Can you find God in a black hole? Thanks to the image released by the Event Horizon Telescope consortium on Wednesday, April 10, for the first time we have direct proof that a black hole is more than a theoretical construct. It’s a “thing.” So if St. Ignatius was right to inspire us to “find God in all things,” the black hole certainly qualifies.
A more fascinating spiritual analogy, however, may be to recognize that a black hole is a perfect example of something we’ve believed in even though we cannot see it or touch it. Even the new image released by the Event Horizon Telescope doesn’t show the black hole itself. It shows the shadow of the black hole, where powerful electromagnetic radiation, emitted by hot plasma swirling ever more energetically around something big and massive at the center of the M87 galaxy, suddenly has had that radiation cut to zero at a discrete boundary. And that boundary corresponds exactly to where our black hole theory suggested light would suddenly no longer escape.
A black hole is a perfect example of something we’ve believed in even though we cannot see it or touch it.
That boundary, theoretical up to now, had been dubbed the “event horizon” (hence the name of the “telescope”—actually a collection of radio telescopes spread across the globe) since any event that occurred inside that boundary would be as cut off from our vision as the way the setting sun disappears when it drops below our own horizon. The source of that event horizon, like the sun gone down, is certainly there; but its light is forever trapped by its gravity. We don’t see the black hole, we see its shadow.
This is just the first of what is hoped to be many such images of many such black holes. The data has already been taken for the black hole that we know sits in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The data from M87 was reduced first, because it was the clearest and easiest to work with. In the words of one of project scientists, Mr. Heino Falcke, M87’s black hole is big and slow, like a hibernating bear, while the smaller but closer black hole in our own galaxy is as active as a toddler; trying to combine images from many telescopes taken over a few hours is more challenging.
These images tell us, first of all, that there really is something there in the center of these galaxies. What we have been attributing to a black hole most probably is in fact a black hole, not the artifact of some peculiar, unknown theory of gravity.
Moreover, the thing whose shadow we have seen exactly matches what Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity predicts. Plenty of other theorists have tried to outdo Einstein with exotic ideas, but so far none of them fit all our observations of how the universe works as well as Einstein did. In fact, the recent discovery of gravitational wave events by another new technological feat, the LIGO experiment, complements this Event Horizon Telescope result perfectly.
And further observations hold the promise that we will soon not only be able to say that a black hole exists but even describe its properties. From the image just released we have learned that the M87 black hole is spinning clockwise, the way that our Earth would be seen to rotate from looking down onto the South Pole; we can say that we are pretty much looking at the “south pole” of the black hole. If the next black hole we see is oriented differently, so that we can look at its equator and not its pole, then we can try to see if its shadow is “flattened” or bulging at its equator. Measuring the size of that bulge can tell us if the mass inside the black hole is evenly distributed or concentrated into a denser core. The black hole is not just a mysterious point of mass but a thing with a structure that we can begin to deduce.
All of that is for the future. For now, it is enough to marvel at that stark shadow in the ring of fire imaged by the Event Horizon Telescope. Black holes are real. Exotic, strange, unexpected, well outside of our mundane experience; and yet as real as the dirt under our feet, and fundamental to how our own galaxy (and our own solar system) was made possible.
Yeah, I think you can find God there.