Science in the Matrix of Culture

No longer the stuff of science fiction, black holes pervade all facets of culture. Wallace and Karen Tucker, in recounting the history of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, note that the telescope has of­fered “substantial observational evidence for the existence of black holes,” which they claim have since “become part of the popu­lar literature as a metaphor for an irretrievable loss of material, time, money, and so on.”46 In the hands of English novelist Mar­tin Amis, in Night Train (1988), black holes become a metaphor for death.47

But black holes are understood in the public arena as far more substantial than a mere metaphor. In 2008, it was reported that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider could produce min­iature black holes that in a runaway scenario might swallow the Earth. In fact, public concern over the possibility of scientists man­ufacturing microscopic black holes led to the facility posting an information and safety web page that reassures general audiences of the following:

Speculations about microscopic black holes at the LHC refer to par­ticles produced in the collisions of pairs of protons, each of which has energy comparable to that of a mosquito in flight. Astronomical black holes are much heavier than anything that could be produced at the LHC. According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein’s relativity, it is impossible for microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC. There are, however, some specula­tive theories that predict the production of such particles at the LHC. All these theories predict that these particles would disintegrate im­mediately. Black holes, therefore, would have no time to start accret­ing matter and to cause macroscopic effects.48

A year later J. J. Abrams’s film Star Trek (2009) depicted Romu – lans generating, at will, miniature black holes that could devour starships and planets. Actually Star Trek and black holes have a history that goes back to the same year Wheeler started using the term. The idea of a collapsed or black star was floated in the first season of the original Star Trek series in an episode titled “Tomor­row is Yesterday,” first aired in January 1967, in which the starship Enterprise encounters a “black star of high gravitational attrac­tion.”49 As Captain Kirk and the crew attempt to escape its gravity well, their ship is slung into a time warp that sends them plunging back through time. The Enterprise ends up adrift in Earth orbit in 1968, just days prior to the first manned Moon mission. Though not referred to as a black hole, the black star that triggers their adventure was the product of Einstein’s singularity and Oppen – heimer and Snyder’s collapsed star.

From space artists like David A. Hardy to amateur astronomers like Stephen Cullen, many have speculated what Cygnus X-1 might actually look like.50 Hardy’s rendering depicts powerful X-ray jets shooting from the poles of the binary system’s black hole. Cullen actually photographed those jets in May 2009. “Luckily, Cygnus X-1 inhabits a region of space thick with gas that emits specific kinds of radiation when hit by shock waves, energetic particles, and relativistic jets from black holes,” writes Cullen, who notes that astronomer David Russell, and a team working with him, had already obtained “visual evidence of a jet-powered nebula caused by the northern jet slamming into the interstellar medium.” But Cullen thought there might be a powerful jet emerging from the southern pole, and there was. “Unlike the northern region, the im­ages did not show a well-defined shell of shocked gas,” he recalls. “What I did see, however, was a diffuse, fan-shaped glow that traced a path directly back to Cygnus X-1.”51 Having obtained clear images of the previously undetected jet, Cullen subsequently invited Russell’s comments and together the astronomers collabo­rated to publish Cullen’s results. The discovery demonstrates the extent to which the Chandra Observatory has prepared astrono­mers to anticipate what might be explored in wavelengths beyond visible light.

Not only have Chandra’s X-ray observations demonstrated pro­found aspects of the high-energy universe otherwise unavailable to telescopes, but its images have opened the universe for visually impaired readers as well. In 2007, astronomy educator Noreen Grice and astronomers Doris Daou and Simon Steele published Touch the Invisible Sky in which Braille text and especially pre­pared Braille images detail discoveries by Chandra, Spitzer, and other telescopes that reveal the universe in electromagnetic wave­lengths not visible to the human eye.52 In that text and other NASA

Braille books, readers can experience the infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray universe, through their fingertips.53

The popular fascination with black holes seems hinged on the fact that a singularity and its event horizon contort our wildest imaginings about the physical universe. We think we can wrap our minds around just about any natural phenomena, but black holes defy all logic at the point of the singularity and leave unanswered questions regarding the physics at its core. Kip Thorne asserts that black holes have much to tell us about the birth and the future of the universe: “Gravitational-wave detectors will soon bring us observational maps of black holes, and the symphonic sounds of black holes colliding—symphonies filled with rich, new informa­tion about how warped space-time behaves when wildly vibrating. Supercomputer simulations will attempt to replicate the sympho­nies and tell us what they mean, and black holes thereby will be­come objects of detailed experimental scrutiny.”54 Like the music of the universe discussed in the chapter on WMAP, the universe has more to tell us in the narratives or symphonies we are yet to learn from black holes. One thing at least seems certain. The new understandings of massive black holes that Chandra is unfolding will inevitably be woven into the matrices of human culture and language, poetry and music, and even our dreams.