Picturing the Event Horizon
In 2019, astronomers captured the first ever image of a black hole. Around it is the Event Horizon, where space and time bend. It’s an amazing picture, but is it art?
CHRIS HATZIS: The Event Horizon is the boundary around a black hole, where space and time bend... Where even light itself cannot escape the pull of gravity. The Event Horizon.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: A boundary around a black hole within which we can neither see further in, nor anything that’s in there can ultimately get out.
CHRIS: Once an object passes the event horizon it will be ripped apart atom by atom.
ANDI HORVATH: A tipping point.
SUZIE FRASER: The point of no return, no return, no return...
ANDI: Hi, I’m Andi Horvath
SUZIE: And I’m Suzie Fraser.
ANDI: Welcome to a new podcast called Eavesdrop on Ideas. We explore themes through the lens of artists, authors and academics. Think of it as a historian, a social scientist and an economist, walk into a bar...or a scientist, a philosopher and an artist get stuck in a lift, and you happen to be there too.
SUZIE: And every episode is inspired by art.
ANDI: I love that! In April 2019, a global network referred to as the Event Horizon Telescope project released a photographic image as evidence of an actual Event Horizon and its blackhole.
SUZIE: The image looks like a hazy orange doughnut, or like smeared coffee cup rings on a black coffee table. The Event Horizon coffee cup rings are glowing and smouldering orange circles surrounding the black of the black hole. More than anything, the black space at the centre of the coffee cup rings looks like a portal into absolute nothingness.
ANDI: It's an amazing image, and now it's in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: The event horizon telescope photo I think is really a fantastic image because it shows us something that scientists have imagined before but never actually been able to capture until now. It’s a bit like we’ve imagined a unicorn, and now we’ve actually seen it.
SUZIE: That’s author, science writer and artist, Margaret Wertheim. Together in this episode we explore the Event Horizon image. We examine the art of a scientific map. And the concepts behind the image making.
ANDI: So, when does science become art?
SUZIE: Here is Margaret Wertheim again about what the image means.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: For the first time, we have a picture of at least some of a black hole. We can’t see inside the black hole, but we’ve got a picture of where a black hole is. This is a pretty extraordinary thing because black holes were predicted by general relativity, but for a long time, pretty much everybody didn’t think that they could actually exist in nature. Einstein thought, and a lot of other people thought, that black holes were just, as it were, artefacts of the mathematics that wouldn’t really occur in the physical world. But since the 1970s, astronomers and cosmologists have come to understand that, yes, they do really seem to be out there, particularly at the hearts of galaxies, and now we have a picture of one.
It’s a bit like we’ve captured a picture – you know, in medieval periods, how they say on the edges of the maps, beyond the known world, they go, ‘here there be monsters’. We have the same thing too. Black holes are these kinds of mythical monsters, lurking out there. Now we’ve got a picture of one.
ANDI: Einstein formulated the theory of general relativity around 1916, suggesting that space and time was not always absolute; they were dynamic and able to be bent. Gravity was no longer a straight line and the universe was in a state of flux. But don't worry, it messes with my brain too, but stay with it.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: I think that many, many physicists feel that general relativity is perhaps the most creative leap of imagination that’s been made in the history of physics. It’s a very unusual case in the history of science because the world was not crying out for this theory; there wasn’t really any data that was crying out for explanation. Einstein created the theory, really, from an extraordinary set of imaginative leaps that he made in his mind because he wanted to understand how gravity would affect motion. From that idea, he ended up creating this extraordinary mathematical sculpture. I think that it does actually rate as one of the great aesthetic achievements of the modern West. It is based on mathematics, but it is an incredibly imaginative construct.
The fact that it turns out to be true is almost even more amazing, because it’s not ipso-facto clear in the beginning that relativity – general relativity – would have had to be true. But it turns out that in some sense it is true, and by true I mean in that – by looking at things like the event horizon black hole, general relativity makes predictions about the way that astronomical objects will behave that are borne out by massive amounts of data now. But it wasn’t necessarily clear that that was going to pan out. Indeed, when you read books about the history of general relativity, for the first 50 years, most people, even most physicists didn’t actually think it would.
SUZIE: Margaret Wertheim has written a series of books on the cultural history of physics, one called Pythagoras’ Trousers, and another one called The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, which is actually a history of Western concepts of space, and the event horizon.
ANDI: And as an artist, she is known for her crocheted coral reef project. It’s based on a special type of geometry related to general relativity.
SUZIE: If you wish to hear the entire interview with Margaret Wertheim, you can check the links in our show notes.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: But I think there’s something else that’s also very special about that image, and that’s something that I think is very important about science as a whole in our time. That is that it took hundreds, if not thousands, of people to make that image happen. To me, this is one of the most important aspects of what is going on in science now; we have this mythical idea that science is done by individual geniuses – Newton, Einstein, Darwin. But that’s really no longer the case.
Science has become a vast disciplinary collaborative enterprise. Just as it took, I think its 10,000 people to find the Higgs Boson, it took thousands of people to make that photograph happen. There’s no one person who’s responsible for it. I think this idea that important things are done by individual geniuses is an old passe idea. Science is a place where the value and power and necessity of collaboration and connective activity really comes to the fore.
SUZIE: Let’s meet one of the scientists, Peter Galison. He is a Professor at Harvard University in Boston. He is a physicist, a historian of science, and a filmmaker.
PETER GALISON: I got involved with the project about five years ago with some colleagues here at Harvard. We started an interdisciplinary centre for the study of black holes because black holes seem to involve everything we know from mathematics and physics, astrophysics, philosophy. It really challenges the limits of our understanding.
We started this centre and the Event Horizon Telescope project which had been going on and slowly building up over 20 years, was entering a new phase. I found it so incredibly interesting that at that time I got involved in the imaging part.
ANDI: So, how do you take something that’s millions of light years away, something like an Event Horizon, that consists of the last glimpses of light before it’s sucked into a black hole?
PETER GALISON: If you wanted to make an analogy, it would be like looking from Boston to Los Angeles and reading the date on a coin. That’s how small the black hole appears on the sky. For this reason, it requires a worldwide collaboration of radio telescopes, these big dishes. The EHT – the Event Horizon Telescope, is a network of radio telescopes. The picture is digital. It’s composed of data that was taken across many different sites. The only way you can get a telescope big enough and powerful enough to make an image is to be able to combine the work of all these telescopes distributed – the South Pole and in Greenland and in Arizona and in Spain it’s a – Chile - it’s a huge effort.
Then once this data is collected, it has to be coordinated and so you want to be looking at the exact moment that a wavefront of light is coming in from this black hole 53 million light-years away. There’s a process of coordination on a supercomputer where all of this data is brought into alignment and then you have to correct for variation in the different telescopes.
There are many different processes that have to go on to get the data in a form such that you actually could make an image. Then you have to test the whole network.
We sometimes, in our testing, wouldn’t tell people what kind of image was going to them and we’d send something random like a picture of Frosty the Snowman and we wanted to see, if they didn’t know what they would find, would they be able to collectively recreate the image of that snowman?
The process took a very long time. It took years to be able to develop a set of techniques for combining the data from all these different telescopes, processing it, testing it against artificial data.
You want to persuade yourself that your lens isn’t creating artificial entities.
It was years and years of work to get a system together where we trusted the telescopes, we trusted the data combination and alignment and then in about nine or 10 months before the image was released to the world, which it was on 10 April 2019, we began to see an image that knocked our socks off.
That was a moment of immense excitement. Then between that period of the previous summer to April of 2019, there was a furious amount of work trying to test and see could we be fooling ourselves?
It was not just an artificial creation of one particular image-making program or in the assumptions that we put into the imagery production. There was a lot of – a tremendous amount of work by the 200 plus scientists on the collaboration to really assure ourselves that these were real and robust images.
It was looking more and more like these things really are real, but people – including me – wanted to see a picture and that just seemed like the final super-definitive step in showing that these things really were out there.
I think the idea that you could see the black hole in the sense of: you’re seeing this billion-degree hot gas that’s orbiting not very far from the event horizon of a black hole, was stunning not just to a general public, but to all the scientists who have been thinking this forever. I mean, for their whole lives and it – I think that actually seeing a picture even after we’d simulated it, we’d had good theoretical reason to have some expectation of what the image might look like. None the less, when we all saw it, there was a sense of awe, of almost fear that comes over you thinking that this is something – we’re looking at a black hole the size of our Solar System. It’s just amazing.
SUZIE: An enormous amount of computer processing power went into creating the image.
It's a scientific map that is generated and filtered from data. It's a representation of data.
PETER: When scientists make images, for example, we count as physically significant the differences in brightness of the different parts of the ring. They correspond to variations in the temperature from a couple to numerous billions of degrees, but you could have made the image in black and white with that same variation or you could have had the image in blue.
We actually had a discussion in the image group – you know, should we make this in blue or in orange, for example. One group of my colleagues said, well, you know, the hottest part of the flame is the blue part, not the orange part. But we think of in our daily lives, of red as an icon for hot. On your refrigerator, we use blue as an icon for cold. We had this discussion, went back and forth and we eventually settled on orange which I totally agreed with, but that is a decision and ultimately an aesthetic decision based on an understanding of the cultural associations that we give to colour.
ANDI: A copy of the EHT photographic image is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
So in one context, it’s a scientific map, but in another it's an artwork. So how did it transcend the boundaries of the scientific map to the artwork? Peter explains.
PETER: I do various things in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I showed them this print of the image. They were so excited. They said, well could we get a copy of this for the collection?On behalf of the 200 plus scientists – the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration – I gave the print to them. We were all thrilled. I mean, all these – some of my colleagues said, in some ways, this is as great an honour as we’ve received to have the image taken into the permanent collection.
But you could take the view that what’s in a museum of – say the Museum of Modern Art in New York which has the first footprint of an astronaut on the moon on July 20, 1969, or the composite image of many different pieces glued together or attached together to form the image of the moon that was first taken by one of the early satellites that went around the moon. There’s a long history in modern art of collecting photography beyond people who considered themselves to be artists, whether that meant bringing works in from aspects of photojournalism or science or artists.
I have a very expansive view about what counts as a photograph. I think that photography continues to change, from its earliest days printing on glass and developed colour and people began to make digital photographs.
I think that the work does have some features which cross over between aesthetics and science and I think that’s true of scientific images more generally.
ANDI: We also asked Margaret Wertheim the same question.
MARGARET: Well, my answer to this question, ‘is that image an artwork?’, is the following: I don’t think it’s an artwork. I think it’s a fantastically wonderful, enchanted image but it’s an image that was produced by science as a piece of science. I don’t really see why it should be called an artwork. That said, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be exhibited in a gallery because these days art galleries do actually show lots of things other than things that were created as art. I think, to me, this is an important thing to understand about the state of contemporary art, is that art galleries have become very eclectic, open-minded institutions that exhibit a lot of things.
I’ve seen parts of rockets in art galleries. Are they artworks? They were created by NASA for the space program. Do they belong in art galleries? Absolutely. I think just because something goes into an art gallery doesn’t make it an artwork. What is an artwork? That is a very complicated, difficult question, but I don’t think that you need to legitimise an incredible image like that by attributing to it something that it wasn’t intended to be. It’s no diminishment of it to say that it’s a science image, not an artwork.
ANDI: The EHT image is a picture of reality, of relativity, of collaboration, of science, of aesthetics and of cultural importance. As Indiana Jones would say “It belongs in a museum''.
SUZIE: In the next episode we explore the notion of tipping points - environmental, cultural and artistic.
LEILANI WANG: Thanks go to Margaret Wertheim, Will Steffen and Brent Coker and Peter Galison.
The full unedited interviews of all guests are available on our web page.
Thanks go to the University of Melbourne and the Centre of Visual Art
Your hosts and researchers are Dr Suzie Fraser and Dr Andi Horvath.
Our sound engineer is Archie Cuthbertson.
Additional Voices are the interns Albert Elton and Leilani Wang.
The Producer is Dr Andi Horvath
This podcast was recorded in August 2020
ANDI: Hey Suzie did you ever see the sci-fi horror movie ‘Event Horizon’?
SUZIE: Andi, not a favorite of mine, but I do know it’s the name of an experimental spaceship... doesn’t it create a black hole and a rift in the space-time continuum to reduce travel times, but it all goes horribly wrong?
ANDI: Yes, and there is a character called Dr Weir who designed the gravity drive and one of his quotes in the movie is “Where we're going, we won't need eyes to see”. I like the quote ‘cause that’s true for podcasts too. Heh heh.
In April 2019, a global network called the Event Horizon Telescope project released a photographic image as evidence of an actual Event Horizon and its blackhole.
The image looks like a hazy orange doughnut, but more than anything, the black space at the centre of the coffee cup rings looks like a portal into absolute nothingness.
And it’s now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. But, when does science become art?
Author, science writer and artist, Margaret Wertheim says the image is an extraordinary thing, because black holes were predicted by general relativity, but for a long time, pretty much everybody didn’t think that they could actually exist in nature.
“It’s a bit like we’ve captured a picture – you know, in medieval periods, how they say on the edges of the maps, beyond the known world, they go, ‘here there be monsters’. Black holes are these kinds of mythical monsters, lurking out there,” she says.
But is it art?
According to Professor Peter Galison from Harvard University - maybe.
“There’s a long history in modern art of collecting photography beyond people who considered themselves to be artists, whether that meant bringing works in from aspects of photojournalism or science or artists.”
This episode features:
Margaret Wertheim, Australian-born science writer, curator, and artist.
Professor Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University.
Our sound engineer is Arch Cuthbertson.
Your hosts and researchers are Dr Andi Horvath and Dr Suzie Fraser.
The producer is Dr Andi Horvath.
Production assistant is Silvi Vann-Wall.
This episode was recorded on the 11th of August 2020
Banner: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Subscribe to Eavesdrop on Ideas through SoundCloud or RSS.