That smoke and burnt matter floating around me is: My mind, officially blown.
This morning, an international collaboration of scientists presented the image that it spent two years pursuing. Using a global arrangement of eight telescopes – they call it the Event Horizon Telescope – the scientists captured an image of a black hole. It is a golden halo around, predictably, a black hole.
A black hole. The Moby-Dick of the universe. The Holy Grail of science fiction, at last unveiled. A world where gravity is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” Shep Doeleman, the director of the EHT, said at this morning’s big reveal.
Science did this. Science is what advances the human race.
There was a time when our understanding of the stars and planets was not what we knew, but what we believed. Mythologies. Science is the death of mythologies.
Perhaps you are of the age when you learned in school that there were nine plants in our solar system. Since then, astronomers have identified 3,504 exoplanets – those are planets like Earth, not gas balls like Jupiter – with 53 thought to be potentially habitable.
In the search for the universe’s life-supporting potential, NASA will be sending robots to a comet and Saturn’s moon, Titan, which seems to have a sub-surface ocean. A rover will go to Mars, searching for evidence that life might have once been there.
Maybe we’re just hopeful. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program, commonly called SETI, is an array of radio receivers searching for cosmic radio transmissions; what does a stray sports broadcast from Ursa Major sound like? Of course, our government sees a darker storyline: In 2007, the U.S. Defense Department created a secret agency, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, whose mission was to evaluate Is Something Out There. And, is It armed?
Recently, astronomers released more conclusions drawn from the data sent back to us from Saturn by the Cassini space probe, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Among their conclusions is the rings of Saturn will begin to disintegrate, the millions of rocks and tiny satellite moons that make up the most beautiful sight in the cosmos sent to their death by the gravitational pull of the planet. Mark your calendar, that’s expected to happen in about 300 million years.
The pace of discovery is astounding. Last week we heard from yet another international team of scientists. Ever notice that scientists have no trouble getting along? They have been mapping the cosmos, and announced that they have found a new rock, a chunk of nickel and iron and other metals. It is what is left of a planet that had orbited a sun that looked much like our own sun. And that sun, what was once a full-fledged sun, ran out of fuel, exploded into a red giant that destroyed the planet, and perhaps others, before collapsing into a white dwarf sun. Now the remains of those two celestial bodies are locked in a death dance so intense that the fractured planet fragment completes an orbit of the cooling dwarf sun in just two hours.
A year on that rock lasts for just two hours. Puts dog years to shame, doesn’t it?
This rock, not incidentally, is 410 light years from Earth. I find it mind blowing that science can tell us such things.
The good news, I guess, is that this rock even survived the apocalyptic explosion of its sun. It gives scientists hope that, when our own sun explodes in 5 or 6 billion years, there might be something left of planet Earth. Our religions, literature, art, architecture, inventions, climate-change deniers, politicians and wars will be gone and forgotten. Our self-destructive mythologies which hold us back – mythologies of race, gender, wealth and fear – will finally be erased. But now there is hope that a chunk of cold rock might remain. And perhaps some civilization that has yet to evolve from tidal-pool protozoa will spot this rock, zipping around its own dwarf star, and ask: “What the hell was that?”
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