Was The EHT Black Hole Image a Waste of Time

Was the Event Horizon Telescope Black Hole image a waste of time? Astronomy research has a lot to teach us about our cosmos.

Published on 19th Apr, 2019

Hello everybody and welcome to another Deep Astronomy Vlog post, my name is Tony Darnell from Deep Astronomy dot space and today, I’m going to respond to this request from one of Deep Astronomy’s Space fans: This is from Teije Brandsma from Holland: "Tony! Where are you since the first image of black hole was made public? I am looking forward to your personal response. Are you elated? Disappointed? Hope to hear from you, Teije (a fan from Holland) " First Teije, let me thank you for using the Deep Astronomy Website to contact me, I read all correspondence from there and I only read the minimum comments I have to on YouTube because it’s such an awful experience. Using my website makes me very happy, so thank you! Whenever there is a big story like this that spreads all over the internet, I tend to take a low profile because there’s very little I can add to the discussion. Followers of this channel however know that we’ve been talking about the Event Horizon Telescope for a long time, I’ve done several SFN’s over at least the past year on it and we had a hangout way back in December with Geoff Bower, Chief Scientist for Hawaii Operations for the Event Horizon Telescope. So Space Fans knew all about this way before the announcement last week. Still, even though I feel like what needs to be said has been said, I have been getting lots of inquiries about my personal opinion on it. As an extension to Teije’s questions, many in my personal circle wanted to know what I thought and they included questions like, what’s the big deal about that picture? What difference does it make to Earth and Us? I get this kind of thing all the time: why should I care about distant galaxies, planets around other stars and black holes billions of light years away? It’s not like any of that is going to affect me here, today, on Earth. Look, I get it, I understand the spirit of this question and the honest answer is, none of this stuff that happens in astronomy is going to directly or practically affect your life. Short of an asteroid or a comet on a collision course with Earth, or a massive solar storm heading our way is anything that happens above our head gonna matter in any practical sense. Even in those scenarios I just listed, it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it other than bend over and kiss our collective asses goodbye. So really, what good is this stuff? Why do we go through the trouble of doing things like finding exoplanets or imaging black holes? I think about this a lot and one answer that keeps popping up in my head is that, as human beings, knowing things has been incredibly beneficial to us as a species and I think it’s become engrained in our nature now. I think there’s a part of us that says, now that we’ve overcome a lot of evolutionary stresses on our survival, what else is there to know? I think it’s natural, if not compulsory, for us to want to learn more. Knowledge about the natural world has been the foundation of our evolutionary success on Earth, and it’s possible that more knowledge will lead us to places we can’t possibly see right now. But knowledge is a tricky thing and we need to be clear about what we mean by it. Plato thought that true knowledge came from the abstract, like mathematics. That was where reality really lived and science could only provide low resolution glimpses of the true knowledge that mathematics provide. Whether you agree with Plato or not, the EHT observation of the black hole at the center of the distant galaxy M87 is a great case in point. Black holes existed in the abstract reality of mathematics WAY before we got this observation. I think it was Laplace in the 18th century, but probably somebody before him, first thought up the idea of a black hole and did the math. Einstein came along several hundred years later and gave the mathematical reality of black holes an even clearer definition. Here’s what I mean: Here is what black holes have looked like for decades based on the mathematics alone. Crisp, clear mathematical models show detail of black holes in a way only mathematics can. Here is the best we can do right now with scientific observations and yeah, it’s fuzzy and a little bit boring. But, this is a strong case for what Plato was talking about, scientific observation is a low-resolution version of the mathematical reality he found so important. And of course, that’s not to say observations in science don’t improve. Here’s the best we could do with a structure in the Cydonia region of Mars in the 1970’s, and here’s that same feature taken with the Mars Reconnaisance orbiter. So science gets better, technology improves and observations gets clearer, but they will always face fundamental limits. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the Planck Time and Planck length are hard constraints science can never overcome. These constraints mean our observations will always have an inherent fuzziness in them, we can never observe better than mathematical models. But does that mean that the effort and time spent by the Event Horizon Telescope team was a waste? Hardly. We don’t live in abstract mathematical realities, if they exist as Plato thought, we live in the actual, low resolution world of scientific observations. The hundreds of astronomers and dozens of observatories came together to link our physical world with the abstract world of mathematics. And the problem with mathematics is that virtually everything is possible (just ask a string theorist or anyone enamored with the Cosmic Landscape). I’m not sure how Plato got around that infinite possibilities problem, but it certainly appears like we don’t live in just any or all universes for that matter, we live in this universe and this Event Horizon Telescope image confirms which of the infinite models that can describe infinite universes, describes our universe. And I dunno about you, but I think that’s pretty damned important. We may never achieve the resolution of the pristine realm of mathematics, but this image is an important bridge between the world of matter - you, me, the physical universe - and the world of mathematics, a bridge science has been trying to build from its earliest days. So no, this black hole image won’t improve your childcare, pay your bills, get you more money, a better job nor will it make your marriage better, but it will help us understand where you, and all the rest of us, fit in. Please listen to the Space Junk Podcast: https://optcorp.com/blogs/podcast #EHTBlackHole #EventHorizonTelescope #DeepAstronomy Watch the Event Horizon Telescope Hangout here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J02ph1Jd1Q