The Optimist's View

black hole edit

My daughter just completed her class schedule for next semester, including an astronomy class which fulfills an earth sciences distribution requirement. She's not terribly excited about it, because she's not a science major, and the course has a reputation for difficulty.

This is a stark contrast with the astronomy class of my own college experience, renowned as a 'gut' (easy) course. Discussion sections primarily consisted of students imbibing now-legal but then-illicit substances and philosophizing about what might be floating around 'out there'. Comets, meteors, other sentient life? Black holes? And what WAS a black hole?

Black holes are newly topical this week, with the release of new photos from the Event Horizon Telescope, the first-ever actual images of a black hole. Black holes, a region of space with such a strong gravitational effect that nothing-including light-can escape it, are incredibly difficult to photograph because they are relatively tiny. Relatively. Because even though a black hole may be huge, like the one in the center of our own Milky Way, it is so relatively small that taking a photo of it is like "taking a photo of a DVD on the moon"*. So the EHT photos are a game-changer.

In that long-ago astronomy class, the pessimists thought black holes contained nothing. The optimists thought they might contain Nirvana. My version of Nirvana would include plenty of wine from pre-phylloxera, ungrafted vines. Some crazy old bottled in bond Bourbon, from before it became chic and limited. Bottles of Scotch from distilleries long-shuttered. A unicorn beer or three. Probably not, of course, but it's as good a guess as any.

So until the EHT photos show us exactly what that black hole contains, I'm taking the optimist's view.

*Dimitrios Psaltis, astrophysicist, University of Arizona