In The Week’s office, the country’s major newspapers are laid out in a line each day along a counter. One day last week, the same spooky image stared out from every front page, like a cosmic eyeball—the first-ever “photo” of a black hole. (See Health & Science.) It’s an achievement once thought impossible, given that black holes exert such monstrous gravity that they swallow light itself. To see the unseeable, it took 200 scientists on four continents using eight radio telescopes, synchronized so that they functioned like one giant radio dish the size of Earth. Even Einstein, whose theories predicted black holes, initially doubted something so outlandish could exist. Now astronomers have captured what one looks like: a radiant orange-red ring of superheated gas swirling around an ominous void—the “event horizon”—where all matter and energy is sucked into no-one-knows-where.
The value of feats like this are not entirely scientific: They remind us that human beings are not always petty, small, and mean, and that at our collaborative best, Homo sapiens is capable of magnificent things. Over the last century, science has shown that our universe is a far stranger place than our everyday experience would suggest. Space itself is curved and warped by mass. Time slows down on an object the faster it travels. Electrons act both as particles and waves. “Entangled’’ particles seem to instantly know and react to what happens to their partner across vast distances. At the quantum level, there is no empty space: Particles constantly pop in and out of existence, creating an ephemeral quantum “foam.” At the other end of the scale, there are least 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of stars and probably more than a few planets where intelligent life has evolved and is puzzling over the same questions as we are. The more we discover, the more it becomes clear that our certainties, whatever they may be, are built on illusions. We live in a great mystery.