Black hole movies

Einstein’s monsters are broadcasting footage of the universe’s history – and there are ways we could get a clearer view, says Stephen Battersby


THE picture was seen by billions:   a hazy ring, glowing orange-bright,  surrounding a heart of darkness. The  work of many minds over decades, it was above  all a tribute to the brilliance of one. Yet as the  world marvelled at the first ever direct image  of a black hole – one of the cosmic monsters  predicted by Albert Einstein’s theories –   the researchers behind it found themselves  confronted with a rather basic puzzle.

“After the result was published, we were all  getting together and asking: what does this  thing mean?” says radio astronomer Michael  Johnson at Harvard University. They had  been so wrapped up in turning their data into  a picture that no one had really stepped back  and tried to digest what it was telling them.

Over the past year, their quest to find  answers has led them into a cosmic hall of  mirrors, where the black hole’s gravity takes  light from all directions, warps it and beams  it to us as an infinitely recast image of the  hole’s surroundings. The result is an epic  movie of the history of the universe, as  witnessed by a black hole, playing on a  dramatically curved screen tens of billions  of kilometres across.

From way back here in the cheap seats,  about 55 million light years away, we will  never be able to see the action’s full sweep,  but we can catch glimpses. They could be  enough to unlock the true history of giant  black holes, put Einstein to the test like never  before and maybe even lead to a deeper  understanding of space and time.

Black holes are perhaps the most  breathtaking prediction of Einstein’s general  theory of relativity, the description of gravity  he presented in 1915. No cosmological  observation has been found to contradict its  depiction of massive objects warping space  and time around them. A black hole takes  that idea to the extreme: it is a concentration  of mass so great that space-time is warped  to an infinite degree. Anything venturing  too close is drawn across its event horizon,  beyond which we can never see.

Although Einstein doubted that they  actually existed, observations in recent  decades have persuaded us that black holes  are real. Small ones, just 10 or 20 times the  mass of our sun, form when huge stars  collapse at the end of their working lives.  The gravitational waves detected by the LIGO  collaboration in 2015 were ripples in spacetime caused by two such objects merging.  These are dwarfed by supermassive black  holes of millions to billions of solar masses  that appear at the heart of almost every  galaxy, including our own Milky Way.  The image presented in 2019 was of M87,  a giant elliptical galaxy in the Virgo cluster.  It houses a beast of a supermassive black  hole, with a mass probably 6.5 billion times  that of the sun. The international Event  Horizon Telescope team, which includes  Johnson, used sophisticated signal  processing to combine data from radio.

telescopes from around the world into one  image of M87’s core. The resulting resolution  matched that from a single radio dish the   size of our planet.  The darkness at the image’s centre is a  shadow of the black hole; an image of the  event horizon, magnified and distorted by  the hole’s gravity. But what exactly is that  surrounding glow? That was the question  that initially no one could really answer.

Black hole movie


To help decode the image, Johnson   reached out to some more theory-minded  researchers, including Alex Lupsasca,   also at Harvard. “We had been colleagues   side by side for many years,” says Lupsasca.  “They were listening to us, but only with half  an ear because they were busy doing their  experiment.” “My role was finding the common  language,” says Johnson. “We have black hole  observers, black hole simulators, black hole  theorists… It sounds so silly. But actually it is  extremely difficult to communicate between  these subfields; they are all very technical.

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