You Cannot See A Black Hole3 min read

You can see what’s around it, it can bend space-time with such perfect invisibility that you can see behind it. You can see what’s falling into it, it’s force is so strong that everything that falls towards it seems to hover timelessly just outside of it. You can see stars orbiting around it, at such high speeds and elliptical orbits that there must be something massive there. But you will never see it.

Because you just can’t see a black hole.

What does it say that I’ve been waiting for two years to look from an eye the size of the Earth, to attempt to see the hidden? My Uncle Ralph was the first to tell me about the Event Horizon Telescope, the telescope as large as the earth that would view a super massive black hole. I laughed, and rolled my eyes, it’s not the death star. He snapped back, crushing my cute little eighteen year old ego, I am a physicist after all, and retorted: effectively as large as the Earth.

It’s taken a few years to humble myself. I’ve measured the accretion rate of black holes, I’ve built materials for gravitational wave detectors, I’ve written down the equations for Einstein’s space time. I know now what I can, and what I cannot see.

But ego still comes into play. I saw the image of the supermassive black hole in the center of galaxy M87 two days ago. I imagined landing on its surface, where it would envelop me, and bring me to another world. I imagined what I saw to be true- a black world. But I cannot see a black hole, and I cannot touch a black hole. There is no surface, there is no way to the other side. Black holes are singularities. The universe does not follow my rules, it does not run on my clock, and it will not reveal everything to me always.

When I looked at the Event Horizon image, I saw a red ring of gas from nearby stars being pulled into invisibility. I saw a shadow. But I could not see the source.

It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me. (Ellison’s Invisible Man, Prologue)

I was a damn near invisible black child, and I could not understand why.  So I taught myself what I could about the world I was born into. I read about blackness: dark matter, dark baryons, dark energy, black holes. Everything that could not be understood, everything that could not be seen. And yet these were the objects that bent space time, pulled it apart, and held it together — simultaneously. Of course, the objects that determine the structure of our world are pushed to its margins.

(How poetic that they are named so dark and black. How lovely that I know now my ancestors.)

This is what I had forgotten when I looked for a black hole in an image. I had forgotten that there were things that could not be seen. I had forgotten that black things were not meant to be uncovered, they were meant to be heard. We can hear black holes when they circle each other before they collapse into one- they ring. This ringing of space time was recorded by the gravitational wave detector LIGO. There was a reason Janna Levin named her book on LIGO Black Holes Blues. There is a Blues about that sound. The object that cannot be seen, can be heard: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies I speak for you? (Ellison’s Invisible Man, Epilogue)

Amani Garvin

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