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All the Light We Cannot See

Aiswarya PS
April 14th, 2019 · 2 min read

The universe is under no obligation to make sense to us whatsoever; yet, mankind strives to unravel the hidden greatness. The recent unveiling of the black hole image is an outcome of the same.

Nearly a century ago, Albert Einstein stunned the world when he gave us the theory of general relativity. This theory explained how gravity interacts with space-time to shape our universe. “Matter tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells matter how to move.”

Physicist Karl Schwarzschild, while playing around with this idea, came up with a hypothetical situation, where he places a singularity: a theoretical point of infinite density, onto the fabric of space-time. This would pose an extreme test to general relativity.

At a certain point, this hypothetical singularity would literally punch through and would warp space-time so severely that even light would not be fast enough to get out of this hole, a so-called ‘point of no return’. This boundary is termed as the event horizon.

In 1935, astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar helped see through this hypothetical curiosity and turned it into a scientific possibility by incepting the very intriguing idea of black holes. Black holes have been in the spotlight of every astrogeek out there ever since!

Black holes are thought to be like cosmic prisons: where nothing escapes, not even light (Except maybe Cooper in Interstellar!).

But yet, here we are, with an image of the unseeable.

The black hole at M87 galaxy

The first ever photo of a black hole, 55 million light years away, in the Messier87 galaxy, was released on April 10th, 2019. It took only 2 years, 12,000 simulations, 200 researchers, 60 institutes and international coordination of radio telescope sites spread literally all across the globe to get it!

This image would tell us whether or not Einstein’s theory was right and that is why it is such a big deal. Well, his theory did pass the test.

But how did we take a picture of something which refuses to have its picture taken?

When we talk about the image of a black hole, what we really see is the image of its silhouette. To keep it simple, light gets bent around the black hole and we wind up seeing a shadow. It was the size and shape of this shadow that Einstein predicted in his time and it was pretty accurate!

The remarkable group of scientists went to the extremes (quite literally) to tackle this almost impossible challenge. The Event Horizon Telescope works by combining and synchronizing the data from several telescopes all over the globe; thus providing us with a data set as though we had a telescope the size of the earth itself. This huge size allowed us to capture something as small as a very distant tiny black hole.

Screening of the photo release at IISER-TVM (An Anvesha Intiative)

The students of IISER Thiruvananthapuram were lucky enough to witness this photo release. Anvesha in association with Parsec, took on the initiative to live stream this historical moment for all space enthusiasts and make it memorable.

Well, scientists are definitely not going to stop here. This is just the beginning of a very curious expedition focusing on black holes.

Mankind was made curious and science is the outcome of the same. Einstein once said that the goal of scientific pursuit must not just be to make use of the world, but to understand every fundamental detail, no matter what use it might be. At this moment, I am filled with gratitude towards the scientists for continuing to push the realms of science a little bit more into reality and thus doing the same for us.

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