The blurry orange image of the monster black hole the size of our solar system at the center of massive elliptical galaxy M87 captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) on April 10, 2019, was one of the most extraordinary achievements in modern science. The image is an epic example of the human species ability to imagine the existence of an object that not long ago, scientists of the stature of an Einstein, believed “did not exist in the real world,” nor that a fathomless dark creation existed at the very real, violent center of our home galaxy.
The Man Who Showed That Black Holes Could Exist
This week, the Nobel Committee recognized three scientists, awarding half of its physics the prize went to Roger Penrose, of the University of Oxford, the man who showed that black holes could exist, and half went to Reinhard Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UC Berkeley, and Andrea Ghez, director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, who provided convincing evidence of the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, with a mass 4 million times that of our sun, squeezed into a space smaller than our solar system, at the center of the Milky Way.
Most Important Contribution Since Einstein
“Roger Penrose used ingenious mathematical methods in his proof that black holes are a direct consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity,” said the Noble Prize committee. “Einstein did not himself believe that black holes really exist, these super-heavyweight monsters that capture everything that enters them. Nothing can escape, not even light. In January 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Penrose proved that black holes really can form and described them in detail; at their heart, black holes hide a singularity in which all the known laws of nature cease. His groundbreaking article is still regarded as the most important contribution to the general theory of relativity since Einstein.”
“Beyond the Scientific Mainstream”
“Roger Penrose has always been willing — if not happy — to hold views that lie well outside of the scientific mainstream,” observes University of Chicago physicist and Senior Scientist and the Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Dan Hooper, in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “He did this in the 19060s when he — correctly — argued that massive stars would ultimately become black holes. More recently, he has expressed skepticism about the conventional view that our very early universe went through an era of cosmic inflation, during which space expanded exponentially. Instead, he speculates that the Big Bang may not have been the beginning of our universe at all.”
Penrose also had a daring, speculative side that Dan Hooper alludes to above that underscored Einstein’s observation that the human scientific imagination is “a preview of coming attractions” with his suggestion that extinct universes exist that were filled with ghost black holes that are hidden, embedded in the Cosmic Microwave Background map, and may have harbored alien civilizations from an eon that preceded the Big Bang. Penrose speculates that any civilization we may discover by definition will be millions to billions of years older than Earth, perhaps existing encoded in photons.
If Stephen Hawking was Alive…
“If Stephen Hawking was alive,” writes Harvard astrophysicist and director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard, Avi Loeb in an email to The Daily Galaxy, “he would have been a very strong contender for this year’s award since his work paralleled that of Penrose on classical General Relativity with the addition of the quantum mechanical aspects of black hole evaporation.
Penrose Saves Our Ability to Predict the Future Throughout the Universe
“The mathematical work of Roger Penrose on General Relativity,” continues Loeb, “was revolutionary in improving our theoretical understanding of black holes. In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a paper in Annals of Mathematics doubting that black holes exist! Penrose demonstrated that they are a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity and invented a new mathematical tool to depict spacetimes, called Penrose diagrams.. He also showed that one can extract energy from a spinning black hole, in resemblance to a flywheel, the so-called Penrose Process, that may play an important role in powering some of the most luminous quasars in the universe. His cosmic censorship hypothesis saves our ability to predict the future throughout the universe from the pathology of the singularities associated with black holes, where Einstein’s theory breaks down and cannot forecast the future.”
Penrose’s conjecture, observes Loeb. “asserts that all singularities are hidden from view behind an event horizon and so the whereabouts of matter around them has no causal effect on what happens outside the horizon. Just as in Las Vegas, “whatever happens inside the horizon, stays inside the horizon”.
Black holes, concludes Loeb, “are the new frontier. It would be remarkable to visit the nearest one, especially if it exists in our Solar system.”
Chaotic Center of the Milky Way
When Genzel and Ghez discovered stars orbiting a seeming void at startling speeds in the region in our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A*, they conjectured that could make sense only in the presence of a supermassive black hole.
“Our nearby black hole is no threat to Earth, writes Marina Koren in The Atlantic. “No known black hole is. If anything, we benefit from their existence,” she writes, “The stellar explosions that produce black holes also spew elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen into space. The collisions of black holes and neutron stars help spread heavier elements, such as gold and platinum. These elements make up our Earth, and our own selves.”
The image at the top of page is artist Jack Ciurlo’s impression of G objects, with the reddish centers, orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy represented as a dark sphere inside a white ring. This a new class of bizarre objects with orbits ranging from about 100 to 1,000 years at the center of our galaxy, not far from Sagittarius A* that look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole.
Image credit, text, shows the blurry orange image of the monster black hole the size of our solar system at the center of massive elliptical galaxy M87 captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) on April 10, 2019,