In Brief

The First-Ever Image of a Black Hole Gets the Meme Treatment

Astronomers reached across intergalactic space to capture the photon eater some 55 million light-years away from Earth — but social media users see the black hole as something else entirely.

The black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon (via Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al)

Devourer of stars. Ender of time. Glittering Eye of Sauron?

Astronomers have revealed the first-ever images of a black hole, which presents the celestial destroyer as a dark circle surrounded by a reddish ring of matter. A landmark affirmation of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, scientists in six cities spread across three continents simultaneously unveiled their findings on the phenomenon on Wednesday.

Scientific observations over the last 60 years have increasingly demonstrated that objects exist in the Universe whose gravitational fields are so intense that they can warp spacetime such that light cannot escape beyond a point of no return. Accordingly, the image is not a “photograph” of the black hole but a vision of the effects gravity has on radio waves emitted from matter surrounding the black hole. Because gravity distorts spacetime itself, light becomes deflected into a circular funnel of shadows illustrated by the image.

Yesterday’s results are the product of 10 years of research by astronomers with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, which consists of a network of radio antennas and two years of computer analysis based on the system’s observations. The telescope array is named after the edge of a black hole where time stands still and gravity warps space into its almost-unfathomable gravitational pull. The effort wouldn’t have been possible without Katie Bouman, who developed a crucial algorithm for the imaging methods while she was a graduate student in computer science and artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Three years ago, another system called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, detected the collision of a pair of distant black holes, which rippled through the Universe. Several other collisions have been detected by astronomers ever since; now this clash of giants has a face.

But what that face resembles, exactly, is up for interpretation. Most everyone, including the New York Times, has compared the black hole to the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy — a symbol of ultimate evil. Located some 55 million light-years away from Earth in the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, the hazy ring of unbalanced light contains a mass some 6.5 billion times that of our sun. A swirl of cosmic matter, the black hole does somewhat resemble artistic interpretations of the past but with a less-fantastical smattering of starlight. And contemporary entertainment like the movies Interstellar and High Life have imagined more beautiful versions of the black hole with sparkling stardust and blinding light.

Art historically, the black hole resembles something modernist, like a color-field painting or a piece of optical art. The work of Wojciech Fangor comes to mind; his blurry, dichromatic circular paintings

From an art historical angle, the black hole resembles something modernist, like a Color-field painting or a piece of Op art. The work of Wojciech Fangor comes to mind; his blurry dichromatic creations from the sixties are similarly circular, mysterious, and disconcerting. Or the art of Jack Goldstein, specifically his “Untitled” (1988), which blurs the boundaries between painted and digital image.

And as is their tech-given rite, social media users have seized upon the black hole like cats to a cosmos-obliterating ball of yarn. “Of course we get to see a black hole before a Brexit deal,” wryly remarked journalist Claire Barthelemy on Twitter.

But what has united most people around the black hole is a firm belief that it resembles delicious baked goods like bagels, dougnuts, and South Indian vadas.

There’s also a contingent of people online who believe the black hole belongs to cats.

 

And naturally, companies have already used the galactic marvel for marketing purposes…

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