Tag: Black Holes

It stretches the mind beyond imagination!

The most incredible story of all!

I first read the story early yesterday morning in The Guardian Newspaper.

But then I saw another version of the same story on the BBC News site, from which I republish it in its entirety.


First ever black hole image released

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

The first ever picture of a black hole: It’s surrounded by a halo of bright gas.

Astronomers have taken the first ever image of a black hole, which is located in a distant galaxy.

It measures 40 billion km across – three million times the size of the Earth – and has been described by scientists as “a monster”.

The black hole is 500 million trillion km away and was photographed by a network of eight telescopes across the world.

Details have been published today in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Prof Heino Falcke, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, who proposed the experiment, told BBC News that the black hole was found in a galaxy called M87.

“What we see is larger than the size of our entire Solar System,” he said.

“It has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. And it is one of the heaviest black holes that we think exists. It is an absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe.”

The image shows an intensely bright “ring of fire”, as Prof Falcke describes it, surrounding a perfectly circular dark hole. The bright halo is caused by superheated gas falling into the hole. The light is brighter than all the billions of other stars in the galaxy combined – which is why it can be seen at such distance from Earth.

The edge of the dark circle at the centre is the point at which the gas enters the black hole, which is an object that has such a large gravitational pull, not even light can escape.

Taking the temperature of black holes

Hawking: Black holes store information

Dozen black holes at galactic centre

DR JEAN LORRE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY I have suspected that the M87 galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart from false colour images such as this one. The dark centre is not a black hole but indicates that stars are densely packed and fast moving.

The image matches what theoretical physicists and indeed, Hollywood directors, imagined black holes would look like, according to Dr Ziri Younsi, of University College London – who is part of the collaboration.

“Although they are relatively simple objects, black holes raise some of the most complex questions about the nature of space and time, and ultimately of our existence,” he said.

“It is remarkable that the image we observe is so similar to that which we obtain from our theoretical calculations. So far, it looks like Einstein is correct once again.”

But having the first image will enable researchers to learn more about these mysterious objects. They will be keen to look out for ways in which the black hole departs from what’s expected in physics. No-one really knows how the bright ring around the hole is created. Even more intriguing is the question of what happens when an object falls into a black hole.

What is a black hole?

  • A black hole is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape
  • Despite the name, they are not empty but instead consist of a huge amount of matter packed densely into a small area, giving it an immense gravitational pull
  • There is a region of space beyond the black hole called the event horizon. This is a “point of no return”, beyond which it is impossible to escape the gravitational effects of the black hole
Presentational white space

Prof Falcke had the idea for the project when he was a PhD student in 1993. At the time, no-one thought it was possible. But he was the first to realise that a certain type of radio emission would be generated close to and all around the black hole, which would be powerful enough to be detected by telescopes on Earth.

He also recalled reading a scientific paper from 1973 that suggested that because of their enormous gravity, black holes appear 2.5 times larger than they actually are.

These two previously unknown factors suddenly made the seemingly impossible, possible. After arguing his case for 20 years, Prof Falcke persuaded the European Research Council to fund the project. The National Science Foundation and agencies in East Asia then joined in to bankroll the project to the tune of more than £40m.

The eventual EHT array will have 12 widely spaced participating radio facilities

It is an investment that has been vindicated with the publication of the image. Prof Falcke told me that he felt that “it’s mission accomplished”.

He said: “It has been a long journey, but this is what I wanted to see with my own eyes. I wanted to know is this real?”

No single telescope is powerful enough to image the black hole. So, in the biggest experiment of its kind, Prof Sheperd Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, led a project to set up a network of eight linked telescopes. Together, they form the Event Horizon Telescope and can be thought of as a planet-sized array of dishes.

KATIE BOUMAN Information gathered is too much to be sent across the internet. Instead the data was stored on hundreds of hard drives which were flown to a central processing centre.

Each is located high up at a variety of exotic sites, including on volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and in Antarctica.

A team of 200 scientists pointed the networked telescopes towards M87 and scanned its heart over a period of 10 days.

The information they gathered was too much to be sent across the internet. Instead, the data was stored on hundreds of hard drives that were flown to a central processing centres in Boston, US, and Bonn, Germany, to assemble the information. Prof Doeleman described the achievement as “an extraordinary scientific feat”.

“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” he said.

“Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world’s best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes.”

The team is also imaging the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Odd though it may sound, that is harder than getting an image from a distant galaxy 55 million light-years away. This is because, for some unknown reason, the “ring of fire” around the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is smaller and dimmer.

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One of the most remarkable things about this story is that it continues to validate the theories of Albert Einstein (1879-1955). That is doubly impressive.

The film, How to see a Black Hole: The Universe’s Greatest Mystery,    is a most interesting account of the skills that were utilised by the team, and the luck of that same group in pulling it all together.

This is clearly the start of a new journey in astronomy.

I will leave you by repeating the image of the black hole.

The first ever picture of a black hole: It’s surrounded by a halo of bright gas.

Clouds above, and even farther away.

The second, and last, episode of the BBC Clouds Lab programme offers an intriguing message.

On Monday, I published a post under the title of The clouds above us.  The second episode demonstrated that even in atmospheric conditions of near vacuum, intense cold and very low humidity, conditions that would kill a human in seconds, there was microscopic bacteriological material to be found.

 Exploring the troposphere

The troposphere is a turbulent layer of air that begins at the Earth’s surface and ranges from 23,000-65,000 feet above sea level, depending on the latitude, season and the time of day. Its name originates from the Greek word tropos, meaning change. It’s now known that bacteria actually exists in clouds and scientists believe that it plays a significant part in the creation of rain but little is known about life higher up. Microbiologist Dr Chris Van Tulleken has discovered that living bacteria can exist well above 10,000ft in a hostile environment with low pressure, increased UV radiation, freezing temperatures, high winds and no oxygen or water.

There is an interesting set of clips to be watched on that BBC Cloud Lab website.

What I took away from watching the programme was that the minimum conditions necessary for living bacteria were far more harsh than one might expect.  In other words, finding living bacteria in other solar systems might not be such a science-fiction idea.

With that in mind, I’m republishing an essay that Patrice Ayme wrote in 2013.  I’m grateful for his permission to so do.


40 Billion Earths? Yes & No.

Up to twenty years ago, a reasonable opinion among scientists was that there might be just one solar system. Ours. Scientists like to project gravitas; having little green men all over didn’t look serious.

However, studying delicately the lights of stars, how they vary, how they doppler-shift, more than 1,000 planets have been found. Solar systems seem ubiquitous. Astronomers reported in 2013 that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets in the galaxy. However, consider this:

Centaurus A: Lobes Of Tremendous Black Hole Explosion Fully Visible.
Centaurus A: Lobes Of Tremendous Black Hole Explosion Fully Visible.

Yes, that’s the center of a galaxy, and it has experienced a galactic size explosion from its central black hole.

One out of every five sun-like stars in our galaxy has a planet the size of Earth circling it in the Goldilocks zone, it seems — not too hot, not too cold — with surface temperatures compatible with liquid water. Yet, we have a monster black hole at the center of our giant galaxy, just like the one exploding above.

The Milky Way’s black hole is called Sagittarius A*. It exploded last two million years ago. Early Homo Erectus, down south, saw it. The furious lobes of the explosion are still spreading out, hundreds of thousands of light years away.

We are talking here about explosions potentially stronger than the strongest supernova by many orders of magnitude (depending upon the size of what’s falling into Sagittarius. By the way, a cloud is just heading that way).

Such galactic drama has a potential impact on the presence of advanced life. The richer the galaxy gets in various feature the situation looks, the harder it looks to compute the probability of advanced life.

The profusion of habitable planets is all the more remarkable, as the primitive methods used so far require the planet to pass between us and its star.

(The research, started on the ground in Europe, expanded with dedicated satellites, the French Corot and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.). Sun-like stars are “yellow dwarves”. They live ten billion years.

From that, confusing “habitable” and “inhabitated”, the New York Times deduced: “The known odds of something — or someone — living far, far away from Earth improved beyond astronomers’ boldest dreams on Monday.

However, it’s not that simple.

Primitive bacterial life is probably frequent. However advanced life (animals) is probably very rare, as many are the potential catastrophes. And one needs billions of years to go from primitive life to animals.

After life forms making oxygen on Earth appeared, the atmosphere went from reducing (full of strong greenhouse methane) to oxidizing (full of oxygen). As methane mostly disappeared, so did the greenhouse. Earth froze, all the way down to the equator:

When Snowball Earth Nearly Killed Life.
When Snowball Earth Nearly Killed Life.

Yet volcanoes kept on belching CO2 through the ice. That CO2 built up above the ice, caused a strong greenhouse, and the ice melted. Life had survived. Mighty volcanism has saved the Earth, just in time.

That “snowball Earth” catastrophe repeated a few times before the Earth oxygen based system became stable. Catastrophe had been engaged, several times, but the disappearance of oxygen creating life forms had been avoided, just barely.

Many are the other catastrophes we have become aware of, that could wipe out advanced life: proximal supernovas or gamma ray explosions.

Cataclysmic eruption of the central galactic black hole happen frequently. The lobes from the last one are still visible, perpendicularly high off the galactic plane. The radiation is still making the Magellanic Stream simmer, 200,000 light years away. Such explosions have got to have sterilized a good part of the galaxy.

In 2014 when part of the huge gas cloud known as G2 falls into Sagittarius A*, we will learn better how inhospitable the central galaxy is for advanced life.

Many of the star systems revealed out there have surprising feature: heavy planets (“super Jupiters“) grazing their own stars. It’s unlikely those giants were formed where they are. They probably swept their entire systems, destroying all the rocky planets in their giant way. We don’t understand these cataclysmic dynamics, but they seem frequent.

Solar energy received on Earth fluctuated and changed a lot, maybe from one (long ago) to four (now). But, as it turned out just so that Earthly life could survive. Also the inner nuclear reactor with its convective magma and tectonic plates was able to keep the carbon dioxide up in the air, just so.

The Goldilocks zones astronomers presently consider seem to be all too large to allow life to evolve over billions of years. They have to be much narrower and not just with red dwarves (the most frequent and long living stars).

One of our Goldilocks, Mars, started well, but lost its CO2 and became too cold. The other Goldilocks, Venus, suffered the opposite major technical malfunction: a runaway CO2 greenhouse.

Mars’ axis of rotation tilts on the solar system’s plane enormously: by 60 degrees, over millions of years. So Mars experiences considerable climatic variations over the eons, as it goes through slow super winters and super summers (it’s imaginable that, as the poles melt, Mars is much more habitable during super summers; thus life underground, hibernating is also imaginable there).

Earth’s Moon prevents this sort of crazy hyper seasons. While, differently from Venus, Earth rotates at reasonable clip, homogenizing the temperatures. Venus takes 243 days to rotate.

It is startling that, of the four inner and only rocky planets, just one, Earth has a rotation compatible with the long term evolution of advanced life.

Earth has also two striking characteristics: it has a very large moon that store much of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system. Without Moon, the Earth would rotate on itself once every 8 hours (after 5 billion years of braking by Solar tides).

The Moon used to hover at least ten times closer than now, when earth’s days were at most 6 hours long.

The tidal force is the difference between gravitational attraction in two closely separated places, so it’s the differential of said attraction (which is proportional to 1/dd; d being the distance). Hence the tidal force is inversely proportional to the cube of the distance.

Thus on early Earth tides a kilometer high were common, washing back and forth every three hours. a hyper super tsunami every three hours, going deep inside the continents. Not exactly conditions you expect all over the universe.

Hence biological material fabricated on the continental margins in shallow pools would get mixed with the oceans readily. That would guarantee accelerated launch of life (and indeed we know life started on Earth very fast).

The theory of formation of the Moon is wobbly (recent detailed computations of the simplest impact theory do not work). All we know for sure, thanks to the Moon rocks from Apollo, is that the Moon is made of Earth mantle materials.

Somehow the two planets split in two. (Fission. Get it? It maybe a hint.)

Another thing we know for sure is that Earth has, at its core, a giant nuclear fission reactor, keeping Earth’s core hotter than the surface of the sun. An unimaginable liquid ocean of liquid iron deep down inside below our feet undergoes iron weather. Hell itself, the old fashion way, pales in comparison.

Could the Moon and the giant nuclear reactor have the same origin? This is my provocative question of the day. The Moon, our life giver, could well have formed from giant nuclear explosions, of another of our life givers, what became the nuke at the core. I can already hear herds of ecologists yelp in the distance. I present the facts, you pseudo-ecologists don’t decide upon them. It’s clear that nuclear fission is not in Drake equation: if nothing else, it’s too politically incorrect.

All the preceding makes this clear:

Many are the inhabitable planets, yet few will be inhabitated by serious denizens.

This means that the cosmos is all for our taking. The only question is how to get there. The closest stars in the Proxima, Beta and Alpha Centauri system are not attainable, for a human crew, with existing technology.

However, if we mastered clean colossal energy production, of the order of the entire present energy production of humanity, we could get a colony there (only presently imaginable technology would be fusion).

Giordano Bruno, professor, astronomer, and priest suggested that there were many other inhabitated systems around the stars. That insult against Islam meant Christianity was punished the hard way: the Vatican, the famous terrorist organization of god crazies, put a device in Giordano’s mouth that pierced his palate, and having made sure that way that he could not tell the truth, the terrorists then burned him alive. After seven years of torture.

The horror of truth was unbearable to theo-plutocrats.

Now we face something even worse: everywhere out there is very primitive life. It is likely gracing 40 billion worlds. But, if one has to duplicate the succession of miracles and improbabilities that made Earth, to earn advanced life, it may be just here that civilization ever rose to contemplate them.

Congratulations to India for launching yesterday a mission to Mars ostensibly to find out if there is life there (by finding CH4; while life is presently unlikely, Mars has much to teach, including whether it started there). That’s the spirit!

The spirit is to have minds go where even imagination itself did not go before.

If we sit back, and look at the universe we have now, from Dark Matter, to Dark Energy, to Sagittarius, to the nuclear reactor below, to billions of Earths, to a strange Higgs, to Non Aristotelian logic, we see a wealth, an opulence of possibilities inconceivable twenty years ago.

Progress is not just about doing better what was done yesterday. It’s also about previously inconceivable blossoms of entirely new mental universes.


Patrice Ayme


Maybe, we are not alone!

Black holes, colliders and paradoxes

This is a very strange world that we live in.

It would be fair to say that my knowledge about what I am writing in this Post is minimal to the point of total ignorance.  So why open my mouth and prove it!  Because the conquest of fundamental questions about our world is not only an example of mankind at its greatest but also something of broad appeal.

That is proved by the continuing popularity of the BBC Television Series – Horizon.  In that series there have recently been two fascinating programmes: Who’s afraid of a big Black Hole? and How long is a piece of string? (Readers outside the UK will not be able to view these programmes.)

Here are the programme summaries:

Black holes are one of the most destructive forces in the universe, capable of tearing a planet apart and swallowing an entire star. Yet scientists now believe they could hold the key to answering the ultimate question – what was there before the Big Bang?

The trouble is that researching them is next to impossible. Black holes are by definition invisible and there’s no scientific theory able to explain them. Despite these obvious obstacles, Horizon meets the astronomers attempting to image a black hole for the very first time and the theoretical physicists getting ever closer to unlocking their mysteries. It’s a story that takes us into the heart of a black hole and to the very edge of what we think we know about the universe.


Alan Davies attempts to answer the proverbial question: how long is a piece of string? But what appears to be a simple task soon turns into a mind-bending voyage of discovery where nothing is as it seems.

An encounter with leading mathematician Marcus du Sautoy reveals that Alan’s short length of string may in fact be infinitely long. When Alan attempts to measure his string at the atomic scale, events take an even stranger turn. Not only do objects appear in many places at once, but reality itself seems to be an illusion.

Ultimately, Alan finds that measuring his piece of string could – in theory at least – create a black hole, bringing about the end of the world.

Read more of this strange world