Let’s Talk About Black Holes

A week ago today, scientists released this image of a black hole:



And while the image itself might not look too impressive, the context behind it is.  This is the first ever actual photograph of a real black hole.  Not just a conceptual image.  Not an artist’s rendering.  Not a computer generated simulation, but an actual, physical picture of a black hole out there in the universe.  It took a team of over 200 scientists, including Katie Bouman, whose Twitter post showing the image being processed was retweeted by MIT:



This simple image inadvertently made Bouman the face of the project, turning her into a magnet for praise and a target for criticism from right-wing trolls.  But to talk at length about those types of people would simply lend credence to their opinions and give them the attention they crave.  Besides (and I think Bouman would agree), the achievement itself is more important than whoever was behind it.

The first real image of a black hole…can you imagine that?  Black holes are something science has recognized as existing for many decades, but until now we never had a way of seeing them visually.  We could only tell where they were via their effects on nearby celestial objects.

But just what is a black hole exactly?  Let’s get down to some science.


At a basic level, black holes are intense gravitational anomalies in space that are so strong, theoretically not even light can escape once it passes the event horizon.  They are the remains of massive stars that became so big, they collapsed in on themselves.  All stars eventually use up their nuclear fuel, and in a sense, die.  But it is their mass that determines their final fate.  Smaller stars will simply use up their fuel and die a quiet death, often becoming what is known as a planetary nebula and leaving a small “white dwarf”, what remains of the star’s core.


A planetary nebula.


However, if the star is large enough, it will manage to fuse heavier elements such as helium and carbon once its supply of hydrogen runs out.  But once it finally runs out of fuel, the star will collapse in what is known as a “supernova”.  Think of it as a massive explosion, larger and more powerful than any bomb you’ve ever seen by billions of trillions of times.  These explosions are so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to wrap your mind around it.  The aftermath of a supernova can take the form of two things: a neutron star, which is the collapsed core of the former star, or a black hole.  It all depends on how large the star is.  And once the star has collapsed, the black hole can get even bigger by consuming the matter around it.

Black holes, simply put, are the most destructive force in the known universe.  And there is a supermassive black hole at the heart of nearly every galaxy in the universe, including the Milky Way.  But don’t worry, we’re not in any danger of being eaten by it anytime soon.  They mostly just serve as a gravitational anchor, keeping planets and stars in their orbits.  Besides, our Sun will run out of fuel eons before there’s any reason to worry about the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

The vast time of the universe…kinda makes your head hurt doesn’t it?


Check back on the third Wednesday of May for another post, and as always, thanks for reading.

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