100 years in the making: Photograph of Einstein's black hole revealed today
Physicists called the news 'groundbreaking' and 'a mic drop for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.'
A historic moon landing isn't the only big space news this week.
On Wednesday, astronomers from around the world held six major press conferences simultaneously – in Belgium, Chile, Shanghai, Japan, Taipei and the United States. At the event, they revealed something no human has ever seen before: the first-ever photograph of a black hole.
You can watch the press conference announcement here:
The picture comes from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international collaboration behind a planetary effort to snap a picture of a black hole. More than 200 scientists have participated in the project from 60 institutes in 20 countries – including from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the European Southern Observatory and the Haystack Observatory at MIT. At least 3,000 scientific papers have been written based on data collected by the telescopes.
A clearly emotional Sheperd Doeleman, the project director of the EHT summed it like this: "This is a remarkable achievement ... We've exposed parts of the universe that we thought were invisible to us. We hope that you will be inspired by it." When asked how he felt when he first saw the image, Doeleman replied: "It was just astonishment and wonder. And I think that any scientist in any field would know what it feels like to see something for the first time… when that happens, it’s an extraordinary feeling."
Einstein's visions of a geometric bending of space and time first came to light when two expeditions were sent out to photograph the solar eclipse of 1919. "Overnight, Einstein became a household name," Doeleman said recently at a talk at the South by Southwest Festival. "It changed the way we looked at the universe." One hundred years later, Einstein's theories were proven once again with a photograph – but instead of the sun, it was that of an elusive black hole.
"Sometimes the math looks ugly, but there's a really a strong aesthetic in theoretical physics. And the Einstein equations are beautiful," said physicist Avery Broderick. "In my experience, nature wants to be beautiful, and that’s one of the striking elements of Einstein’s description of gravity. It is fundamentally one of the most beautiful theories that we have. For that reason alone, and the long history of Einstein being proven right, I suppose we’re not terribly surprised."
"We have a goal of seeing something that struggles with all of its might to be unseen and we're pushing the technology as far as we can go," Doeleman explained of the not-so-easy feat. Since no single telescope on Earth could create the image, the team innovated. "We take many radio telescopes around the Earth and we link them together, creating a telescope as large as the Earth itself." As the New York Times proclaimed: "For the first time, astronomers will be staring down the pipes of eternity."
The news is particularly exciting for Dr. Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department and the founder of the Black Hole Initiative. About a decade ago, the Israeli professor collaborated with Broderick and predicted the details of the black hole image that was revealed on Wednesday. "It's an amazing image," Loeb told From The Grapevine this morning. "The gigantic black hole in M87 launches a large jet and we see the silhouette of the black hole against the bright emission at the base of the jet. In 2009, we published the first paper that predicted the image of the black hole of M87. The prediction was remarkably close to the shape of the reported image. This confirms that Einstein's theory of gravity is confirmed once again and the gas behaves similarly to what we have expected just before plunging into the throat of the black hole."
Broderick added: "We have now seen the unseeable ... Today, general relativity has passed another test. This is the beginning. There’s an anticipation of all the amazing science we’ll be able to."
The scientists on Wednesday compared the amount of data it took to create the image similar to that of the entire selfie collection of 40,000 people over a lifetime. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the moon.
So what is a black hole? It's a region of space time that exhibits such strong gravitational effects that nothing – not even tiny particles – can escape from inside it. "A black hole is the ultimate prison: even light cannot escape from it," Loeb said. Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted the formation of black holes. A black hole has a mass that's 7 billion times that of our sun.
Looking ahead, the team of scientists said they plan on adding more telescopes to their mix to help increase the fidelity and resolution of the image. They would also like to add a telescope in outer space which would markedly improve what they can observe.
A documentary crew followed the team of scientists for the past two years, leading up to today's historic announcement. The film, called "Black Hole Hunters," will premiere this Friday, April 12 at 9 p.m. EST on the Smithsonian Channel.
Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist, succinctly summed up his excitement for Wednesday's news when speaking to the Boston Herald: “If you see those features, it is proof that Einstein is right again in a very slam dunk kind of way,” he said. “It’s a mic drop for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.”
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