral around a black hole and get closer to the center, they move faster. Kleinert described the last bit of light that can be seen as a “cry for help” before it disappears into what is known as the event horizon, where particles are no longer visible because light cannot escape. The ring of light seen in the image is from particles emitting light right before they enter the event horizon.
In order to capture the black hole image, Kleinert said that telescopes around the world were synced to a small fraction of a second to reproduce data. This is essentially equivalent to building a telescope the size of the earth. Physics scholar Rachel Dewey-Thorsett explained that obtaining the black hole image was comparable to receiving many different emails from different people, where each email contained one pixel that was taken with a different instrument. The pixels then have to be stitched together in the correct way to create the image. In other words, the black hole image wasn’t simply taken by your average camera pointed at the sky.
“It’s a super exciting time,” Kleinert said. “We now have the technology to to actually test a theory that was developed by Einstein 100 years ago.”
Photo Caption: The image of the black hole was released on April 10. The black hole’s appearance matches what scientists expected.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of NASA