Seeing is believing: 4 lessons of the new black hole image

This is how a Nasa artist imagined a black hole would look like

The first-ever image of a black hole released by astronomers Wednesday has become China's latest viral meme, with many social media users making light of the shadowy celestial object.

The photo shows a bright ring that is formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole - which is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun.

The photo is believed to help confirm the theory of general relativity first posited by Albert Einstein a century ago.

He said the team "uncovered part of the universe that was off-limits to us".

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, as the research project is called, involved more than 200 scientists.

General relativity lets us "see" both the front half and the back half of the event horizon simultaneously, producing a "shadow" of a black hole that is 2.6 times the radius of the black hole itself. The 5,000 terabytes of data collected was so large that it had to be stored on hundreds of hard drives and physically delivered to a supercomputer, which corrected the time differences in the data and produced the image above. Astronomers released the eerie image of the black hole at the center of galaxy Messier 87 (M87) today, but it was the culmination of several years of work spanning facilities across the globe.

They are so powerful that nothing near them - not even light - can escape their gravitational draw. The first to consider such an object was the English polymath John Michell in a 1784 essay. In God, there is no darkness at all for God is light and them that are born of God are born of love, and love and light are literally symmetrically in agreement.

Working independently 12 years later, the French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace gave the idea a more thorough mathematical treatment. This one's "event horizon" - the point of no return around it, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the abyss - is as big as our entire solar system.

Black holes are "like the walls of a prison". "This sometimes happens in physics".

"It's great to see how science can make that prediction", Massimino said.

Taken over four days when astronomers had "to have the ideal weather all across the world and literally all the stars had to align", the image helps confirm Einstein's general relativity theory, Dempsey said.

"Christopher Nolan omitted that brightening because the human eye would likely not be able to discern the brightness differences on the two sides of the hole when the overall brightness is so extreme", Kip Thorne, Cal Tech physicist and advisor on the film Interstellar, told Gizmodo.

Einstein himself didn't initially notice the possibility for black holes in his equations.

Lia Medeiros, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, likens the math of black holes to dividing by zero. An image of the one closest to us inside the Milky Way could be next.

The output of this illicit mathematical operation is an extremely distorted pocket of space-time such that even light, the fastest thing there is, gets trapped. The image revealed Wednesday showed the edges of the black hole - called the "event horizon" - for the first time.

The supermassive black hole in the photo is 50 million light years away in a galaxy known as M87.

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