Black Holes 3: Making black holes from ordinary stuff

by Shane L. Larson

If you are exploring the Cosmos, and either by design or accident, find yourself plunging toward a black hole, on a beeline that takes you directly across the horizon, you don’t encounter anything along the way; all you feel is the inexorable pull of gravity pulling you farther and farther down. When you reach the event horizon, the nominal “surface” of the black hole, what do you encounter? 

Nothing.

The event horizon is simply the invisible line in space where gravity has become so strong that even if you were travelling at the speed of light, you could not escape; the event horizon is a boundary that once crossed, Nature says you are never coming back out — the inside of the black hole and only the inside of the black hole is in your future. That’s a big statement, but you cross this point in space without even an alarm to let you know you are trapped. It’s as easy as walking across a line drawn in the sand at the beach.

A black hole with the MASS of the Sun is not even close to the SIZE of the Sun! Here the approximate size of a solar mass black hole is shown near the city of Evanston, IL — only about 6 kilometers (4 miles) across. What is it made of? Nothing tangible — it is empty space, filled with nothing except gravity itself! [Map: Google; Image: S. Larson]

Through the horizon and as you fall inward you still encounter absolutely nothing. This has previously led us to ask, “What is the black hole made of?” Based on what you experience, we had concluded “a black hole is made of pure gravity.” But gravity, as we learned early on in our thinking about the world, is a consequence of mass (or energy if you take the modern understanding of mass and energy being related). That normally would imply that the black hole was made of mass of some sort, but as our gedanken experiments have paradoxically shown us, there is no mass to be encountered when travelling toward and into black holes! 

A thoughtful cosmic explorer (or astronomer) would take that bit of confusing information and ask a very pointed question: “how do you make a black hole, then?” The motivation for such a question is built out of our common experience. If you want to make something, whether it is a gallon of dandelion wine, a guitar, or a cinnamon roll, you take other things and transform them into the new thing.  So what are the other things that can be transformed into a black hole? And how do you change them from being ordinary things into pure gravity? Those are very good questions, and to be honest with you here at the beginning, we don’t know all the answers. We only know part of the story, the penultimate explanation for how it happens. Some of the story is still unknown, and lies beyond the boundaries of what we currently understand about the Cosmos. That is part of what astronomers and physicists investigate and attempt to understand every day.

Astronomers have seen many phenomena in the Universe that are explained by black holes. The question is where do they come from? [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

How do we start? Where ever you are, look around you and pick up the nearest thing you can see. Maybe it’s a rock, a bagel, a book, a Lego brick, your cat — whatever. Here I’ve picked up a fountain pen. Why does the fountain pen, or any other object, have form? What is it that makes it a solid tangible object? If you try to squeeze the fountain pen, it may deform slightly, but generally resists any effort to squeeze it out of shape. Why? Because as you press the fountain pen, the building blocks of which it is made, the molecules and atoms, fight to hold their shape. They press against their neighboring atoms, and when the pressure from your fingers tries to force them closer together, they press back against you in tandem, resisting your attempt to move them.

If you press hard enough, you can sometimes squeeze them together or change how they sit next to each other. Sometimes you are stronger than a material and break the object. Some objects are hard to compress, but they can certainly be deformed if you apply a force to them in specific ways. It’s hard to flatten a paperclip into something like a piece of foil, but it is not too difficult to bend it back and forth into a new shape. Ultimately what you can do physically to any object depends on how the building blocks of its structure respond to forces applied from the outside.

(L) Very solid objects, no matter how hard I squeeze them, retain their shape. The atoms that they are made of resist external forces. (R) Some objects can be deformed, bent, or broken, like these paperclips — their atoms resist some external forces, and yield to others. [Images: S. Larson]

Now consider a slightly different example. Go to your kitchen and find a party balloon in your junk drawer. Blow it up and tie it off so it is maybe 20 centimeters across. Take a couple of sheets of aluminum foil, and wrap the balloon up. What happens when you try to squeeze the foiled balloon? It deforms a little bit under the force of your hands, but when you let go the pressure from inside the balloon pushes it back into its round shape.

A balloon wrapped in foil as a heuristic model of a star. The balloon presses outward against the pressure from your hands that is trying to collapse the foil.

This simple balloon and foil model is completely analogous to a star. The foil is playing the role of the outer layers of the star that we see when looking through our telescopes (the “atmosphere” or the upper layers of the star). Your hands pressing down are like gravity, trying to pull everything that makes up the star into the center. Opposing the inward press of your hands, the balloon represents something inside the star pressing outward against the pull of gravity. We know the outward press is the energy released by nuclear fusion deep in the core of the star. This balanced state, where the inward pull of gravity is precisely counterbalanced by the outward push from the energy created by fusion, maintains the round and stable size and shape of the star. Astronomers call this state hydrostatic equilibrium.

When the balloon is popped, nothing prevents your hands from collapsing the foil. This is similar to fusion ending in the core of a star — nothing presses outward, and gravity collapses the star.

Now, gently hold the foiled balloon in the palm of your hand and have a friend pop the balloon with a needle. The support from the balloon vanishes, leaving you holding an unsupported shell of the foil. You are gravity, so squeeze the foil down. It should be easy — there is nothing to fight back against you. You can, and should, squeeze the foil down into a small, aluminum ball. Ball it up, and squeeze it into the smallest ball you can. Once you’ve squeezed it as hard as you can, stand on it trying to squeeze it smaller. If a member of your family is stronger than you, ask them to squeeze it even smaller.

How small did you make it? Can you make it any smaller? The answer is “probably not.” Why? Because all of the aluminum atoms in the foil are resisting being pressed together, far stronger than you can press them together with your hands or feet. This is not dissimilar to the fountain pen we discussed above — all the atoms that make up the aluminum are pressing out, resisting being pushed any closer together than they already are.

The exact same thing happens in Nature. Gravity takes collections of stuff — stars, planets, anything round — and tries to pull it together as strongly as it can. Eventually everything gets crowded together, and through a variety of interactions resists the inward pull of gravity. For stars in the middle of their lives, they exist in hydrostatic equilibrium, with the inward tug of gravity balanced against the outward push from the fusion in the core.

Squeeze the foil as hard as your possibly can. Eventually your strength will be matched, and the ball will get no smaller.

When a star reaches the end of its life, the fusion in the core shuts down. That moment is like you popping your balloon — the star suddenly finds itself without much outward pressure at all, and the inward pull of gravity takes over — the star collapses. The collapse is the beginning of a supernova explosion. 

For our interests here we are not interested in what gets blown out, but what happens in the innermost core. There, the titanic pressures of the collapse and explosion break apart the atoms, and breaks apart the nuclei of the atoms. You may recall from school that atoms themselves are made of smaller bits — the smallest bits are called electrons which orbit around a nucleus made up of bits called neutrons and protons. Like you standing on a wine glass, the inward force of gravity during the collapse crushes every atom, breaking every one apart into these shards called electrons, protons, and neutrons.

In the soup of protons and electrons and neutrons that results, the protons and electrons are forced together and turn into a neutron plus a small particle called a neutrino. This conversion process is called “neutronization” (really — sounds like something from a superhero movie, right?) — the conversion of most of the matter of the core into neutrons. 

A neutron star (diameter 20 km) scaled to the Chicago skyline. [Image: LIGO-Virgo/Nick Gertonson/Daniel Schwen/Northwestern]

This core that remains is called a neutron star when it settles down, and its gravity is extreme beyond belief.  It has about 1.5 times the amount of stuff in as the Sun, but squeezed down into something about 20 kilometers across — the size of a city.  At the surface, the gravity is 200 BILLION time stronger than the gravity you are experiencing right now on Earth. What are the consequences of such extreme gravity? Imagine you could take a walk on a neutron star (and you could certainly NOT walk, but go with me here) and you had the unimaginable misfortune of encountering a cliff only ONE MILLIMETER high. What would happen if you fell off? On a neutron star, falling off a one millimeter high cliff means when you reach the bottom you will be travelling about 227,000 kilometers per hour (141,000 miles per hour)!

The gravity of a neutron star is extreme, but a neutron star, like its parent star, maintains its shape as a round, spherical object — it is in hydrostatic equilibrium! Gravity is trying to press down, but something just as strong is pressing back. In this case, it is the neutrons that make up the star. Neutrons do not like to be near each other and push back when they are squeezed into small spaces — this is called “neutron degeneracy pressure” (for the quantum mechanics aficionados among you, this is a consequence of the “Pauli exclusion principle”). The reason gravity could not collapse the neutron star is because the neutron degeneracy pressure is enough to stop it.

But there is a funny truth about gravity. All four of the fundamental forces of Nature have a range of distances over which they act, and their strength varies over those distances. They also each affect only certain kinds of objects in the Cosmos. Gravity, however, is completely indiscriminate — it acts on and affects everything that has mass and energy, which as it turns out is everything in the Cosmos!

The consequence of that simple fact is if you make a big pile of anything, gravity always tries to pull it closer together, and will succeed in pulling it together until it is opposed by a stronger force (for example the hydrostatic equilibrium, and the neutron degeneracy pressure examples we noted above).

We only know the masses of a few neutron stars, most between the mass of the Sun, and two times the mass of the Sun. Can heavier ones exist in Nature, or do they all turn into black holes? Explore the stellar graveyard on your own with this interactive tool at CIERA. [Image: Frank Elavsky/Northwestern University]

Most of the neutron stars we have observed in the Cosmos up to now have masses between about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, up to around 2 times the mass of our Sun. Why aren’t their bigger ones? We certainly see huge stars, up to 30 or 40 times the mass of the Sun — when they explode, they definitely have larger cores that should leave behind bigger remnants, bigger stellar skeletons. So can a neutron star bigger than the ones we’ve found in the Cosmos exist? You can imagine taking one of the known neutron stars, and slowly piling more and more mass onto it. Each jelly-bean or rock or bit of starstuff you drop on the neutron star increases its mass, which increases its gravity, which makes gravity pull inward more strongly. Eventually, gravity will get so strong that the neutrons cannot resist any more — gravity overwhelms the degeneracy pressure, and presses the neutrons closer together. 

Concentrating all the mass of neutrons together makes gravity even stronger, which pulls all the mass of the neutron star even closer in a never-ending cycle of just making gravity stronger. At this point, there is no known force in the Universe that is stronger than gravity. Nothing can oppose gravity’s inexorable inward pull, and everything that was a neutron star gets smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until the gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. We have a name for that.

A black hole.

So at last, we arrive at the answer to our question: we make black holes by squeezing matter together. Black holes are not stuff but they are made of stuff in the beginning. 

Where is all that stuff now? It is concentrated somewhere behind the event horizon, where we cannot see. Mathematically, the laws of gravity suggest it is concentrated into an infinitely dense point called a singularity. It is… … … something. Something that completely defies our understanding of the Laws of Nature, and is the subject of much consternation and study on the part of modern physics and astronomy researchers.

Now we are curious creatures, and it is completely natural to ask “what is inside the black hole?” or “what is inside the event horizon?” The answer quite pointedly is you can NEVER know unless you jump in yourself! The emphasis really is on the word UNLESS — nothing prevents you from jumping in and looking around; the only prohibition is on your ability to come back out to visit your friends who watched you jump in. The prohibition that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the Cosmos, coupled with having to travel faster than the speed of light to get out of the event horizon, means you will never hear about anything that happens on the “inside” of a black hole second hand!

But we can use our mathematical understanding of gravity to predict what you would experience if you jumped in, and the predictions are weird and disconcerting. We’ll talk about some of that gravitational weirdness next time. 

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This post is the third in a series about black holes.

Black Holes 01: Imaging the Shadow of Darkness

Black Holes 02: What are black holes made of?

Black Holes 03: Making black holes from ordinary stuff (this post)

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Black Holes 2: What are black holes made of?

by Shane L. Larson

In modern astrophysics, the study of black holes grows out of general relativity, the modern description of gravity written down by Einstein in 1915. As descriptions of Nature go, general relativity is among one of the most remarkable discoveries humans have ever made.

On the surface, general relativity seems extraordinarily complex and mathematical, and it can be. The governing equations that describe what general relativity explains and predicts about the Cosmos are what scientists call non-linear. Generally this means the equations cannot be solved with simple pen and paper calculations, using algebra skills you learned early in your mathematical training. This was something Einstein recognized early on. He had in fact abandoned the idea that there would ever be “simple” or “exact” solutions to his equations, and started working on “weak gravity” (“linearized” for the aficionados) cases where the equations of general relativity can be written in ways simple enough to work on.

Karl Schwarzschild [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

But, as if often the case in science, even the smartest of us sometimes don’t see the obvious. In 1915, barely a month after the first presentation of general relativity at the Prussian Academy, a young German soldier named Karl Schwarzschild wrote a letter to Einstein, showing that if you use general relativity to consider a situation which has symmetry, the equations become simple enough to solve directly. Schwarzschild considered the case of a source of gravity that was perfectly spherical, like a planet or star or other massive body. Today, we’ve named this solution after him, and the most extreme example of what Nature can do with it is called a Schwarzschild black hole.

Most of us have heard quite a few weird and exotic things about black holes, much of which defies our common experience and common sense. That exoticness comes from the sophisticated nature of the non-linear equations of general relativity, but also from the fact that the places where the Cosmos creates or harbors black holes are the most extreme environments imaginable, far outside anything you might encounter on Earth, either on a wilderness hike or in a physics laboratory. But the discomfitting exoticness of black holes belies a subtle truth: they are exceedingly simple objects.

Cars are complicated, which is why you see lots of magazines like the one on the left. Black holes are simple, which is why you don’t see magazines like the one on the right. [Image: S. Larson]

What do I mean by simple? Consider for a moment one of wonders of the modern age: the automobile. An average vehicle has maybe 20,000 parts that make it up. If you want to understand all the details about how a vehicle works, or make one yourself, you have to understand everything about all those 20,000 parts. What is each one made of, how is it shaped, where does it go in relation to other parts, does it move or is it held still, what kinds of environment will it encounter? These and many other questions are required to have a complete understanding of a “car,” so there are books and magazines and entire industries and trades dedicated to motor vehicles.

Unlike automobiles, black holes are simple. They are completely characterized by only three numbers: the mass, the spin, and the amount of electric charge they have. Black holes that have one or more of these properties are named for the scientists who first wrote down the mathematical descriptions that describe them in the context of General Relativity.

These three properties are all ones that seem familiar and quite ordinary, because they are used when we talk about most things in astrophysics. Mass, spin, and charge are all quantities that are more or less familiar. However, in the context of black holes what we mean by them is less clear.  Consider “mass.” What do we mean by the mass of a black hole? To understand this, we have to first be very clear what we mean by black hole and confront some of its exotic properties.

Our adopted definition for “black hole” is a very practical one — it’s an object whose gravity is so strong, not even light can escape. As scientific definitions go, I like this precisely because it is very practical — it captures an immutable way to identify what an object is based on a simple observation or experiment you can do, in this case you can test the gravity of an object to see if it is, in fact, a black hole or something else.

One of the things you may remember learning about gravity early on in your science classes is that gravity gets stronger as you get closer to an object, and gets weaker as you get farther away from an object. That means if you are far away from a black hole, the gravity you feel from it does not have to be very strong at all! More to the point, if you are far from the black hole and point a laser pointer directly away from the black hole, the laser light goes flying off minding its own business without consequence; the black hole is so far away its gravity has little or no measurable effect. But that it also means is as you get closer and closer to the black hole, the gravity must get stronger until it finally becomes so strong that the laser light cannot get away. That transition point, where gravity is finally strong enough to stop light, is called the “event horizon.”  It is NOT a physical surface — it is simply that place where gravity has gotten strong enough to overcome light.

We can represent gravitational influence with a figure that shows lines along which an object feels the gravitational force. The number of lines emanating from an object is related to the mass. The strength of gravity you feel is related to how many lines are around you (how many lines cross into the little red circles). Stick Spock, far away, feels weaker gravity than Stick Picard, who is somewhat closer. Stick Geordi, who is very close to the source of gravity, experiences much stronger gravity. [Image: S. Larson]

This transition point is important, especially in terms of astrophysics, because it defines which places in space we can detect signals from (for example, light emitted by atoms which can be seen with telescopes), and which parts of space we cannot. Quite literally, the event horizon is an invisible boundary in space that defines “inside” and “outside” the black hole. It’s kind of like putting a line of tape across the bedroom you shared with your sibling when you were growing up — there’s nothing to indicate where the boundary is when you walk across it, but there are definite sides.  On the outside, atoms are free to create light which can move away from the black hole and be seen in telescopes. On the inside, the gravity has passed the tipping point, and light can no longer get out. Atoms can still go about their atomic business and make light, but that light cannot go sailing across the Universe — like everything else on the “inside,” the light is subject to the inexorable pull of the black hole, dragging it deeper into the interior. For this reason, we treat the event horizon as if it is the surface of a black hole, and for all intents and purposes it is — anything that crosses the event horizon disappears and vanishes into the black hole forever. Every black hole has an event horizon — it is what defines them.

The question that set us along this line of reasoning is “What do you mean by mass?” If the black hole has an inside and an outside, then that seems like an impossible question to answer because the mass lives inside the event horizon — how do you know it has mass? That is an eminently reasonable question to ask! It’s an important one to ask because of the way we talk about black holes. In most contexts, mass is a code word that means “the amount of stuff that makes up an object.”  For astronomers, a practical way to think about what we mean by mass is it defines “how much gravity a black hole creates.”

To imagine what we mean by that, try to think about how you measure the mass of the Sun. Has anyone ever taken the Sun and plopped it down on a scale at the doctor’s office? No. We’ve measured the mass of the Sun by observing how its gravity has influenced other objects around it. If I look at the orbit of a spaceship or a small asteroid at a known distance from the Sun, the time it takes to complete the orbit tells me how massive the Sun is. We didn’t “measure the mass” of the Sun (how much “stuff it has” in it), we inferred the mass by measuring the gravity of the Sun. When we state the mass of a black hole, we are doing exactly the same thing — we’re using a number (that we call “mass”) to express how much gravitational influence the black hole would have on things that might fly around it in space. 

One way to “measure mass” is to look at how long it takes to complete an orbit of a given size. You can do this around the Sun or around a black hole, and they will give the same answer if they “have the same mass.” Compared to the Sun, the gravity of the black hole is only extremely strong when you are close to the hole, seen here in this figure by comparing how close the lines are near each of the objects. [Image: S. Larson]

If you’re scratching you head, you’re doing okay — this is probably one of the hardest things to wrap your brain around. If the black hole has gravity, doesn’t that mean it “has mass?”  Not necessarily.  Consider trying to get as close to the black hole as you can, without crossing the event horizon. As you get closer and closer to the black hole, all you encounter is empty space. In fact, if you fly right through the event horizon to the inside of the black hole, all you encounter is MORE EMPTY SPACE. The black hole has gravity but it is comprised entirely of empty space.

Wait — what? That’s right, a black hole is completely empty space. It isn’t tangible, there isn’t stuff you can scoop up and collect in a little plastic bag. It is empty space. So what is it? It is pure gravity. Now it seems weird to think about it that way, because you are used to thinking that things in outer space are made of stuff — stars, galaxies, nebulae, comets, asteroids, and planets are all made of stuff. But black holes are not. You’ve encountered that idea before — if we go dig a big hole in your garden then lean on our shovels to admire our work, we point at a big empty space, full of nothing, and we call it a hole. This is kind of the same idea.

Now you rightfully might be inclined to ask what is making the gravity? After all, in the rest of the Universe, to make gravity you have to have stuff. Isn’t that the point in why we have orbits around the Sun? The Sun has stuff it is made of, that stuff makes gravity, and gravity is what makes stuff move in orbits. But gravity isn’t a substance that massive objects make and throw out into the Universe — gravity is an effect they have on the Universe around them. Einstein’s great realization is that what you and I think about as a “force” of gravity is really our response to the shape of the Universe around us (more properly, the shape of “spacetime”), which is forcing us to move in certain ways.  A black hole’s “gravity” is just a statement of how the black hole has bent spacetime outside of it.  Let’s imagine a simple example.

Paths ants take when walking along a flat surface. [Image: S. Larson]

Imagine I show you the paths some ants are walking along, but I’ve gotten some of my Hollywood special effects friends to remove the objects they are walking on, and all you can see is their path.  The only rule is an ant always walks on a straight line, directly where its head is pointing, never turning to its left and never turning towards its right. What do you think the ant paths in the figure above are showing?

You might have said a “table” or a “piece of paper” or the “ground” or a “wall.” It could be any of these things! You can’t tell the difference between them from the paths, only that whatever it is is FLAT.  Now consider the ant paths shown below.

If the surface has an interesting shape, the paths ants take walking across it, even though they are walking “in straight lines,” look interesting. One path will tell you the surface is interesting (left), but many paths will reveal what the surface really is (right). In this case, a sphere. [Image: S. Larson]

What is that ant walking on? The path the ant took was straight as far as the ant was concerned, never turning left and never turning right. But eventually the path came back to itself not because of something the ant did, but because of the shape of the surface it was walking on! So what was the surface? From a single path, you can’t tell, but if you have multiple ant paths you begin to see what the underlying shape might be, and there are many possibilities that include the first circular ant path we noted above, but in the end we would conclude it was a ball.

Now consider the more complicated collection of paths below. The more paths you have, the more likely it is you can understand the underlying shape of the space. The ants aren’t feeling any force that makes them change directions they are moving. As far as they are concerned they are walking freely in straight lines, and the shape of the surface they walk on determines what that path looks like. The end result shows you the shape of the space, and sometimes it is flat, sometimes it is spherical, and sometimes it looks like a bottle!

If the surface has some exotic shape, the ant paths can have a wide variety of different behaviours, but with enough paths you can understand the surface they are walking on. [Image: S. Larson]

So what should you take away from this parable of the ants? You should know that how something moves can be understood as moving along the shape of something. Gravity bends the Universe, and how we move can be understood as us moving along the bends, along the warps and weaves, of that bent Universe. When a planet or a star is sitting off by itself in the Universe, it bends spacetime around it, and black holes do the same thing. When we move along an orbit around a black hole, when we “feel its gravity pulling us in an orbit” we are really just moving along the bent Universe around the black hole. 

So what’s the difference between how a star bends spacetime and how a black hole bends spacetime? Only how strongly it does so. The Earth bends spacetime pretty strongly — if you try and jump straight up  you can’t get away. A rocket has to travel just over 11 kilometers a second (25,000 miles per hour) to get away. A black hole bends spacetime more strongly, so strongly that you’d have to travel faster than the speed of light, or 300,000 kilometers a second (671 MILLION miles per hour) to get away!  Exotic, to say the least!

But despite their exotic nature, black holes had to come from somewhere. Next time we’ll talk about how to make black holes in the Cosmos. 

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This post is the second in a series about black holes. 

Black Holes 01: Imaging the Shadow of Darkness

Black Holes 02: What are black holes made of? (this post)

Black Holes 1: Imaging the Shadow of Darkness

by Shane L. Larson

Of all the phenomena in the Cosmos, black holes evoke a special sense of wonder in most people.  What is it that captures the imagination when you hear the words “black hole?  There are countless mysterious and exotic astronomical phenomena that pique the interest of astronomers, but few of them have the evocative power over people’s imaginations that black holes do. 

There is no known portrait of the Reverend John Michell.

What are we talking about? By definition, a black hole is an object whose gravity is so strong, not even light can escape. The first person to imagine such an object was the Reverend John Michell in 1783. At the time, it was an interesting supposition since the speed of light was known to be “fast,” so such an object’s gravity had to be “strong,” but there was nothing inherently special about the speed of light itself. The same idea was later promoted quite widely by Pierre-Simon Laplace (he had a much better press machine behind him than the Reverend Michell). But the exoticness of black holes was not fully realized until the early 1900s, when two things happened.

There is an ultimate speed limit in the Universe!

First, in 1905, Einstein published special relativity and the scientific community rapidly tested many of the ideas and found them to be consistent with the behaviour of everything in Nature. The central tenet of special relativity, which is of paramount importance to our discussion here, is that there is an ultimate speed limit in the Cosmos, somehow built into the foundations of the structure of the Universe: you cannot travel faster than the speed of light. People often ask me, “what’s so special about the speed of light?” There is nothing special about light, there is something special about the speed. It happens that light was the first thing we ever discovered that can travel at the ultimate speed limit, so we call it “the speed of light.” The proper statement is really, “nothing can travel faster than the ultimate speed limit!

Second, in 1915 Einstein published general relativity, which showed how to think about gravity in a way that was consistent with special relativity. Less than a month later, Karl Schwarzschild found the first astrophysical solution to the equations of general relativity, what we today call a Schwarzschild black hole. This is a perfectly spherical black hole, an object whose gravity is so strong you have to exceed the ultimate speed limit to get away from it. Extraordinarily, but perhaps not surprisingly, the size of Schwarzschild’s black hole is exactly the size predicted by Michell in 1783.

At this point, we can begin to understand why black holes are so exotic and alluring. It’s not just that they have intense gravity. It’s that they are inescapable. If you have the sad misfortune to fall in one, you will never be able to get back out (we’ll talk about “tunnels” through black holes in a later post). That very idea of being trapped forever, incontrovertibly prevented from leaving by the laws of Nature — that’s mind boggling, and clashes with our normal sense of free-will. It very definitely has a “Nature is more dangerous than we suppose” air about it that we often only reserve for documentaries about sharks, the wild savannas of Africa, and just about all the wildlife in Australia. 🙂

It is the inescapable Nature of black holes that makes them interesting to think about, but it is also what makes them hard to study in astronomy. All things being equal, black holes are just about the hardest cosmic phenomena to observe because, for the most part, we study the Universe using light. By definition black holes emit no light! Recently, our burgeoning ability in gravitational wave astronomy (here are all the posts at writescience tagged “gravitational waves”) gives us a way to probe black holes directly, allowing us to understand them as single, big objects — how massive they are, how fast they might be spinning, what processes might form them. But trying to understand what is happening up close to the black hole, where the gravity is at its most intense and unusual things can happen, that’s hard. We would really like to know what happens if you are as close as possible to the black hole without being trapped, down near the surface of last escape, a place called the “event horizon.” Probing this region is the goal of one of the most ambitious projects in astronomy, called the Event Horizon Telescope.

With telescopes, we always observe light emitting objects, and watch what happens to them in the vicinity of black holes.  We use these observations as a way to understand the properties of black holes and what they are capable of doing to the Universe around them. Most of the time when you hear about black hole discoveries, this is what has happened — something did something weird near a black hole, and told us the story with light! For instance, at the centers of most large galaxies astronomers find massive black holes, millions or billions of times more massive than our Sun. The one in our own galaxy is called Sgr A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star”). Since the 1990s, astronomers have been watching stars down in the center of the galaxy, and have now watched them long enough to see them move across the sky and make closed round paths — orbits! Something you may remember from your early exposure to astronomy is that whatever is at the middle of an orbit is the source of gravity that makes and object go around in its orbit… and at the centers of these stellar orbits we don’t see anything. The size of the stellar orbits, and the speed they move, tells us that whatever is there has four MILLION times the mass of our Sun. There is no known dark phenomena in Nature that can be that tiny, that massive, and create that much gravity other than a black hole.

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

About 53 million lightyears away, in the direction of the constellation Virgo, there is a massive galaxy known as Messier 87, which can be easily seen with backyard telescopes. It has always been an object of intense interest, even before we knew there were other galaxies besides the Milky Way. In particular, in 1918, Heber Curtis, observing with the 36-inch Crossley Telescope at Lick Observatory noticed “a curious straight ray… apparently connected with the nucleus by a thin line of matter” (read a copy of Curtis’ original paper here). Today we call such structures “jets” and know they are powered by matter interacting with black holes. In the century since Curtis’ first observation, many observations of the M87 jet have been made and used to understand the properties of the black hole that drives it.

The black hole in the center of M87 powers an enormous, energetic jet of material spewing out from the galactic core. (L) We think we were one of the first amateurs to image this jet in 2001 [Image: S. Larson/M. Murray/A. Block] . (R) HST image of the jet, for comparison. [Image: STScI/Hubble/NASA] 🙂 [Click to embigen!]

The Event Horizon Telescope takes this observing strategy to the next level. The goal is to look as close as possible to the event horizon, and see what can be seen, down near the root of the jet. Can matter glowing brightly before falling into the event horizon be seen? Can light from stars and matter behind the black hole be bent by the black holes intense gravity and provide a lensed silhouette of the black hole? To even think about doing a project like this, you have to know two things: (1) how big on the sky does a black hole appear, and (2) what is the tiniest object in the distance that a telescope can see?

The apparent size of an object in the sky depends on how intrinsically big it is, and how far away it is.  For black hole sizes, we can use the size predicted by Schwarzschild to get a sense for their diameter.  If you want to tinker and get out your calculator, the diameter of a Schwarzschild black hole is given by the formula

where dbh is the diameter of the black hole, Mbh is the mass of the black hole, G is Newton’s gravitational constant, and c is the speed of light. If you put in the mass of any black hole in kilograms, then this formula tells you the diameter of the black hole in meters.  A black hole the mass of the Earth has a diameter of just over 1.5 centimeters. A black hole the mass of Neptune has a diameter just a bit bigger than a human head.  A black hole with the mass of the Sun has a diameter of almost 1500 meters (just under a mile). As the mass of the black hole gets larger, the diameter gets larger.  So consider the two black holes we’ve discussed above: Sgr A* and M87.

A black hole with the mass of the Earth is about the size of a marble. A black hole with the mass of Neptune is about the size of your head! [Image: S. Larson]

Sgr A* is 4 million times the mass of the Sun, and has a diameter of 23.6 million kilometers — more than 60 times the size of the Moon’s orbit! The black hole in M87 is even larger. Massing in at 3.5 billion times the mass of the Sun, it has a diameter of 20.7 billion kilometers, or about 3.5 times the size of Pluto’s orbit! If you plopped the M87 black hole down on the Solar System, every planet and world NASA has ever explored would be inside the black hole; of all things human, only Voyager 1 would escape, sitting just outside the event horizon.

So, what does it take to observe the Cosmos on the scales of even big black holes? Telescopes can make out things that appear very small in the sky, but how small? How big something appears depends on how far away it is. Imagine you have a friend holding a beach ball and a dime, standing at the far end of a field. In all likelihood, you can see the beach ball, but not the dime. The beach ball appears tiny, but from far away a larger object is easier to see than a smaller object. A telescope’s ability to distinguish the size of objects in this was is called its resolving power, and depends on the color of light you are using (technically, the wavelength) and the effective diameter of your telescope — the bigger the telescope, the better resolving power it has.

How large an object looks to you depends on its size and its distance. Here, you see when Michelle is very far away you can still make up the larger ball, but the smaller coin is harder to see! [Image: S. Larson]

The idea of the Event Horizon Telescope is to look for big black holes because they will have a discernible size even if they are far away. The targets of interest are the black hole at the center of our own galaxy (Sgr A*) and the black hole at the center of a M87. Both of these black holes have a size on the sky of a little more than a billionth of a degree. How big is that? Well, Sgr A* covers the same size on the sky as a quarter that is about 2/3 of the way between the Earth and the Moon. The M87 black hole covers the same size on the sky as a quarter that is about 1.5 times the distance of the Moon. Those are really small, but you and I live in the future — our telescopes are up to the task.

To make the measurement, the Event Horizon Telescope team uses radio telescopes spread across the Earth, all observing simultaneously as if they were a single giant telescope the size of the planet. This kind of astronomy is called VLBI — Very Long Baseline Interferometry. The resulting picture of M87, the first released by the Event Horizon Telescope, is shown below — a brilliant ring of light, surrounding the shadow of a massive black hole, the first of its kind.

The first picture of the black hole at the heart of M87, formed by light being bent around the inner most regions of space outside the event horizon. The teams measurements show the black hole is heavier than previous measurements, totaling almost 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun. [Image: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration]

This is the first time we’ve been able to accurately reconstruct a picture using light from all the small areas around a black hole, effectively imaging for us the shape and size of the event horizon. It is a tremendous leap forward and provides us a new and important way to probe black holes and their properties. As with all enigmatic things we see happen in the Cosmos, the more ways we have of measuring them, the easier it is for us to figure out what is going on!

And this is just the beginning!

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This post is the first in a series about black holes.  The complete series of posts is:

Black Holes 01: Imaging the Shadow of Darkness (this post)

Black Holes 02: What are black holes made of?

Black Holes 03: Making black holes from ordinary stuff

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For a great video describing the intricate details of the light interacting with the black hole to make images, check out this excellent video from the team over at Veritasium:

Memento Mori 2: From Pen, to Page, to Grave

by Shane L. Larson

Adlai Stevenson & Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1964 Democratic Convention. [Image: Inge Morath, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery]

I live just down the road from Adlai Stevenson High School, named for noted diplomat and intellectual, Adlai E. Stevenson II, who was the 31st governor of Illinois. He was also a fast friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and on the occasion of her death delivered her eulogy, widely regarded as one of the most outstanding pieces of oration in the modern era. In his tribute he said:

“We are always saying farewell in this world — always standing at the edge of loss attempting to retrieve some memory, some human meaning, from the silence — something which is precious and gone.”

This bit of narrative has been ringing quietly in my head of late. Over the past few years I have become painfully aware of many colleagues I have known for years passing quietly away. At the same time, there have been many high profile passings of cultural icons, musicians, and famous personalities. Many of them have departed this life at an age not much different than my own, an observation that generates a bit of uncomfortable foreboding on my part. But in these regretful musings the other day, I began to wonder what happens when scientists die? 

The thought was inspired by a casual glance around my office coupled with the question of what’s going to happen to all my stuff? Not my toys, not my books, not my pencils. But all my work — my calculations, my research problems, my writings. At zeroth order, my family (or perhaps my padawans) are going to have a time of it when I return to stardust — just look at my desk…

and my study…and my library…

It’s all significant to me in some way; I’m not sure it is significant to anyone else.

One of the sad events in my life was the passing of my graduate advisor, Bill Hiscock, who returned to the Cosmos at a young age (which I’ve written about). After he passed away, someone had to sort through all that he left behind in his office — a lifetime of science. I spent a couple of days sorting his books and going through all his papers. Some of it I returned to his family (like the hand-written copy of his Ph.D. thesis I found); some of his notes I delivered to colleagues who had worked with him on various projects; old faxes and such we trashed (kids: “faxes” are like text messages, but we didn’t have phones with screens so the phone printed the messages out on paper). But at the end, there was a set of papers that didn’t have a home. It didn’t seem right to get rid of them, so I kept them. I have all of those last remnants in 4 file boxes.

The four preserved boxes I have of Bill’s notes. Scientific musings, calculations, puzzles, and results that I didn’t think should be lost forever.

What’s in them? Bits of calculations, speculations on certain aspects of physics, ideas for projects and papers, and so on. Sometimes, thumbing through them I’m overwhelmed by the running lines of his handwriting, and I can once again hear his voice in my head, almost as if he were standing with me at his whiteboard, explaining what he was thinking about.

A few pages of notes from Bill’s files. In this case he is studying a particular kind of black hole called a “Reissner Nordstrom black hole” — a perfectly spherical black hole that has electric charge on it. It is embedded in a space that has radiation that travels at the speed of light, making this a “Reissner Nordstrom Vaidya” black hole (RNV). “Geodesics” are the paths that particles travel on, so these pages represent how particles move around an RNV black hole.

Science is often a solitary endeavour, and its products are precious and unique. The result of every musing, every calculation, every simulation, and every graph is a new and unique bit of knowledge, previously unknown. Until it is shared with the rest of the world, only one person has that knowledge — the person who thought of it. It is knowledge that is earned at great cost — not just a cost in time, the fraction of a person’s life that is spent coming up with the result, but cost as the accumulation of knowledge, skills, experience, and curiosity that led to the moment when that person was capable of recognizing that new idea or fact. A person’s view of a new discovery, their emotional response and their impressions of its importance, is a one-of-a-kind response that could only come from them.

I can’t help but look at the boxes of files that I’ve kept and think about all those moments that are still there; all those musings and speculations and wild ideas and awesome discoveries that were uniquely from Bill. In a very real sense, all of those moments are lost in time, departed back to the Cosmos when Bill left us, because no one else knew about them.

Except I have them, in his own handwriting — the next best thing we have to having Bill back by our side.

The question is what next? How do we capture this, and send it back to the world so all those musings aren’t lost somewhere forever?

Page 28 of Newton’s Principia, with Newton’s corrections scribbled out and noted. [Image: Cambridge University Library]

This is not a new question or problem. There are remarkable examples of scientific writings that have survived their authors, many carefully preserved like I am preserving Bill’s notes. Consider Issac Newton, whose papers, writings, and books are preserved at Cambridge University. There are remarkable treasures hidden there, windows into the complex maze of human intellect and genius. What nuances of Newton’s thoughts and speculations are preserved in Newton’s own copy of his magnum opus, the Principia? The Principia is arguably the most influential scientific book ever written, but an author is always their own strongest critic, and you can see Newton’s edits and additions throughout the thousand pages of his copy. Newton’s personal annotations and notes have been digitally scanned and placed online for everyone to see, a gift to the world. 

A page from Newton’s Waste Book; it reminds me of any scientist’s notebook where they are teaching themselves something new about Nature. [Image: Cambridge University Library]

My favorite document in Cambridge’s collection is Newton’s “Waste Book — an oversized folio previously used by his stepfather. Newton kept it for the paper, which was a precious commodity in his day. The Waste Book’s pages contain his musings and work from when he was developing Calculus. It’s not that I love calculus so much (I struggle with some calculus still, like many of you), but I am deeply enamored with how familiar the pages feel — scratch work spilling out of the tip of pen, diagrams and equations and notations, things crossed out or scribbled out in frustration, and long streams of personal conversation, all in an effort to understand something about the Cosmos.

Another favorite example of important scientific notes just waiting to be discovered involves astronomical images. In the mid-1800s, telescopes had been around for more than 200 years, but people were discovering that they could attach instruments to them. In 1840, John William Draper, an amateur astronomer in New York, attached a camera to his telescope and took the first astrophotograph, an image of the Moon, just one year after the daguerreotype photographic method had been invented. In 1872, his son, Henry Draper, took the first picture of a stellar spectrum, capturing the sinuous forest of absorption lines that encode the story of the star Vega.

One of the first and few surviving photographs of the Moon ever taken, by John William Draper in March 1840. The image has survived, preserved for almost 200 years, a record of a profound moment in the advance of astronomy. [Image: NYU Archives]

These innovations incited an era of prodigious astronomical data collection around the world, arguably the true beginning of the “Big Data Era” in astronomy. Today, all those records are stored in observatory and university basements around the world. At Harvard College Observatory they have 500,000 glass plates, a record of the sky that spans a century. For the past decade, a dedicated team of astronomers and data scientists and volunteers have been cleaning, then digitally scanning every plate in the collection, creating the DASCH archive — the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard. It is an unprecedented record of the sky and how it has been changing and evolving over timescales longer than a human lifetime.

The Harvard Plate Library is a Cosmic Time Machine — a treasure trove of data that when combined with our current understanding of astrophysics and modern observations will yield unprecedented ways of probing how the Cosmos is changing in time. That knowledge was earned at great cost by previous generations, a priceless scientific record of data that can never be recovered were it to be lost. By scanning and measuring all the plates, they make that long history of astronomical data accessible to modern tools and modern researchers.

An example plate scanned by DASCH from the Harvard Plate Library, showing an example of the types of annotations found on plates. See all the details and high rez scans of this plate here. [Image: DASCH Project at Harvard]

But there is an interesting bit of this project relevant to our musings here: on the glass photographic plates, there are notations, marks and writings from the people working at the observatory when they were recorded (there is a paper about preserving these notations; public accessible version of the paper here). Among these annotations are writings from giants in the field of astronomy. Of most interest to me are those from Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The Universe we know today and our ability to probe the distant Cosmos was enabled by Leavitt’s work at this time — she was the first person to discover the secret of measuring the distances to the stars, against which all other distance measures are calibrated. We call that rule Leavitt’s Law, and the history of her discovery is contained in her work at Harvard.

It makes me a bit heady to imagine finding other examples of lost writings of people long gone. What would we learn from lost notes of those who came before us? Ephemeral human moments when a person was struck by inspiration or long hours of uncertain labor culminated in a discovery. Those discoveries were later recognized as transformative moments in human history. Those discoveries shaped our technology, our science, our future, and our society.

So here I sit, thumbing through the last pieces of Bill’s notes, and wondering about Leavitt jotting notes down on a plate log, or Newton striking out some random error in his Waste Book. When I pass from this world, there will be a tremendous amount of material left behind, and someone will have to do something with it. One option would be to just recycle it all; that happens to most of us, I suppose. Just because I kept the Lego Calendar from a particular year doesn’t mean my descendants will give a hoot about it.

Some of my scientific notebooks. [Image: S. Larson]

But what about my scientific work? My musings about Nature are contained in a vast storm of paper that litters my desk, a few small drawers of files with unsorted papers that have “important” things written on them (I have many files that have a giant label on them that says “IMPORTANT,” where “important” means “things I don’t want to forget”), and in a large number of binders in my office. I don’t think there is much there that will be of interest to future generations, though there are long lists of projects and calculations that I think would be interesting or good for students to work on. Someone should keep those, or get them to one of my former students, who can use them to seed work with their own padawans.

My personal notebooks. The two stacks on the left are some of my “Idea Notebooks“, the stack of spirals in the back are some of my personal observing logs from nights at the telescope, and the stack of orange notebooks on the right are a few of my astronomy sketchbooks of what I saw through the eyepiece. [Image: S. Larson]

But just between me and you, what I think is most important in the paper storm of my life, it is my large collection of Moleskine style journals that I call my Idea Notebooks. Most of my personal intellectual musings gets poured into these — small calculations and ideas for projects, speculations on the nature of the Cosmos, personal reflections on the world, drafts of blogs that have sometimes appeared here. There are some scribbled calculations that capture something of my mental state in the day following the discovery of the first gravitational wave source by LIGO, GW150914. There’s a lengthy calculation of the fuel requirements to fly to Proxima Centauri. There’s a series of 10 pages trying to work out how to generate clean water after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. I spent a great deal of time making my own calculations about the physical requirements to build a Ringworld. Maybe those thousands of pages are of interest, maybe they aren’t. They are of interest to me.

A typical example of some pages from my Idea Notebooks. On the left is an attempt to calculate how many potatoes Mark Watney had to grow to survive on Mars, and on the right is a memorial notation for Burton Richter, who discovered the J/Psi meson. [Image: S. Larson]

There is a vast amount of personal information in my Idea Notebooks as well — funny things from the Internet, memorials to those who have passed away, Zentangles, plans for Lego creations, and sketches of woodworking projects.  

I also have a completely separate stack of logbooks and sketchbooks covering decades of time with my telescope — my personal observing records and sketches from literally thousands of hours with my telescope, alone in the dark; observations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the first time I saw the Horsehead Nebula, a search for the globular clusters in Andromeda, and so on. In this day and age there is likely little of scientific interest in them, but they contain all the magical moments I experienced in my personal communing with the Cosmos. Mundane stuff that is not of interest to anyone perhaps, but it is all of it me.

An example from one of my astronomy sketchbooks; the best night I ever saw Jupiter. Is this of scientific value? Probably not — there are certainly clear photographs from that very same night. But this is my record of an ephemeral human moment, just me and the Cosmos. [Image: S. Larson]

In her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook” (contained in the her excellent collection of prose Slouching Toward Bethlehem) Joan Didion wrote,

“Why do I keep a notebook at all? … The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

I feel that compulsion to write things down, for intangible and unexplained reasons. Is any of it good and useful to humanity? I dunno — maybe. I hope it is useful for something. I want it to be useful for something. A lot is probably drivel, but maybe some of it isn’t. Some of it I have always hoped would be useful, if I could somehow do something with it. How do I harness all that I’ve bled out onto those pages through the nib of a fountain pen and redirect it outward to the world?

I’ve poured a lot of what I am out onto a few scraps of paper, pages pressed from dead trees that I preserve in my study where no one knows about them except me. They will only be valuable if someone finds them, reads them, and can use them. 

Which reminds me, I have Bill’s notes.  What can we do with them now?

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This post is the second post in a series that explores the ephemeral nature of human life in our quest to understand our place in the Cosmos. The posts in the series are:

Memento Mori 1: Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

by Shane L. Larson

From January 27 to February 1 every year is a time of remembrances at NASA: it is the week where we observe the anniversaries of the deaths of three flight crews, all of whom perished in the pursuit of human spaceflight. We remember and celebrate the the fallen crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.

From just an altitude of 30 km, the view of the Earth is different — a planet against the void of space. Once the domain of astronauts, views like this can be obtained with balloons and simple digital technology. [Image: S. Larson & HARBOR Program at Weber State University]

Humans often think of themselves as invincible, as the apex species on planet Earth, but it seems clear that we are more fragile than we like to think. If you take our frail bodies and carry them just 50 miles over our heads, we cannot possibly survive on our own. But we are a curious and clever species, and not prone to accepting the notion that there is something we cannot do. Over the long course of our history, we have harnessed technology to allow us to take our bodies to places they were not designed to go, and to survive. It’s easy to discount our earliest endeavours as mundane: constructing shelters, building fires, and making clothing that permits winter wandering. Such skills ultimately transmuted from simple survival into dreams of mimicking the abilities of other lifeforms. Could we dive deep beneath the waves, or take to the air and fly?

Humans are good at walking the long road to making their bodies do things never intended for. (L) Early diving suits, used to explore the sunken Lusitania in 1935. (R) Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome was an early attempt to construct a powered heavier than air flying machine, prepping for launch test in 1903. [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

By the 1800s, aeronauts had successfully developed ballooning, and by the early 1900s the development of mechanical wings and controls launched the era of human flight that has evolved into the aviation industry we have today. But in the middle of the 20th century other dreams were simmering to the surface, largely in the minds of fiction authors. What would it be like to travel beyond the bonds of Earth? Could we make a remarkable voyage from the Earth to the Moon?

Historians and cultural specialists often frame the conversations about the dawn of the Space Age around the Cold War, the opposition of East versus West in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a war of ideologies, marked by strutting and preening. Technical achievements trumpeted how each ideology supported progress more, and reaching the Moon was the ultimate prize.  But while the national agenda may have been set that way, and resources committed to the endeavour, that is not what won people’s hearts and minds. Consider all the scientists and engineers who designed and built the great machines, the astronauts who flew in them, and the millions who watched from the sidelines: I’m willing to speculate that only a handful of them were motivated by politics. Far more of them, I think, felt the rapture of the all encompassing dream of reaching out from our small island home, the Earth.

Carl Sagan once noted that knowing the Cosmos is a humbling and character-building experience. Our conceits let us dare leave the Earth, even in the face of a Universe infinitely harsh and relentlessly brutal and unforgiving in ways that are hard for us to imagine. Our successes are soaring, exultant moments that we point to in later days, reminding ourselves of what we are capable of. But the failures, the disasters, are that much more crushing, reminders of how hard our goal is to attain, reminders of how painfully incapable and inexperienced we are in the quest to crawl out of our cradle.

The loss of the NASA flight crews were singularly painful moments — it is impossible to imagine the loss felt by their families, or by their colleagues and friends at NASA who had worked alongside them to make their journey possible. But for the rest of us, who watched the tragedy unfold on smaller than life television screens and brittle leaves of newspapers, those moments are burned in our memories, surrounded by the other parts of our lives we were engaged in that day.

The loss of Apollo 1 occurred just twelve days after the first Super Bowl, where the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Vietnam War was still raging and arguably occupied a huge part of the American psyche, dominating the news every day.

The Apollo 1 crew. Left to right: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. [Image: NASA]

On 27 January 1967 (25 days prior to launch) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — the first three person crew in the history of the Space Age — mounted the gantry at launch pad 34 and at 1pm Eastern Standard Time entered the Apollo 1 capsule for their “plugs out test.” Plugs out was a regular ground test NASA ran to assure themselves the spacecraft could operate on its own without being plugged into power and equipment here on planet Earth. After five-and-a-half hours of tests, the crew was still in their capsule, sealed inside and trouble-shooting problems (notably a problem with the communications link). At 6:31:04.7 pm fire broke out on the capsule and a garbled alarm to that effect was called out by one of the astronauts. The fire was fueled by the pure oxygen atmosphere in the capsule, and just 15 seconds passed before the hull of the capsule ruptured at 6:31:19 pm. It took pad crews more than five minutes to get inside the capsule to the crew, who had perished.

It was a horrific tragedy. Later analysis and investigation showed exactly how it happened and what prevented the crew from escaping and rescue crews from getting to them more readily. It was caused, as Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman later remarked, “by a failure of imagination.” NASA was not unaware of the dangers associated with spaceflight, nor were the astronauts. But up to that point, they had failed to imagine that a regular test on the ground could lead to the death of a crew.

There was an investigation, and Congressional hearings. There are plenty of machinations about why such investigations happen, but I think they happen for a very particular reason — to allow us to understand where we (those left behind) failed those we lost. We often reflect, particularly in the heat of our pain, on whether or not the loss of human life is an acceptable risk in our quest to go where Nature never intended. Gus Grissom himself had weighed in on such risk the year before he perished:

If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.

Eventually, the Apollo program restarted, leading to six successful landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The Space Age waxed on, and there were other close calls — nail biting moments when it seemed we might lose another crew — but NASA, with a flotilla of capable engineers and scientists, weathered them all and brought the crews home.

The Challenger crew on walkout. Front to back: Dick Scobee, Judy Resnick, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis.

That changed on 28 January 1986, with flight STS-51L and the space shuttle Challenger. It was the 25th mission of the space shuttle program, and Challenger’s tenth flight. The mission had garnered far more attention from the public than many of the previous flights because of the unique nature of its crew — it was the first flight to include a crew member for the “Teacher in Space” program, Christa McAuliffe. Her inclusion on the crew had electrified students, teachers, and schools across the country, and on the morning of the launch millions of people were glued to their television screens. I was among them, huddled around a large TV screen in our school library with a group of friends.

Launch of Challenger on STS 51L. [Image: NASA]

After three previous scrubbed attempts, and a delay of two hours that day, Challenger launched at 11:38am EST on 28 January 1986. Just 73 seconds into the flight, a small leak in the right solid-rocket burned through a support strut and into the main external fuel tank, leading to a catastrophic failure, and loss of the entire crew: Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Judy Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis.

It was a devastating moment indelibly etched in the minds of everyone who had been watching. As with Apollo 1 before it, the brought the American spaceflight program to a standstill for 975 days. A six month investigation following the disaster identified a failed O-ring in the solid-rocket as the source of the failure, enabled by poor risk analysis and abetted by colder than normal temperatures that did not delay the launch on the day of the accident (though it should have).

The Challenger crew portrait. L to R: Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greagory Jarvis, Ron McNair, and Judy Resnick. [Image: NASA]

The loss of Challenger was particularly overwhelming because it was the largest crew ever to perish on a mission — 7 people, most of them civilians or civilian astronauts, not test pilots or military pilots. For all of us with day jobs as teachers, or 7-11 managers, or grocery clerks, or dental hygienists — it put a very real face on the fact that if we ordinary people ever travel to space regularly, there will be undeniable catastrophes that occur. Such realizations dramatically dampen the spirit and enthusiasm for daring greatly.

But the space shuttles did return to the skies, once again, just more than two-and-a-half years later, when the Discovery soared aloft with a 5 person crew for a four day flight. Space shuttle missions continued on apace again, the flights once again fading in the news cycle and noted only by those who were paying attention or soaring alongside in their mind’s eye.

After the Challenger disaster and return to flight the shuttle program had many successes, including visiting Mir, laying the groundwork for the International Space Station. [Image: NASA]

After the loss of Challenger a new orbiter, Endeavour, was commissioned and joined the other shuttles, Columbia, Discovery, and Atlantis. There were 88 more shuttle flights through the start of 2003, beginning with STS-26 by Discovery. There were spectacular successes all along the way, including the launch of space probes like Galileo and Ulysses. The space shuttles deployed the first two of NASA’s “Great Observatories,” the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle began visiting the Russian Space Station, Mir, and assembly began on the International Space Station. Other satellites were launched, and the Hubble Space Telescope was serviced and repaired. In a way, the space shuttles accomplished in that era what NASA had always promised — spaceflight had become common, an everyday experience. Seeing news of the shuttle launching on the backpage of the newspaper was kind of like seeing a story about the latest fleet of city buses or the bio of a new city manager. Spaceflight faded into the background cacophony of modern life.

The Columbia crew portrait. L to R: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Willie McCool, and Ilan Ramon. [Image: NASA]

But in early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia launched on a 16 day mission, STS-107. The 15-day mission carried out a wealth of experiments. The carbo-bay held the Spacehab module, which provided additional habitable space for the experiments of crew, beyond the space available on the orbiter itself. Prominent experiments included video monitoring and characterization of atmospheric dust, as well as monitoring the web-building habits of orb weaver spiders in microgravity. At the end of the mission, on 1 February 2003, Columbia had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere heading for a landing in Florida. Undetected damage Columbia had sustained on the forward edge of the left wing during launch would be its undoing. During reentry, the damage allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter the airframe, burning through the wing and leading to a catastrophic breakup of the orbiter, killing all seven crew aboard: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon.

This has always been my favorite picture of the Columbia crew, the way I’ll always remember them. L to R, Front — Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon. L to R, Back — David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson. [Image: NASA]

After the Columbia tragedy, the burden of returning to the skies once again fell to Discovery. Once again, return to the skies we did. On 26 July 2005, Discovery launched on STS-114, carrying a 7 person crew on a 13 day mission to the International Space Station. After the Columbia tragedy, there were 22 shuttle flights, but on 8 July 2011, Atlantis made the last space shuttle launch in history. When its wheels rolled to a stop in the cool morning hours of 21 July 2011 at the Cape, the era of space shuttles came to an end. The shuttles have retired, and like their capsule forebears, have retired to museums and science centers around the country where you can visit them, stare at them, and relive the adventurous journeys they made.

The space shuttle orbiters, now decomissioned, can be visited at various museums around the country. Discovery, responsible for two Return to Flight missions, after the Challenger and Columbia losses, can be visited at the Udvar-Hazy branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. [Image: S. Larson]

It should be noted that spaceflight is inherently dangerous; fatalities were not confined to the American space program — our nominal competitors in the Space Race, the Soviet Union, also suffered great losses. In 1967, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died on Soyuz 1, when the parachute failed to properly deploy on return to Earth; it was the first in-flight fatality of a spacefarer. In 1971, cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov were the first crew to spend time aboard a space station, living for 23 days aboard Salyut 1. They died returning to Earth after an accidental decompression of their capsule; they are the only crew to have died in space.

Today, the human spaceflight program is quieter than it once was. The United States currently does not have a launch system for sending crews to space, though American astronauts travel to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets. That does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for nor the mystique of astronauts!

Hero culture is a thing, and it isn’t always a good thing. Joseph Campbell, in his excellent book “The Power of Myth” says that “I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child.” In general, I think there is deep truth in that. But astronauts are something different: almost universally, they encapsulate what can be good about hero culture. We watch and look up to astronauts the way many of us look up to our parents or our grandparents — as a source of inspiration, a source of motivation, as proof that we can and will be more than we think. Every day, we all do something in the world that matters, but we forget that, crushed under the press of noise from the news, or burdened by the weight of difficulties with our co-workers, our families, our social lives, or making enough money to survive. In some corner of our minds, we aspire to be more. We clamp down on that bright spark of aspiration, perhaps embarrassed by it, and seldom let it shine. Instead we only uncover it when we’re alone at night, gazing at it and daydreaming in the moments before sleep. Our heroes, whomever they are, are a spark we revel in, when we are willing to let it leak out.

For me, space has ever-infused my thoughts and dreams. Every time I see an astronaut spacewalking with the jeweled curve of the Earth reflected in their visor, or watch the long loping hops of the Apollo astronauts on the Moon, or look at the photographs of our lost crews, I still somehow imagine my face among them. Which is weird, because I long ago gave up the quest to be an astronaut, replacing it with other dreams of space in the forms of black holes, surging gravitational forces, and galaxies billions of lightyears away. Despite abandoning the quest, apparently I didn’t abandon the dream. This week every year always shows me that. Revisiting the fallen NASA crews every  year makes me remember what it is about human spaceflight that moves us so.

Kalpana Chawla.

And so, as this week concludes and passes us by once again, I encourage you to dust off your mental photo-album of your heroes and refresh your soul with them once again. For those who are still with us, embrace their vision and mission anew, and go out refreshed in your fight to make the world a better place. And for those who have left us, say farewell once again, to whomever they are. They are the ones that remind all of us that in our brighter moments, we strive to be something better, that we are more than the tribulations in our every day lives may suggest we are. Remember those brighter moments, and stretch for them every day. Kalpana Chawla reminds us, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”

And so, to the fallen crews whose gossamer memories drift in the back of my mind, I say farewell once again. Gus Grissom. Ed White. Roger Chaffee. Vladimir Komarov. Georgy Dobrovolsky. Viktor Patsayev. Vladislav Volkov. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. Judy Resnick. Dick Scobee. Ron McNair. Mike Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Kalpana Chawla. Rick Husband. Laurel Clark. Ilan Ramon. Michael Anderson. David Brown. William McCool.

From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return, now and for all eternity. Ad Astra Per Aspera.

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This post is the first post in a series that explores the ephemeral nature of human life in our quest to understand our place in the Cosmos. The posts in the series are:

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning

by Shane L. Larson

The fence we walked between the years
Did bounce us serene.
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We'd reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky,
If we could reach and touch, we said, 
'Twould teach us, not to ,never to, be dead.
We ached and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been,

Ray Bradbury.

So opens Ray Bradbury’s epic poem, “If Only Taller We Had Been…” He had composed it for a panel discussion on 12 November 1971, just before Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to ever orbit another planet (here’s a video of Bradbury reading the poem). Bradbury’s poem is an ode of optimism to the future — smiling gently at our ancestors and their grasping reach which didn’t quite reach us on the first try. It is a grand hope for our posterity that they achieve all that we dare to dream. The future is a murky place, fraught with unknown difficulties and challenges, but illuminated by desire and ambition.

Despite the long years that remain between today and tomorrow, you can image what our future selves might do in our quest to understand the Cosmos. The Universe will not change much between now and then, but our understanding of the Universe will change, and change dramatically.  The specific details we cannot know, but we know where the limits of our knowledge are, and we know what the capabilities of our current science experiments are. Scientists already are planning for the future, imagining, designing, and developing the Great Machines of tomorrow.  Let’s spin the clocks forward 30 years and take a glimpse of what we expect.

How my best friend imagines my future personal telescope might be like. [Image: J. Harmon]

In 2048 it is impossible to know what sorts of telescopes amateurs will have. But if history is a teacher, amateurs will have access to bigger telescopes and better technology for capturing light from the sky, whether it be cameras or spectroscopes, or automated robotic mounts, or telescopes that see in light our eyes cannot see. A few amateurs already have such capabilities, and the future will surely make such technology more accessible.

Professional astronomers are also looking ahead toward their next generation of telescopes. On the ground, the next generation of telescopes will be about thirty meters in diameter, three times larger than the current generation and six times larger than the venerable Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar. Thirty years from now, Hubble will be long gone, but its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will have been lofted in its place. Right now, JWST is expected to launch in 2021. It should cast its gaze on the Unvierse for a decade or more, depending on how long its fuel reserves last. As with Hubble, it will see farther and see more than any telescope in history, though we don’t yet know what new things it will teach us. It is a marvel of engineering, designed to fold up and fit inside a rocket for launch, it will unfold like a flower when it arrives in space — 18 hexagonal segments that together comprises a gigantic 6.5 meter diameter mirror that looks out on the Cosmos, all of it sitting in the shade of a multi-layered sun-shield the size of a tennis court. If JWST has a tenure as long and as lustrous as the Hubble Space Telescope’s, then the discoveries in store for us will be extraordinary and transformative for astronomy.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be more than two and half times the diameter of Hubble, it’s mirror comprised of large hexagonal segments. [Image by Paul Kalas]

Space affords many opportunities to expand our view of the Cosmos, and this is certainly the case in gravitatioanl wave astronomy. In the early 2030s, the European Space Agency and NASA are planning to launch a gravitational wave observatory called LISA — the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. It will operate continuously for a decade or more, well into the 2040s, probing new and exotic phenomena, many of which can only be understood or detected at all with gravitational waves. 

LISA will be a triangular constellation of spacecraft separated by 2.5 million kilometers, following the Earth around in its orbit. [Image: S. Barke]

Like its ground-based cousin, LIGO, LISA is a laser interferometer. It shines lasers back and forth between mirrors, timing how long it takes the laser to make the flight. Small changes in that flight-time, changing in regular undulating patterns, are the hallmark of gravitational waves. So what’s so different about LISA?  LISA is about a million times larger than LIGO, which is why it has to be in space. The reason it is so much larger is that the size of a laser interferometer determines the sources of gravitational waves it can detect.  Whereas LIGO can detect small stellar skeletons in the last moments of their lives, as they whirl around each other hundreds or thousands of times a second before colliding, LISA is sensitive those same stellar skeletons when they are much farther apart, earlier in their lives when they speed around their orbits only once every thousand seconds or so. Whereas LIGO can detect black holes that have a few to a few tens times the mass of the Sun, LISA can detect black holes that are millions of times the mass of the Sun (“massive” black holes, like the one at the center of the Milky Way).  Astronomers say that LISA observes a different part of the gravitational wave spectrum. Just as we have different kinds of “light” telescopes (optical telescopes, radio telescopes, x-ray telescopes), we have different kinds of gravitational-wave “telescopes” (LISA, LIGO, and others).

So what will LISA teach us about the Cosmos? Consider the Milky Way. Like many galaxies, the Milky Way is ancient — 10 billion years old. Comprised of 400 billion stars, many stars in the Milky Way have lived their lives and passed on into the stellar graveyard over the long course of its history. Something you may remember from your astronomy learnings is that many of the stars in the galaxy are not single stars, but binary stars — two stars orbiting around each other the way the Moon orbits the Earth or the planets orbit the Sun. That means when both stars die, their skeletons sometimes stay together, orbiting each other over and over and over and over again. The stellar graveyard is full of not just skeletons, but binary skeletons, and in particular binary white dwarf skeletons.

White dwarfs are the size of the Earth, but the mass of the Sun. When they are separated by roughly half the Earth-Moon separation, they emit gravitational waves LISA can detect. [Image: NASA/Chandra X-Ray Center]

A white dwarf is a particular kind of stellar skeleton, created when an ordinary star reaches the end of its life. Most stars — and our Sun is among them — are not heavy enough to explode upon their deaths. Instead they swell up into a red giant, then compress themselves down into a skeletal remnant of their former selves, about the size of the Earth. These white dwarfs are hot and crystalline, mostly comprised of carbon, and will over the remaining history of the Universe slowly cool and fade. Most stars in the Milky Way are ordinary, average stars like the Sun. That means that most of the stellar skeletons in the Milky Way are white dwarfs, created over the ten billion history of the galaxy. All told, there are some ten to fifty million white dwarf binaries, and all of them are going to be emitting gravitational waves that LISA can see. 

A simulation of the stellar graveyard of the Milky Way. [Data by K. Breivik and S. Larson]

Part of preparing for astronomy in the future is imagining what you might observe and discover. We simulate the entire life history of the Milky Way on the computer and ask what does the stellar graveyard look like. Where are the white dwarfs, where did they come from, and what do they tell us about the life and history of stars in the Milky Way? When faced with a view of our home galaxy like this, and you imagine all the vast cacophony of gravitational waves from the stellar graveyard? We often describe this as the “lunch-room problem” or the “party problem.” Imagine you are hanging out in the cafeteria or a crowded restaurant at lunchtime. Everyone there is talking, and what you hear is a dull rumble of noise coming from every direction in the room. You can tell it is people talking and laughing, but by and large all of the sound is mixed together and most of the conversations are indistinguishable from one another. Astronomers call this “confusion noise.” Of course you can hear some conversations. You can hear people that are close to you, and you can hear loud people, even if they are far away. You can always hear these close or loud people, no matter what the background noise is. Astronomers call signals that stand out above the confusion “resolved sources.”

Your ears, and mostly your brain (based on what your ears are telling it), are fully capable of separating resolved sources from confusion noise — you do it every time you go out to eat!  Our job as future gravitational wave astronomers will be to teach computers how to carefully pour over the LISA data and learn to separate resolved white dwarf binaries that are close or loud. Out of the tens of millions of confused skeletons in the stellar graveyard, tens of of thousands will be resolved and studied by LISA. Encoded in that collection of stars are the tales of how stars like the Sun have lived out their lives, and a deeper understanding of how the birth and death of stars has surged and waned over the long history of the galaxy.

Dead stars aren’t the only thing that LISA will observe; it will also be sensitive to black hole binaries — massive black hole binaries. One of the great astronomical discoveries astronomers have made in the last few decades is that big galaxies harbor massive black holes at their centers, black holes of millions or billions of solar masses. As our telescopes have gotten larger and able to see deeper into the Cosmos, we have also started cataloging galaxies in all their shapes and forms, and discovered that sometimes they collide. So what happens when two galaxies, each harboring a massive black hole, collide? 

There are many known examples of colliding galaxies, but this is a personal favorite — the Rose and Hummingbird (Arp 273). The smaller galaxy is throught to have already passed through the larger galaxy once. [Image: Hubble/STScI]

Their stars swarm and merge like a cloud of angry bees, eventually coalescing due to their mutual gravitational attraction and form a new galaxy. Their big black holes slowly sink to the center, where they find one another and begin a slow, spiraling orbit that grows ever shorter as time goes on. When the orbits take only 10,000 seconds or less, they become observable by LISA.

Today, we know galaxies merge, but we know little about the processes that help massive black holes grow. Do they accrete gas? Do they grow by absorbing stars over and over again? Or do they only grow by merging with other black holes? LISA’s observations of massive black holes, together with where in the Cosmos they are found, will begin to provide answers to those questions.  We don’t know those answers today, because we’ve seen that galaxies collide but have yet to see massive black holes merge. In lieu of LISA data, which is still more than a decade in the future, we simulate different ways to grow galaxies and black holes on super-computers, and simulate what LISA would observe.

One massive simulation, spanning the entire age of the Universe, is called the Illustris Simulation. The movie below is a visualization of the Illustris simulation from the Big Bang to the present day. The simulation accounts for gas and dark matter int he Universe, and tracks the formation of stars, galaxies, and black holes across Cosmic time. We use the simulation as a model for the actual Universe, and “observe it” with a simulation of LISA. What do we learn from this? That the sky is going to be alive with massive black hole binaries, visible to LISA in every direction and all the way to the edge of the Observable Universe. In the movie below, we show all the mergers that would be detectable by LISA if it were flying at the right times (data simulation be Michael Katz and S. Larson).

You can imagine, and rightfully so, that all the massive black holes just add to the confused cacophony of gravitational waves created by the millions of white dwarfs in the galaxy. The Cosmos is full with the gravitational chorus, and our job as astronomers is to pick out all the melodies, and harmonies, and individual instruments and voices that make it up.

The miracle of the modern age is that we are suddenly aware that the Universe is sending us messages with a multitude of signals — light, particles, and gravitational waves. It’s an intricate, interlaced story that we are just now learning to interpret. Modern, instrument based astronomy began with the invention of the telescope some 400 years ago. Particle astronomy is only 100 years old, and gravitational wave astronomy has only been successful in the last five years. Our ability to probe the Universe carefully and precisely has existed for only the bareest fraction of Cosmic time — a heartbeat in the life of the Cosmos. We’ve used our ingenuity, our curiosity, and our creativity to spin that short experience into a complex and increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Universe, and our place within it.

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This post is the last of three based on a talk I have given many times over the last few years, updating it each time to reflect the latest coolest things. The complete set posts of the series are:

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 1: A Love Affair with the Cosmos

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 2: Coming of Age

The Cosmos in a Heartbeat 3: The End is Just the Beginning (this post)

This post was enabled by a new version of the talk done as a Kavli Fulldome Lecture at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The talk was captured in full 360, and you can watch it on YouTube here. If you have GoogleCardboard, click on the Cardboard Icon when the movie starts playing; if you watch it on your phone, moving your phone around will let you look at the entire dome!

I would like to thank all my colleagues at Adler who worked so hard to translate what was in my brain into a story told in the immersive cradle of the Grangier Sky Theater. The talk was given on 9 Nov and 10 Nov 2018.

A Cosmic Collection

by Shane L. Larson

The Cosmos wheels above our heads, far out of reach but well within our powers of perception. Always we wonder, what’s happening now and what does it mean? [Image: S. Larson]

The Cosmos is vast beyond ordinary comprehension, and it is always up to something. Astronomy is our most valiant attempt to observe everywhere all at once, to discover all that is discoverable, to know all that is knowable. We are exceptionally good at it, by any standard you can imagine. The store of cosmic knowledge we have amassed just since recorded human history began (only a few millennia) is extraordinary, and has helped push mathematics, physics, and technology forward in dramatic and unexpected ways. In just the last century and a half, technology has expanded our capabilities by leaps and bounds, allowing us to collect exquisite data that is perplexing and mysterious and revealing. Today we live in an era where we can collect so much data, and collect such complex data, that it cannot be absorbed, analyzed, nor understood with only brief consideration. It requires long and sustained study, intense scrutiny, and expansive modeling.

[L to R] Hubble Space Telescope, the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, and LIGO-Livingston. Exquisite technology expands our ability to observe the Universe around us.

Modern science, particularly at the frontiers of knowledge, requires a lot of human brains to make great discoveries. It begins with the great machines themselves. Building something like the Hubble Space Telescope, or the Large Hadron Collider, or LIGO and Virgo requires vast teams of engineers, physicists, materials scientists, construction engineers, titanium welders, chemists, geologists, and a thousand other professions just to build the experiments. Once we start collecting data, there are thousands of others in physics, computer science, signal processing, image analysis, information technology, visualization, and a thousand other professions needed to understand the data!

Big discoveries emerge almost immediately, because the Universe is always up to something, and always up to something that is dramatic and stunning to behold. If you build an exquisite experiment, you’re going to discover something. Such was the case of Hubble’s discovery of the existence of other galaxies, when we constructed the 100-inch Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson. Such was the case of Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of double-helix structure of DNA with the development of x-ray crystallography. Such was the case of the discovery of the Higgs Boson with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider. Such was the case with LIGO and Virgo, which over the past three years have witnessed six different gravitational wave events.

My personal accounting of every known gravitational wave event, accurate and complete up through GW170817. When we announced GW170608, my page was too narrow to include it!

Today, the LIGO-Virgo Scientific Collaboration announced our first catalog of gravitational wave events — GWTC-1 (Gravitational Wave Transient Catalog). It is the current complete list of every event we’ve discovered in our data. Some of them you know about, because we have talked about them before (even here on this blog: GW150914, GW151226, GW170104, GW170814, GW170817). But since then, we’ve been sifting through the data, looking at every feature, comparing it to our astrophysical predictions, cross-checking it against monitors that tell us the health of the instruments, determining if it appears in all the detectors, and using our most robust (but slow-running) super-computer analysis codes. 

The result is the catalog before you (if you’re curious, you can see the catalog at the Gravitational-wave Open Science Center), that has improved values for the properties of all the previously announced sources, and four new binary black hole sources that were in the data: GW170729, GW170809, GW170818, and GW170823. Additionally a source previously known as LVT151012 (“LIGO-Virgo Trigger“) has been renamed GW151012.

A screen cap of GWTC-1, the first “Gravitational Wave Transient Catalog of Compact Binary Mergers” as it appeared today. The number of events, the amount of data about what the Cosmos is doing, is growing. [Image: LIGO-Virgo Collaboration]

Astronomers are collectors. Every event has an identity, and a long list of everything that we know about it, but there are always going to be a few that are well known and remembered above all the others. GW150914 is always going to be “The First.” GW151226 (“Boxing Day“) was the second and will always represent the moment we all realized this endeavour really was going to be astronomy, not just a single one-time experiment. GW170817 is always going to be remembered as the first multi-messenger gravitational wave detection of a binary neutron star.

But today when you look at the long list of events it strikes me, for the first time, that this is a huge and ever-growing collection. We’ve always known that would be the case, but there is something viscerally pleasing about watching it happen right before your eyes. It is clear that the list is now long enough that it would be challenging to memorize!

We don’t have images of the gravitational wave events, but our artists can imagine what the members of our collection might have looked like at the moment we observed them. [Images: Aurore Simonnet/LIGO-Virgo Collaboration/Sonoma State University]

From the perspective of astronomy, this is a good thing. Having a collection of events is how we learn things about the Universe that can’t be learned from just a few observations. Let’s examine an analogy to explain the necessity of collections. Suppose you were an extraterrestrial visitor who landed on Earth to learn about “humans” and visited someone’s book-club, perhaps five people. What could be learned by just observing five people? A few obvious things might pop out immediately. Humans have five projections from their bodies (two arms, two legs, a head). They have two eyes and two ears. But depending on the five people you may not learn that there is a wide range of hair or eye colors (any redheads in your reading group? anyone with grey hair? what about blue or green eyes?). You may or may not know that there are multiple sexes, nor that there are smaller and larger humans.  Your knowledge would be completely defined by the size of your collected observations.

This is absolutely the case in astronomy — sometimes we have many observations, sometimes we have only a few, but we always want more. Having many observations is paramount to understanding the Cosmos because observations are the only things we have. We are confined to observing the Universe from this small world on which we live, and what we know is built completely on our few, meager observations.

What stands out the most in the new LIGO catalog? We are still letting the implications settle in, but the most important thing the new events do is it makes our estimate of the popuatlion of black holes in the Universe more accurate, and we’ve started to examine those implications is a new study that is being released in tandem with this announcement. But let me highlight the things that personally catch my attention the most.

This shows all the known masses of black holes and neutron stars, detected both by traditional telescopes and using gravitational waves. I’ve highlighted the new black holes in the catalog in green. You can explore this plot with an interactive we’ve created at CIERA. [Image: LIGO-Virgo/Frank Elavsky/Northwestern]

First, remember that every gravitational-wave detection by LIGO-Virgo is not just one black hole, but three — the two black holes that came together, and the black hole that resulted from their merger. That is very important because it means we have three new measurements of the possible masses that black holes can have. If you look at our black hole mass plot you see that black holes come in all masses between five solar masses and 80 solar masses. In fact the new event, GW170729, produced the heaviest stellar origin black hole known to humans, at 80.3 times the mass of the Sun!

Second, it is interesting to look at the black holes that merged and consider how they are different from one another. From the existent data, it looks like the black holes that merge are always close to the same mass. So far, we’ve never seen a smaller black hole fall into another black hole that is five or ten times larger. Does that mean it never happens in Nature? Or does it mean it happens rarely? Or does it mean we’re not good at seeing or recognizing such events yet? The answer is an important one because the sizes of the black holes before they merge tells us something about how they form and grow together. That question is of intense interest to astronomers since black hole formation is tied to stellar evolution, and stellar evolution is tied to how all the stuff around us is made.

Lastly, the trend continues to show that LIGO and Virgo are sensitive to heavier black holes than those that have been previously known from traditional telescopes. The dramatic demonstration that there are stellar-origin black holes near 100-solar masses is stimulating dramatic conversations among astronomers (particularly theoretical astronomers like my group, who study stellar evolution) about how the Cosmos creates these large black holes. 

Left to Right: LIGO-Hanford (Hanford, Washington), LIGO-Livingston (Livingston, Louisiana), and Virgo (Pisa, Italy). All three detectors are currently working toward the start of our new observing run (“O3”) in the Spring of 2019. When new data begins to flow, the catalog is going to start growing once again.

Perhaps the most exciting thing to me, is this is just the beginning. LIGO and Virgo are currently in a maintenance phase, but our third observing run (“O3”) will begin in the spring of 2019. The instruments will be performing at higher precision than ever before, and there are going to be more detections that will make this catalog grow even larger. Our questions are swirling, the anticipation is palpable. But even more importantly, there is a dedicated group of scientists, particularly those who work in signal analysis, computer science, and machine learning, who are developing new and improved techniques for finding signals in data. There are great practical applications to such endeavours (like how do you separate the 25 zillion text messages sent by teenagers every five minutes), but it will once again help grow our gravitational wave catalog, expanding our understanding of the stellar graveyard of the Universe.

Once new data is being collected, the data from our previous observing runs will sit there in the open data archives, waiting for someone to come back and look at it again. Historically, there have always been discoveries made in archived astronomical data long after it was collected. Data is simply too complex to understand everything in it, and we are simply too naive about everything that is going on in the Universe to recognize everything in our data the first time we work with it. There is certainly more in the LIGO-Virgo data than even this catalog. But progress is slow, and only the future will show us what is yet to be discovered, in an every growing tree of knowledge, dividing and growing from our previous discoveries.

Examples of Lichtenberg figures, created by electrical discharges and discovered by the father of experimental physics, Georg Christoph LIchtenberg. Knowledge, like these figures, branch and grow continuously from each other. [Images: Wikimedia Commons]

One of the great physicists of the 16th Century was Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, widely recognized as the first great designer and builder of experiments in physics, our distant ancestor in this game. Today he is most well known for an artform known as “Lichtenberg figures”, the branching shapes burned in materials by surges in electricity — a most suitable metaphor for our growing branches of knowledge. Lichtenberg fully understood the staggering and surging process of scientific discovery, writing “Nothing puts a greater obstacle in the way of the progress of knowledge than thinking that one knows what one does not yet know.” Today’s announcement is just the beginning of what we do not know.

So today, please join us in basking in the glow of new discovery, reveling in the joy that this is just the beginning, and there is no end. Congratulations to my colleagues and friends in LIGO and Virgo; we’ll do this again sometime soon!


Several of my colleagues in LIGO and Virgo have also written about the new catalog — please check out their posts as well!