The first image of a black hole has just been released, and people all over the world are celebrating it as a victory for science and more proof of how far humans have come. There are hints of the moon landing in everything that is being said: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Everything makes sense. It’s something important. The smart scientists who came up with a way to get the picture deserve our thanks.
Only 50 years ago, Italian scientist Carlo Rovelli said that black holes were “the barely credible predictions of an esoteric theory.”
But, wait. Look at the picture again before we get too excited. It’s lovely. It makes sense. But it doesn’t say much, does it? Given what we know about black holes, what we’re seeing isn’t so much a presence as it is a lack of presence. A dark area with an uneven edge. This is called an “emission ring.”
So maybe there’s less reason to celebrate and more reason to be humble since the image of a black hole tells us more about what we don’t know than what we do know.
There are a lot of great pictures like that. Think of a Rothko picture, a Rembrandt portrait, or a Robert Frank photograph. It seems that most of their fame comes from how many unknowns form around them and how intense, detailed, and deep those unknowns are.
We know that black holes are made when a big star has burned up all of its gas and is no longer making any more. Rovelli said that what’s left “is no longer held up by the heat of the combustion and falls apart under its own weight, bending space so much that it falls into a real hole.”