Black holes and the beauty of all we do not know


Oh, it’s beautiful, that picture of a black hole. Not so much in itself – if you didn’t know it was the first ever radio-telescopic image of a black hole, you wouldn’t think much of it at all. It would resemble a blurry Facebook post of an eclipse shot from someone’s cellphone, or an arty soft-focus Golden Delicious apple on a black tablecloth shot from above, or a lame piece of matte-backdrop special effects from an old 70s movie involving a balsa-wood spaceship and Maximillian Schell. You might pause a blank second, click “like” if you like whoever posted it, then scroll past to find something that makes you feel angry or that makes you go “Love, love, love!” for another blank second or two.

But we do know what it is, and knowing that makes it beautiful.

It’s pointless for a small mind like mine to even start to consider the sizes and measurements involved: that black hole is the distance away from Earth that a beam of light would travel if it traveled for 55 million years. It’s pointless telling me that, or to remind myself that for those 55 million years, the beam of light would be traveling at a speed of 300 000 kilometres every second. I can repeat these facts and numbers all day and I still won’t be able to grasp them because these are numbers at a scale that are not human. The black hole is 6.5 billion times heavier than the sun. That sounds impressive, but how much does the sun weigh? 333 000 times more than the Earth, eh? How much does the Earth weigh? More than Durban? How much does Durban weigh, for god’s sake?

What I love about that image is how impossible it is, how it forces us to push our minds against the edge of human comprehension, our grasp of what it is to be a finite human and make sense of existing in infinity. What we’re looking at isn’t even something – not on a number of levels. That black hole isn’t a thing, it’s an absence. It’s a super-concentrated, super-compressed, unfathomably dense unknowability. We are staring at what’s not there, we are being reminded, in our wonder, of what we can’t see but can through trial and error and the magic of our intelligence only apprehend. The image isn’t even a photograph: it doesn’t literally exist in reality: it’s the interpretation in visual terms of immense amounts of measurements and numbers, a file so large that when it was all collated it couldn’t be transported across the internet, that seemingly infinite and all-powerful embodiment of our Godlike human capacity to create and expand. Instead the data was stored on hundreds – hundreds – of hard drives that had to be physically transported to central processing centres in Boston and Bonn to assemble the information.

And there’s what’s truly beautiful about this image for me: the truth it is capturing is too vast, too complicated, too inhumanly scaled to be gathered in by one person, or one group of people, or one telescope, or one country. A single telescope that could see it would be the size of the planet, so instead we have the Event Horizon Telescope – a planet-scaled network of eight radio-telescopes, each mounted high in the cold clear air, above the weather and the noise, close to the stars, on volcanoes in Hawaii, in the Attacama Desert, in mountaintops in Hawaii and Spain and the dry cold deserts of Antarctica. A network of nations and people, straining against the limits of their own human intelligence and ingenuity, combined their insights and efforts and labours to reach out and bring back something that we thought was impossible, that should be impossible, that very few of us can even grasp, that reminds us, if we’re smart, of how very little we still know, but that at the same time extends the sum of our human experience and comprehension. Sum is a Latin word meaning “I am”, but the I that is is far, far bigger for being part of the sum of we that are human.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote one of my favourite books – “Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives”, a slim collection of forty very short, very funny and oddly persuasive stories, each offering a different lighthearted explanation of what happens when you die. In different tales, you discover that God is a committee, which explains the state of the world and certain compromises in our design, or that God is a quarreling married couple, or that God is a species of slow-witted numbskull creatures who invented us in order that we would discover things and explain it to them, or you discover there is no God and we’re all just mobile rovers built by galactic cartographers to provide data points for an enormous Google Map of the universe, or that we’re in fact vast multi-dimensional beings charged with the maintenance of the cosmos and that when we’re exhausted by the work, we’re reincarnated as humans in a kind of amnesiac retirement plan, abandoning our huge responsibilities with a sigh of relief.

His versions of the afterlife are so good, once you start quoting them it’s hard to stop. One more: when we die we discover the afterlife is populated only by people we remember, which may seem lovely at first but after a while it all becomes dull, empty and narrow: “You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.”

Eagleman calls himself a possibilian, a person who embraces the comic and cosmic vastness of possibility, underpinned by the deep and unfathomable reaches of everything we do not know. He is a scientist and loves science, and he recognises that science is a pier built from the shore into the vast, black, night-time ocean. Each new discovery we make, each fact we collect, each image we bring triumphantly back from the cosmos like Prometheus bringing fire from the gods is a precious illumination, another slat on the pier, and we have built the pier much further and faster than we ever had a right to expect, but take a look at even the biggest pier on earth, even the biggest pier you can imagine, then take a look at how much ocean there is.

The Times, 11 April 2019