September 20, 2019

What We See in a Blurry Picture of a Black Hole

“A group of astronomers has done something incredible: They captured the first photograph ever taken of a black hole. The image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope and released by the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency, is haunting in its simplicity: a hazy red loop of cosmic flame set against the backdrop of space, ringed around an even deeper blackness. So powerful is the gravitational pull of that inner void that nothing, not even light, can escape.

The public responded with a modicum of awe and some jokes. (The image does bear a striking resemblance to the Eye of Sauron.) But it wasn’t hard to find disdain among some observers. “Science, let us know when you find a more photogenic black hole,” Slate’s Heather Schwedel quipped. “If you told me instead, ‘You are looking at a scientific marvel that should really blow your mind,’ I would say: no I’m not,” Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan wrote, perhaps tongue-in-cheek. “Maybe your mind is more easily blown [than] mine. That I would believe.”

This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance. The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive. But judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted. One also has to consider the thought and labor behind its creation. The photograph might not depict the horror of galactic destruction as some expected, but it represents something even better.”

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