Perhaps because he was the child of Quakers—that pacifist, non-conformist sect—the astronomer Arthur Eddington would become one of the few British scientists during the height of the Great War to take seriously a theory proposed by a German Jew named Albert Einstein. Fighting in Europe led to a virtual intellectual embargo on the free exchange of collective theorizing and experimentation which is the prerequisite for scientific progress, but Eddington would nonetheless read, observe, and ultimately popularize the provocative theory concerning space, time, and gravitation derived by another pacifist living on the other side of the Western front.
Already well known, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity would be the most radical shift in our understanding of physics since Isaac Newton—if it could be confirmed. A prediction of Einstein’s theory, which explains gravity as the curvature of the space-time continuum due to the influence of physical mass, was that light from distant stars should be slightly bent to a particular degree by the mass of a sun. Classical Newtonian mechanics predicted a light deflection half of what general relativity did. Such deflection, however, could only be measured during a full solar eclipse.
As secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, Eddington had the resources to chart an expedition in two locations—one in Brazil, another on the West African island of Principe, off the coast of Guinea—in the path of a complete solar eclipse that was to occur on May 29th, 1919.
There, on the warm waters of the south Atlantic, Einstein’s theory was to face its Experimentum crucis, its possibly fatal test. Two decades later, Eddington would write in his book The Philosophy of Physical Science that “For the truth of the conclusions of physical science, observation is the supreme Court of Appeal.” And here on Principe, Einstein faced closing deliberations. After Eddington’s observation, the results were conclusive—light from Taurus was bent twice as much as they would have been had Newton’s theory been accurate. A theory of physics which had reigned ascendant since 1687 had been overthrown by a Quaker in African forests. The New York Times’s headline the following day was “LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS – EINSTEIN THEORY TRIUMPHS.”
At a press conference held at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. on April 10th, a consortium of scientists working on a collaborative project called the Event Horizon Telescope presented the first photograph of another enigmatic cosmological phenomenon predicted by general relativity: a black hole. The theory of general relativity allows for the possibility of there being objects so dense that the escape velocity from them would exceed the speed of light, which is the universe’s cosmic speed limit. As a result, such objects must by necessity be completely black, having at their center an infinitely dense core known as a singularity, where all of the laws of logic and physics completely break down, where space and time themselves cease to have any meaning.
While implied by Einstein’s theory as a type of mathematical placeholder, the mechanics of actual black holes were first described by the Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who hypothesized that dying and collapsing stars known as supernovas would have the energy to produce actual black holes, which would then act as gravitational traps for any matter unlucky enough to cross the point of no return known as an “event horizon.” Eddington was skeptical, but observations have tangentially proven their existence, with today’s announcement the most dramatic demonstration of these mysterious ruptures in space and time.
By one of those fortuitous coincidences that almost make otherwise rational people a bit superstitious, it’s been almost exactly a century since those lights were askew in the heavens; this week we were all gifted with a vision of one of those most terrifying and wondrous predictions, the unblinking eye of a black hole some 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, about 55 million light years from Earth, at the center of a supergiant elliptical galaxy called Messier 87.
If you have a similar attitude to mine, then you were perhaps struck by the strange sublimity of this photograph. There are, it must be said, certain theological implications to that celestial wonderment. I speak not of some claim that the black hole confirms any literal or conventional belief in a deity. God need not be real for divinity to be an applicable concept, for it’s good enough that the black hole is real. For me the photograph (made possible by an algorithm developed by Dr. Katie Bouman) both confirmed and exceeded expectations; in many ways the picture appeared as I sort of assumed it would, but when I actually viewed the image it shattered my sense of what I was looking at, of what’s possible, of what lay at the center of distant galaxies.
Asked to envision a black hole, most of us could draw on generations of pop culture and textbook, of film depictions from Interstellar to Event Horizon. On the eve of today’s press conference, my mind conceived of such a photograph as being a luminescent ring, a fiery circle of light before it disappears beyond that boundary from which nothing may return. “It looked like it was from a movie,” we could imagine ourselves saying. But when something transcendent intervenes in the ordinary affairs of people, we find that our predictions fell short, because what the black hole looked like and what it made me feel had a gulf between them. It may not have been as infinite as space but it still had the glow of the sacred about it.
The photo from the EHT does in many ways appear as I had guessed it would; a ghostly, glowing, eerie ring of luminescence around a pitch blackness. Yet there’s something different about seeing the actual thing-in-itself as opposed to an illustration. This is pictorial evidence of a black hole; this is a photograph of the place where physics falls apart, where logic shall have no dominion, where the seemingly unassailable kingdoms of time and space are finally conquered. Where all of the mathematics fails, and something else must take hold. What Marina Korin in The Atlantic described as the “closest that astronomers have come—and might ever come—to perhaps the most mysterious objects in the universe.” The closest that we can image to either heaven or hell.
In that space between rational apprehension and infinity is an ether known as wonder. No doubt the physics of the black hole are circumscribed by mathematics, but our supplications to it speak a different language: what the Romantics called sublimity. Eighteenth century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that a “definition may be… exact, and yet go but a… little way towards informing us of the nature of the thing defined.”
Notice the gloss of the unavoidable sacred in the media coverage about the discovery: Korin writes of “an unknown realm that can only be imagined”; Lee Billings at Scientific American describes the object as an “almost featureless nothingness”; and the title of Dennis Overbye’s article at The New York Times directly quotes the 17th century poet John Milton, who, in Paradise Lost, described hell as having “No light, but rather darkness visible.”
Such is the enormity, the awesome, sacred enchantment of such a thing, that even in our ostensibly secular age we must mine the metaphors of faith to generate something equivalent with our feelings before the altar of the singularity. Whether paradise or perdition lies behind that black boundary of the dead star I don’t know, nor if it’s something else entirely. A black hole is equivalent with mystery; a black hole is equivalent with wonder. A reminder that there are things in heaven and earth that are beyond our comprehension, and which we cannot describe except in the most rarefied of calculations.
We often think of our age as cynical, detached, broken, disenchanted—a jaded, post-truth era. Looking at that photo of a place where truth, and time, and space actually collapse, a place defined by both infinity and nothing, we can’t help but pause. Such a moment recalls the 19th century poet William Wordsworth’s evocation of how the mind tries to “grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining.” Our black hole, a reminder that there are some beautiful things beyond our grasp, some holy things beyond our vision. The closest we’ll ever come to a photograph of God.