Why Astronomers are so excited about the EHT Black Hole image

You must have seen the slightly blurry image of a black hole event horizon making the rounds on the internet in April. A bright, orange, cosmic doughnut. As an astronomer, this image was absolutely mind-blowing. In this post, I’ll share why this image is so important for science and its other benefits.

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Credit: Event Horizon Telescope

 

We are not actually “seeing” the black hole

I just wanted to clarify this important point because it is what is so mind-blowing about this picture. We are not seeing the actual black hole. We are seeing the boundary where light can’t escape from any more because of the black hole – called the ‘Event Horizon’. The ‘dougnnut hole’ at the centre is where light has been scooped out by the black hole’s extreme gravity. Because the gravity around a black hole is so strong, the light can’t escape that region and is trapped –  causing the darkness at the centre. Black holes – as well as their event horizons – have a very small size relative to other astronomical objects, which adds to the challenge in observing them.

It shows us that the impossible isn’t always impossible

If you asked me, two years ago, whether we will ever manage to get an image of a black hole’s event horizon, my answer would have been a strong no. For most astronomers, the idea of ever getting this close to imaging a black hole would have seemed impossible. Since black holes don’t emit light and are so small – observing them was – for a long time – thought to be something we would never be able to do.  We are in an era of science where the discoveries are completely blowing away our ideas of what is and isn’t impossible – and this is largely due to the work of many people.

It will help us understand different types of galaxies

My own studies focus on galaxies, so I find this particularly interesting. Some galaxies, like M87, have what is known as an ‘active galactic nucleus’. In other words, the black hole at the centre of the galaxy being ‘fed’ gas, stars, and other material through the disk surrounding it. This results in extremely large jets, being shot out from the central region surrounding the black hole. Since not all galaxies are active, having a measurement of an active black hole and – eventually when the Event Horizon Telescopes releases the image of our own, Milky Way galaxy’s black hole – a non-active black hole will help us understand the processes that create these Active Galactic Nuclei in a lot more detail.

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The galaxy M87, which contains the black hole shown in the image. M87 hosts an Active Galactic Nucleus. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

We can use black holes to test gravity

Black holes were once only theoretical objects. They test our theories of gravity to the extreme.  Although observations within our own galaxy showed stars orbiting something that could only be a black hole, having a picture of a black hole event horizon, which matches up with simulations and theoretical predictions so well, is a good sign that these extreme objects exist. This image is a strong indicator that Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which is what we use to explain gravity – is correct.

International collaboration is the path forward for science

The idea of the ‘lone genius’ – people like Einstein, Newton and Da Vinci who were thought to have worked on their own on amazing theories, making amazing discoveries – is dying out. The type of questions that we are asking nowadays in science is far beyond the scope of a single, brilliant mind. Taking pictures of black holes, detecting faint gravitational waves, building the world’s largest radio interferometer (a type of telescope that works by linking up multiple receivers), and detecting subatomic particles require many people all working together. Our world is increasingly divided over racial, political, economic and national lines. These big projects show us that when we put our differences aside and work together – we can do impossible things.

How having a hobby can help with postgrad life

I know what you are thinking – ‘I don’t have time for a hobby!”. And that might be true, which might be exactly the reason why you will benefit from a hobby. I have a few hobbies and I thought I would share why they help me, why they are especially important if you are a postgrad student and some ideas for low-cost and easy hobbies. I am going to concentrate on my love of reading fiction and running a blog about my reading – which I have been doing throughout my Honours year and I am still continuing even during my Masters!

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Postgrad is stressful

Deadlines, failed experiments, computers that somehow do exactly what you tell them to do and not what you actually want them to do, supervisors, admin, funding…there is no end to the stress that comes with being a postgrad student. Severe stress for long periods of time can make your life feel absolutely miserable. A hobby is something that can provide some relief from all that stress. It gives your mind something to focus on that isn’t all of your academic woes and bring you lots of joy.

It uses different parts of your brain

Academic work requires very specific types of thinking. When you’re wrapped up in solving equations, pipetting (that’s something that biologists do…right?), or coding all week, it can become mentally exhausting. Picking up a soccer ball, a paintbrush or – my personal favourite – a good novel in your off time can activate the other parts of your brain that haven’t gotten much use lately. Your research-academic brain has a chance to switch off and have a rest for once. This might even stimulate some new ideas for your research!

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You can learn new skills that benefit you both inside and outside the lab

These might be tangible skills – like writing for the public and search engine optimization through blogging – or less obvious skills like persistence and discipline from learning how to do something new without having deadlines to motivate you. Having a lot of practice at writing blog posts has helped improve my confidence in writing – which translates into more confidence in my academic writing.

It can turn into a side-hustle

While I think you should have one hobby that is purely for your own personal enjoyment and has nothing to do with your overall productivity, you might be able to monetize your hobby to stretch your tiny postgrad budget a little further. I recently got to enjoy a box-full of free books in exchange for advertising an upcoming book sale because I regularly post pretty pictures of books on Instagram. This has helped me free up a bit of extra cash since I would have purchased many of those books on my own anyway. If you have got a creative or crafty hobby, there may be easy ways for you to make some money off of it.

It gives you a place to succeed and fail in ways not directly linked to your academic progress

This is something that I think is especially important if you’re someone who takes failure and rejection really badly. I don’t handle those things well, but having hobbies where small failures show quite quickly that I’m making progress. For example, if I a blog post of mine isn’t as widely-read as I would have liked, I can look at it and figure out ways to write a better post the next time. All I have lost is the small amount of time I spent working on the post – and it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad blogger. Similarly, if something goes wrong in my academic work, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad scientist. Failure is an important part of the scientific process and every academic career, and hobbies are a way to make failure less intimidating.

It helps you with your time management

This sounds a bit odd, I know. While there are exceptions during really busy periods, but if you have less time to finish something – you’ll finish it in less time. For example, if you have two days to finish an assignment, then it might take you all of those two days to finish it. But if you only have two hours, you’ll get that same assignment done in those two hours. Similarly, if you’re finding something is dragging on, but you’re looking forward to meeting your friends at 7 p.m. for a soccer game, then you’ll get that work done in time so you can join them. Academic culture often requires our entire lives to be wrapped up in our research and having hobbies and activities outside of academia helps you break out of that unhealthy culture.

Some ideas for hobbies

I would like to emphasise that a hobby is a highly personal thing. If your hobby is binge-watching Game of Thrones and being totally immersed in it – that is awesome because it works for you and helps you de-stress. While reading might be my favourite thing to do, you might not enjoy it at all.  I would suggest trying to have at least one, even if it’s something you’re already doing (like cooking, for example). I have put together a list of ideas for you to try if you are looking for a new hobby. These are just suggestions and are generally affordable or doable with items you already own or could purchase very easily. Most universities also have societies or clubs for various hobbies and activities that you can easily join and gain access to equipment and experts

  • Cooking (putting a bit of effort into it instead of just eating 2-minute noodles…which I am guilty of).
  • Photography (if you have a smartphone, it probably already has an excellent camera that you can use)WhatsApp Image 2019-04-23 at 13.27.45(1)
  • Soccer/Rugby/Cricket/Running/ etc. (either sign up for a class or a club to make it social and even more fun)
  • Sketching (all you need is a pen/pencil and some paper)
  • Hiking (there are hundreds of hiking trails around the country!)
  • Journaling/writing
  • Yoga (I started with free, online classes by Yoga With Adriene)
  • Blogging (get started on WordPress for free!)
  • DIY/crafts like sewing, knitting, making cool things with your hands (this will probably require you to borrow equipment from someone)
  • Reading (you can get books for free from your university library or your nearest public library. You can also get cheap books from second-hand book stores).

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I hope this post has inspired you to try out a new hobby! Let me know what your current hobbies are!