On April 10, 2019, an international team of scientists working on a project called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) released an image of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87). Several years in the making, the image was created from data compiled by a number of telescopes spaced across the planet.
The EHT team is a large and diverse group, including many early-career Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from the U.S. and abroad. Rebekah Frumkin spoke to nine of those scientists, all in their twenties or early thirties, about what they like to read, how the black hole is like a work of art, and their advice for writers depicting black holes in their work.
What kind of fiction or poetry do you like to read, and how has it influenced your research?
Sara Issaoun: I like science fiction, the kind that either drifts toward realism or toward whimsy. I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is probably a classic for most astronomers.
Daniel Palumbo: It is difficult for me to choose a particular genre of fiction, so I’ll just pick a recent favorite: Blood Meridian. I find insurmountably evil villains incredibly compelling, though the horror of this book is at times physically painful to read. In science, the situation is the opposite—astronomy is difficult not because of some malicious actor, but due to a cold, uncaring complexity with which humanity contends, largely for the joy of discovery.
Michael Janssen: I like to read science fiction novels, for example Isaac Asimov. I want to really understand how our world and the universe work, and what mankind is capable of through technological advancements.
Andrew Chael: I pretty consciously try to take Shevek, the main character of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, as my model for how to act as a physicist. While his physics are a little iffy—or maybe just beyond our current understanding—his approach to research, teaching, and discovery is fundamentally generous while still being influenced by his personal ambition to go further than others have gone. The Dispossessed also points out that all science, even physics, is shaped by its social and political context.
What does it mean, politically and philosophically speaking, for our generation to be capable of “staring into” a black hole?
Chael: Part of the reason I think the image has caught on around the world is that the idea of the black hole as a place from where it’s impossible to return to normal reality has a lot of resonance in our culture and politics now.
George Wong: From a more philosophical viewpoint, I feel that the image on the screen symbolizes the capacity for human collaboration and our seemingly unquenchable drive to explore and pursue the unknown in a Roddenberry-like sense. Often, people just want to do cool things. And we’re able to, despite all of the baggage we carry with us.
Palumbo: I hope that our image is an inspiration to both millennials and others to look at space with wonder. Hubble images were an inspiration to young people in science, showing the beauty of space in detail never seen before. Our image is perhaps more haunting. I have heard a number of comments expressing that this image is something “we aren’t supposed to see.” I hope that feeling drives some to look deeper.
How would you describe the science behind the photograph in language English majors can understand?
Lia Medeiros: There is a lot of matter around the black hole that gets very hot. It gets so hot, in fact, that it becomes a plasma and emits a lot of light. Some of this light will fall into the black hole because of its incredibly strong gravitational field, and this “missing light” will create a dark region in the image. We call this dark region the black hole shadow.
Freek Roelofs: Light is emitted by matter falling into the black hole, which is so massive that it bends the light around it into a ring shape, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In this real image, we see for the first time this ring of light as predicted by all those theoretical models.
The black hole photograph can be read as a work of art. How does that inform the way you think about the process of creating it?
Wong: It’s easy to forget that a lot of what we do as scientists comprises choosing how to represent our work. These choices are made not only for larger, public-facing events, but also among ourselves at individual meetings, small conferences, and even in our emails. Ostensibly, in parallel, there’s also the question of how much agency the scientist-qua-artist has over the work and its import. Once a piece of art enters the public domain, it often takes on its own life. Each person who then encounters it develops their own understanding and relationship with it. Sometimes this can be a bad thing, but overall, I think it effects a sense of occhiolistic awe and appreciation for nature. Which is good.
Jae-Young Kim: I personally believe that the end product of good science should be either a single image, a single sentence, or a single number, rather than long lists of tables or complicated equations. This is based on the belief that the universe and its working principles should be simple and easily understandable by everybody. I feel that understanding the black hole photograph as a work of art is a good sign that the EHT collaboration actually succeeded in delivering the key result to the public in a straightforward manner.
Chael: People are used to seeing fantastically sharp astronomical images, and to a few people, I think our blurry, just-resolved image was initially somewhat disappointing. But the reason it’s blurry is because that’s the sharpest our telescope is, even with a “mirror” the size of the Earth. Explaining this fact to people, and why we chose to present the blurriest image we produced in order to emphasize its most trustworthy features, tends to reorient people’s expectations and aesthetic judgment about the image. Taking the image is a much harder process than snapping a photo—we don’t want to include any features that we aren’t a hundred percent confident in. To me, this has felt at times like we are painters obsessing over every brushstroke, though of course we are trying to guide our brushes by maximal fidelity to the data.
What is your advice to writers who want to accurately portray black holes in literature and film?
Maciek Wielgus: Don’t suggest that black holes are somehow more voracious than other astronomical objects of similar mass! From a distance, the gravitational force of a black hole is exactly the same as that of a star of the same mass. Black holes are not cosmic villains actively seeking to devour worlds. You’d actually need to get really close to fall into one.
Lia Medeiros: I’d say that you don’t need to exaggerate them. They are amazing just as they are, I think that there’s a lot of science fiction that tries to make them seem like they are this terrifying thing that will just suck up everything, but really they’re not so bad. If we magically replaced the sun with a black hole of equal mass, the planets could still orbit around it the same way they do now, they wouldn’t be “sucked up.” I also think that there are a lot of scientists who would be happy to answer questions about black holes for literature and film, so don’t be afraid to reach out to us.
What was the first meal you ate after the image was produced from your data? Failing that, can you remember what you were wearing that day, or what the weather was like, or a conversation you had with someone you love?
Kim: My first meal after the global press conferences was, unfortunately, a Big Mac, because I became quite busy with contacts from local media.
Issaoun: I have a distinct memory related to our very last few minutes of the observations, back in 2017. We had decided that at each telescope we would play a song of our choosing for the final minutes. At the Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona, where I was observing, we picked Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole,” which we thought was a fitting song for the final minutes of recording for our experiment.
Chael: I remember it was a really beautiful day when we first ran the imaging algorithms to produce an image from the data. We all locked ourselves in a small, stuffy room and pressed the Enter key to trigger the imaging software at the same time. We were all using different parameters in the software, so I expected we would all get different images or that only a few of us would be successful. I immediately showed the image to my boyfriend over Skype, casually violating the embargo that we weren’t supposed to share it outside the collaboration. But I didn’t care at that point—and everyone shared it with their significant others eventually anyway.
For queer scientists and women scientists—how do you navigate STEM spaces that have been historically dominated by cisgender, heterosexual men?
Chael: I have found that most scientists are inquisitive, nonjudgmental people who adapt quickly to change when they are confronted with it. I’ve become more intentional about bringing my whole, queer self to the project over the last couple years. I know from my own experience that seeing even just one queer person bringing their whole selves to this community makes it so much easier to be out and proud of yourself.
Medeiros: As a woman I think the thing that has helped me the most is having a supportive network of other women scientists. I think one aspect of the “female in STEM” experience that is often not emphasized is how it can be really lonely sometimes. It can be really encouraging to know that there are others out there that are facing similar obstacles, that it’s not just you.
Palumbo: As an astronomer, I have occasion to travel the world to perform observations, and by quirks of geography, there are places fit for telescopes where homosexuality can mean death. Even within the U.S., before my work with the EHT, academic travel has taken me to places where the colleagues to whom I was “out” and I had agreed not to indicate my sexuality in any way due to safety concerns. Though my experiences with the EHT have been universally positive, with regards to my sexuality, there are still homophobes entrenched in tenure throughout academia, and some careers are still guided by avoidance of such faculty. However, resources like the Astronomy and Astrophysics Out List, in which queer scientists like me have voluntarily made themselves visible, are paving the way for a safer queer scientific culture.
Issaoun: The EHT collaboration, while still male-dominated like most of radio astronomy, has women at every stage of the project. It was very encouraging to see women involved in multiple aspects, from instrumentation to theory to data calibration and analysis. In general I think there is a lot of support among women in STEM.
What is the best metaphor for a black hole?
Issaoun: I like the one my adviser, Heino Falcke, uses—“the gates of Hell, the ring of fire.”
Chael: I like the metaphor that black holes are like waterfalls. As you get closer to a black hole, spacetime itself is like a current pulling you in, and once you fall off the edge there’s no coming back.
Wong: A once mathematical curiosity become iconoclast of the assumed natural order become inspiration, hopefully.
Wielgus: I consider death to be the best metaphor for a black hole. You may have certain ideas or doubts about what lies on the other side of the event horizon and you could learn about it by leaping into the black hole. However, you will never be able to share your findings with the people you’ve left behind.
Rebekah Frumkin is a writer, journalist, and, beginning this fall, assistant professor of English and creative writing at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Her debut novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Guernica, The Baffler, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.