By Mark Alpert
Every so often we experience an event that’s so amazingly big, it makes everything else seem petty. That happened on Wednesday. We saw something that introduced us to a whole new concept of bigness. We’re talking billions-of-times-more-massive-than-the-sun big.
I’m referring of course to the glorious picture of the gargantuan black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy (see above). This monster is as big as our entire solar system, and it’s phenomenally far away, more than 50 million light-years from Earth. But an array of radio telescopes was able to capture an image of the stuff swirling around the black hole — the so-called accretion disk — which emits copious amounts of radiation before it spirals into the hole, never to be seen again. The picture brilliantly confirms Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time can be warped so mightily that not even light can escape.
Is it inspiring for us fiction writers? Definitely! The picture provokes all kinds of existential questions. At the center of the hole — according to Einstein again — an amount of mass equivalent to billions of suns has been crunched into a singularity, an infinitely dense point. Whaaaat??? It sounds crazy, and maybe it’s not true; we don’t yet have a theory that combines relativity with quantum mechanics, so we can’t say for sure how gravity works at the smallest scales. Perhaps the singularity is a rip in spacetime. Or a portal to another universe. Studying the exact shape of the boundary of the black hole — the event horizon — may give us clues to what’s lurking inside. Or maybe not. Maybe God has drawn a curtain between us and the ultimate truth, preventing us from ever seeing it.
On Wednesday night I had a dream about a dying physicist. Did the picture of the black hole trigger that dream? I don’t know. But I’m writing a short story about it. I have three thousand words so far.