Black Hole Photo has Astronomers Looking Up

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

On April 10, NASA revealed that a black hole had been photographed for the first time ever, thanks to a worldwide collaboration project. According to astronomy experts at Youngstown State University, this photograph will have an astronomical impact on education and the future of astronomy.

Curt Spivey, Ward-Beecher Planetarium engineer, defines a black hole as an object so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational pull.

“Einstein theorized this thing called space-time,” Spivey said. “It’s the objects themselves that gives gravity its pull, and the more massive it is, the bigger dent it makes in space-time and the more it affects stuff around it. When you take a really, really big star and you blow it up, it collapses on itself and becomes really small and really dense, which creates a lot of gravity.”

John Feldmeier, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said that the concept of black holes dates back hundreds of years, first to Isaac Newton’s law of gravity and later rationalized by Albert Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity.

“In the 1970s, we started getting evidence that they were real objects and not some sort of mathematical puzzles,” Feldmeier said. “Bit by bit, we’ve gotten more and more evidence that they are real, but it’s always indirect. It’s always that we think this is a black hole because we can’t come up with anything else that would work.”

Using Einstein’s theory and supercomputer simulations based on data collected from studying different light waves in space, scientists were able to create a model of what a black hole should look like. The models compared to the real image of a black hole match almost perfectly.

“Before, there was really only a handful of things we could actually say about black holes,” Tiffany Stone Wolbrecht, planetarium lecturer, said. “Now with this direct detection, I think we’re going to learn a lot.”

Astronomers essentially proved that Einstein was correct, though his theory greatly predates the large telescopes used to capture the image.

Wolbrecht believes that, beyond proving Einstein correct, one of the greatest impacts will be on the study of astronomy itself. Astronomy is becoming a team-oriented field on a global scale.

The black hole project required years of study by a team of over 400 astronomers and a network of telescopes from across the globe, called the Event Horizon Telescope, in order to capture the image.

“They had to all work together to make this possible, and that’s where astronomy is leading,” Wolbrecht said. “The technology is so advanced that no one country can push our understanding of the universe anymore.”

Global support for further research into black holes should be easy to procure because black holes have long been a topic of public interest and curiosity, evidenced in science fiction and popular culture.

“Every time I teach the basic astronomy class, I have the students write down on a card what they think the most interesting thing is,” Feldmeier said. “Here are the top three: constellations, what happened to Pluto and black holes. Black holes have captured people’s imagination.”

This desire to learn more about black holes in the wake of this discovery may inspire more people to study astronomy and thus lead to more discoveries, perhaps in more subjects than just black holes.

“The one thing I really love about astronomy is we are never going to know everything,” Spivey said. “There is always something new and exciting coming out in the world of astronomy, and this is just one of those things.”