April 10th 2019
Today is a day to look up to the sky and feel weighed down by the force of gravity and the realisation of just how tiny we all are. If you didn’t see it, today, the Event Horizon Telescope team released the first ever photograph of a black hole. And that is just an astonishing feat for humanity.
It may not sound like a huge deal, because we’ve known about black holes for years, right? Well that’s true, but until today we’ve only really known about them in theory. We (and I feel completely unqualified to even use the collective pronoun ‘we’ in this) only knew about black holes as a concept. Until today, when a team of brilliant humans published the first ever photo of what we previously could only have imagined.
Meet the M87 black hole:
The photo itself is relatively uninteresting and reasonably underwhelming, but it’s not the photo that’s important, it’s what the photo represents. I’m not going to pretend to understand the scientific impact of proving our theories on the laws of general relativity, but to me the photo is exciting for another reason:
Humans are fucking awesome.
This is an incredible, if not probably understated, scientific breakthrough. And it happened within my lifetime. To put it lightly, humans are doing some really amazing shit right now. And it just impresses me. That black hole is 55 million lightyears away. The photo is emitting light from an era when the earth had just been hit by a huge fucking comet and horses still had gills*. Looking at the photo of that black hole is the closest thing we’ll ever get to time travel.
I don’t have the expertise to sum up how difficult it was to take the photo of that black hole, so I’ll let some dude from Reddit sum it up instead:
Imagine placing an orange on the moon, and deciding you want to resolve it from all the other rocks and craters with your naked eye – that is how detailed this measurement had to be to resolve the event horizon. To get that resolution, you literally have to link radio telescopes across the planet, from Antarctica to Hawaii, by calibrating each one’s data (after it’s shipped to you from the South Pole, of course – Internet’s too slow down there)
It’s just an absolutely mindboggling achievement. The primary researcher has been working on this for twenty years. Twenty years ago he was told his goal of taking a photograph of a black hole was impossible. He was told it could never be done. Well, he just fucking did it. And it’s so cool.
However, as well as making me proud to be human, it’s also a bit depressing. Because the light from that thing is 55 million years old. The Event Horizon of the black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, and the sun is the biggest thing that most humans can realistically fathom.
55 million years. 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun.
I’m 25 years old, seventy kilograms and six foot nothing. I am tiny and insignificant. We all are. Those scientists are tiny and insignificant but they took a picture of a fucking black hole.
Until tomorrow, humans are awesome.