A back arrow

All Articles

Darkness Unveiled

Darkness Unveiled

UD Faculty and Staff June 05, 2019

On April 10, 2019, the world saw the unseeable — the first image of a black hole. And humans, for once not divided by race, culture or religion, could contemplate the magnitude of what could be accomplished when people unite for a common cause. The image reveals a deep orange-tinged ring encircling a dark black circle, proving the existence of the black hole — 3 million times the size of Earth — lying deep in the galaxy Messier 87. The momentous event, which proved Einstein’s theory of relativity, was the result of hundreds of scientists across the world collaborating and sharing two years of data from nine telescopes. It also got those on campus thinking about how a black hole, 55 million light years away, touches our lives today on our blue-green planet.

Julia Randel

Associate professor and chair, Department of Music

The extraordinary new image of the black hole turned the terrifying idea of this object from a distant, abstract phenomenon to a vivid picture surrounded by alarmingly specific, nightmare-inducing questions, starting with how exactly would you die if you fell into a black hole? Writers describe it as lurking like a shark in the depths of space and devouring anything that comes near.

Perhaps this is why I find it so comforting to come back to the discovery, made in 2003, that the black hole is emitting a sound wave — a low B flat, 57 octaves below middle C. It allows me to think of the black hole not as a voracious predator but as a giant tuba at the end of the universe.

I started playing the tuba when I was 12, because I love low notes. High notes pierce, shatter, curdle the blood; low notes purr, soothe, embrace. I remember the first time I was able to play a pedal tone, a B flat a mere three octaves below middle C. Discovering the technique required to produce those tones is a bit like finding the secret that opens an enchanted cave or making it to a new level in a game. What would it take to descend another 54 octaves? A series of metamorphoses on a cosmic scale, a journey through unimagined dimensions.

As a musicologist, I know that the idea that the universe could be singing with sounds beyond humans’ capacity to hear them goes back to the ancients. Pythagoras wrote of the “harmony of the spheres;” the Roman Boethius, too, posited an unhearable music created by the movements of the stars and planets.

Now I teach in a department where an important part of our mission is training future music educators. We talk a lot about how learning music gives children so much more than just the ability to perform a few songs. The black hole tells us it’s even more than we thought: every time a kid picks up a band instrument and honks out their first B flat, it’s a step toward getting in tune with the universe.

Bill Plick

Assistant professor, Department of Physics

Black holes have captured the imagination of physicists, astronomers and laymen. As such, they’ve been the subject of rigorous calculation and observation — and also of science fiction novels, popular movies and even music, like “Super-Massive Black Hole” by Muse. We knew a lot about black holes before being able to see them. We could calculate the curvature of space-time due to their presence, could see the radiation they sent out into space and more.

But, knowing something is there and seeing it are two different things. As humans, things seem most real when we can perceive them with one of our fundamental senses: sight, sound, touch, taste. These powerful and mysterious objects now seem less like calculations on a computer screen and more like part of a living, dynamic, awe-inspiring universe. It reawakens in us a sense of childlike wonder that causes us to want to reach out and explore.  

Jayne Robinson

Professor, Department of Biology

rimmed in radiant orange

the elusive universe;

dark secret revealed

Miriamne Krummel

Associate professor, Department of English

I asked my 9-year-old daughter, Shoshana, what she thinks about black holes; she had mentioned to me that two boys in her third grade class were working on black holes as their class science project.

Shoshana thinks black holes are “cool.”

Fair enough, I think; but does she know what a black hole is? Turns out that she actually has a fairly clear sense of how black holes mess around with time. She knows, for instance, that the external viewer watching something disappearing into a black hole can see that something long after the black hole has destroyed it.

I also think black holes are cool.

They are also humbling.

We earthlings think that the rest of the universe — and all the other universes beyond ours — corresponds with our limited visions of time and space. But black holes tell us otherwise.

Black holes remind us that there is a lot we don’t know about the universe(s) outside this planet and that our vision of time and space is limited to what happens on Earth. Like everything else in life, we have more to learn about black holes.

And they, similarly, have stories to reveal to us about what we think we know, about what we do know and do not know, and about what we may never know.  

Laura Bistrek '97

Executive director of diversity in engineering, School of Engineering

 The photo of 29-year old computer scientist Katie Bouman, eyes showing sheer delight and hands clasped over her smiling mouth, and the first ever visible representation of a black hole have been widely circulated and capture the culmination of the work of hundreds of contributors over several years. 

But, reaction was divided. 

Some lauded Bouman’s contributions to the algorithm that made possible the photograph and pointed out that she is a role model for young girls to become scientists and engineers. Others questioned or tried to discredit Bouman’s actual contributions to the project, and colleagues had to come to her defense. Would this questioning and discrediting have happened if the Bouman highlighted in the picture had been a gray-haired male with glasses? How did her gender and age play into questioning her technical contributions? 

Women, persons of color and individuals with disabilities are still underrepresented in science and engineering. Younger professionals are sometimes not taken as seriously. As more teams that are diverse work collaboratively in moving technological advances forward, we must all be aware of the unconscious bias we hold and how this interplays in creating inclusive climate and cultures. 

Whether we are a member of the team or a commenter on social media, we all play key roles in the necessary inclusive excellence paradigm shift that will enable a growing number of diverse teams to reach their full potential and provide visible role models for the next generation.

John Chumack

Engineering reseracher, UD Research Institute 

The photo is amazing, as it proved Einstein was correct in his prediction that they did exist — though we cannot see them optically as of yet, this radio telescope image of the black hole clearly shows the predicted path of the light bending and doppler shifting around the black hole as predicted. I watched Katie Bouman’s TED talk a couple of years ago, with her stating that this could be possible and that she was in the process of figuring out a way to do it.

As an astronomer for 30 years at my own observatories, I think it is an incredible accomplishment and pretty cool. I only wish I could image it optically in the visible end of the spectrum, but it is buried in the core of a very bright elliptical galaxy M87, which makes it impossible at this time to do optically from Earth.

But using all the world’s radio telescopes tied together to create a dish the size of the Earth to gain the resolution needed in that end of the spectrum and the new super computers and the algorithm that Bouman’s team developed made it possible to see it.

It is truly amazing and Bouman and the worldwide team of astronomers all just made history!

Nicholaus Arnold

Gallery coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

When the image of the black hole was announced in April, I was somewhat surprised and delighted by everyone’s enthusiasm. While definitely not the most exciting image aesthetically; it represents an amazing achievement in the expansion of human knowledge.

Collaborating scientists from around the world putting together enormous amounts of data using mathematical algorithms that as an artist I couldn’t begin to comprehend all in order to form a photograph just so that the world could finally have a visualization of something so mysterious that we only theorized of its existence is a pretty wonderful accomplishment.

It’s a really perfect “pics or it didn’t happen” kind of moment that our culture very likely needed judging by the reaction to it. In a world where we all have to be constantly concerned by the next possible end of the world as we know it event; it’s nice to reflect on something much bigger and larger than any one individual.

More words on discovery — from faculty enjoying retirement.