All over the world, news media, scientists and science geeks of all stripes are drooling over the first-ever actual photo of a black hole.
Albert Einstein pondered the prospect of these super-dense, galaxy-devouring collapsed stars in 1916, but they didn’t have a name until 1967, when American astronomer John Wheeler first applied the now-familiar, appropriately ominous moniker.
The reality-warping potential of black holes was seized upon “immediately and enthusiastically” by science fiction writers, and they have been a fixture of pop culture ever since.
As Media Entertainment Arts WorldWide’s Kunal Dey remarks, the photo released to the public may seem “hugely underwhelming” compared to decades of speculative artwork bearing such captions as “Supermassive black holes will eat anything,” and “Stellar Death.” But any disappointment quickly fades when the viewer considers what the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration’s photo actually pictures.
As the New York Times’ Dennis Overybye reports, however nondescript this “lopsided ring of light,” may appear, it is nevertheless “a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it. … A reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”
Of course, no phenomenon is so epoch-making that it can’t be made sport of via social media. Some have seen SpaghettiOs, Star Wars’ Death Star and movie ogre Shrek’s eyeballs in the image. The most common take appears to be comparison to the “Eye of Sauron” of Middle Earth song and story. Not far behind is the “Neon Bagel” theme: “Black hole pic legit made me crave a bagel, so that’s where I’m headed,” tweeted an astute “k austin collins.”
Still, no amount of horseplay can dim this moment of celestial revelation. Earthlings have turned our planet’s telescopes on an object 5,000 light years away and have confirmed “an idea so disturbing that even Einstein … was loath to accept it.”
In the words of project astronomer Shep Doeleman, “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”
“Here…,” marvels Dennis Overbye, “matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream.”