The astronomy community is abuzz with the recent news that a global array of radiotelescopes are converging on the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Us lowly Earthlings are mere weeks away from getting our first real look at the ‘edge’ of our patron black hole- our event horizon.
An event horizon is, by definition, the ultimate slippery slope; it is the point past which no information can escape. Any matter or energy that crosses an event horizon succumbs to the vast gravity of the star-corpse and is lost forever. Anything headed towards a black hole, or spinning in space nearby, will eventually careen into the endless abyss of singularity.
Because neither particles nor energy can escape a black hole, there’s technically nothing that we can learn from looking directly at black holes themselves- all of the information we gather regarding black holes comes from looking at how they impact the space around them. Now, we’ll get the first human look at the exact region where ‘somethingness’ gives way to ‘nothingness’- the event horizon.
Sky-nerds and photographers alike are entranced by the idea of finally seeing an event horizon (especially one that doesn’t have infinite-Matthew McConaughey saying ‘Alright, alright, alright’ for the rest of conceivable spacetime). The beautiful finality of a line beyond which no light escapes, so similar in appearance to someone holding a finger over half of your lens. Scientists are as transfixed as photographers- the team staring down the collective barrel of the radiotelescopes have boasted that the array is so powerful that it could visualize a grapefruit on the surface of the moon.
What strikes me more viscerally is that like many groundbreaking scientific advances, this development boils down to an advance in a very simple ability: the ability to see. Seeing the brink of a black hole is something that most people scoffed at, even one hundred years ago, just as seeing a cell undergo cell division was something many would not have believed possible two hundred years ago. And yet here we are in 2017 with powers of magnification and granularity beyond anything our forparents could have predicted. I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited to how our descendants eventually smash our current day milestones.
So what do black holes and lunar grapefruits have in common? Well, for starters- they will soon officially be two things that we can see with telescopes.