On April 10th astronomers stunned the world by releasing the first ever picture of a massive black hole. A second picture taken at the same time (shown above) showed the “neighborhood” of the black hole near the center of the M87 galaxy. The black hole in M87 is one of the brightest objects in the astronomical sky. Suppose for a minute that there are other intelligent observers out there in the universe. Could it be that they also have been entranced by it and even photographed it?
What about observers in the neighborhood of the M87 galaxy itself? They would have a ringside seat – except that there are probably no intelligent observers in M87. The huge energy output of the black hole would probably annihilate any advanced life in that galaxy. Another problem with M87 is that it is an elliptical galaxy. It is roughly the shape of a ball crammed with ten times as many stars than our galaxy. Observers on M87 would probably see a dense field of bright stars in the night sky. This could make it difficult for them study their black hole from within.
Why then can we photograph this massive black hole? First, we are a safe distance away – 55 million light years. Second, we live in the Milky Way – a spiral galaxy, which is flat and perfect for viewing the universe. We can look in toward the center of our galaxy (the milky way), but we can also look up outside our galaxy. Third, we live on planet earth – a perfect place for viewing the heavens. Unlike our nearest neighbors, we live on a cozy planet with a clear atmosphere. Venus is shrouded in dense clouds, and Mars has no life-supporting atmosphere at all.
But perhaps the most important reason for black hole photo is that earth is home to an incredibly curious species – us. How curious? It took over 200 scientists working with eight telescopes over two years time to produce the image. Why? Just because we wanted to know – to see what a black hole looked like.
Is anyone else taking pics of black holes? Maybe there are other curious observers who are in the right galaxy, in the right location, and on the right planet. Sadly, because of the great distances in time and space in the universe, we may never know. It could take thousands of years for them to share their pictures with us. In other words, we probably won’t see their pics on Facebook anytime soon.
However, we do know there is one species in the universe with the location and skill to take a picture of a black hole. There is one species with the curiosity and reflectiveness to marvel at its beauty and power. And perhaps that one species is enough to justify the existence of the black hole – and whole universe.