Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Flirting with Black Hole Denial

In the New York Times’ Science Times yesterday came a story of a massive cold gas cloud being sucked into the black hole in the center of our galaxy. The observations, using infrared light, come from the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Sagittarius A* is at the center of the galaxy. It is sucking at the cloud so that the cloud moves at 1,000 miles per second. The NYT story contains this reassuring observation: “Sagittarius A*, pronounced A-star, has so much gravitational pull that it will eventually consume everything in the galaxy.” Sez who? Sez Relativity.

At times like these I feel akin to those (if they still exist) who assert that the earth is flat. I’m always flirting with black hole denial, although, to tell the truth, it’s really part of my heretical clinging to a Steady-State theory of the universe. Consequently I doubt that the big bang ever took place, that the universe is expanding, that gravity bends light, that space-time is real, etc., etc. Black holes are an inference from equations based on the theory of relativity, specifically that mass causes the deformation both of space and of time. Without such an idea, no black holes. Relativity has become sacrosanct; hence we now “see” black holes where all we actually see is light.

Herewith some pictures of what we do see.

Above I show a photograph of the Milky Way with a line pointing at its center. The line is not pointing at that dark formation with a tail; it points at light beyond it. The dark stuff in the foreground is formed of dust. What delights me in this view is that we see actual buildings as well by way of telling me what, on a very lucky day, the naïve man-on-the-street, that’s me, might actually behold—unless they were using some kind of fancy lens.

Next comes a telescopic view using infrared light. This is still our own galaxy. Obvious from this view—because we don’t see the galactic arms spread out individually—is that we can’t look down at its center from above, not from where we take such shots. Trying to see through to the center, we’re always looking through a screen of stars, at least at this level of resolution. We have to magnify enormously so that ever narrower segments become ever more resolved to view.

This next infrared image, taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, is another infrared photo of the galaxy, its center, and it shows us a bright central spot where Sagittarius A* is one of the donors of the luminosity we see.

Finally, here is a close-up of Sagittarius A*, taken from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The two circled spots are sites of fairly recent major explosions, the reason why they are marked. Sagittarius is that triangular and bright formation marked by NASA so that we can’t miss it. So where is the black hole? Even light cannot resists its awesome devouring suction. Now, looking at this, it amazes me that anyone could possibly see a very large cold cloud here; and cold, I remind myself, means that it’s not emitting light. Yet we are able, at this enormous distance, to calculate its speed with great precision. I know, I know—what do I know.

But I do know what to do when satanic forces attack my faith. I must put doubt resolutely to one side and pray fervently using these words: “Black Hole, I do believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Sources for the images are in order: one, two, three, four.


  1. I have been listening to a biography of Einstein, and Black Holes were a very early result of his theory, having been indicated by the equations Karl Schwarzschild was working on while serving on the Russian Front in WW I.

    He never made it back home.

  2. I'm aware of the Schwarzschild radius and so on. But his equations depend on the notion of spacetime. That came from St. Albert. And that concept, it seems to me, arose because treating time as maleable, as it were, much as space is treated as maleable, made it easier to write elegant equations.