Why is the Picture of a Black Hole a Big Deal?

After more than a decade of super-coordinated technical work, the astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope—a global network of radio telescopes around the Earth—gave us the first picture of a Black Hole. It is a massive glob of what appears to be nothingness, 55 million light years away. Talk about unintended consequences. Einstein himself found the prediction of a Black Hole in his general theory of relativity implausible. In practice, these supermassive objects are our best laboratory for testing our ideas and theories on how we can unite Einstein’s relativity with quantum mechanics, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics.

The English mountaineer George Herbert Leigh Mallory famously answered the question of why climb Mt. Everest with the response, “Because it’s there.” But we don’t seek Black Holes just because they are there, we hound them out because we are searching for ourselves. We want to affirm our own notion of the universe, our understanding of nature, that grand production where we play the anthropocentric starring role.

Yes, a picture of a Black Hole is a big deal.

It fulfills our need to see “hard evidence” of what we have known for decades. But wait—the sight of a gothic cathedral inspires spirituality; that of a sunset over a body of water, serenity. What does a Black Hole do for us? Where is the beauty, the inspiration, the Gee Whiz?

I would venture a guess: the picture not only seizes our imagination if only momentarily, it affirms our faith in the quest to understand the enormous expanse of the universe and the upshot of our almost invisible place within it. That picture is a portrait of a passage to the boundaries of everywhere and nowhere.

The two great struggles of humankind are to understand ourselves—our evolution from creature to more intelligent creature—and to understand the time and space where we find ourselves embedded. Our attempt at comprehending Black Holes brings us closer to understanding both.

Pictures of places to travel from which we can never return? Bring them on. How can we know ourselves without knowing what we have wrought?


James Marshall Smith is a physicist and best selling novelist, whose latest novel is Hybrid: A Thriller.