Black Hole: From Fiction to Fact

June 19, 1992

The discovery of a "black hole" in space, 13 billion light-years away, has astronomers pretty excited. Previously, only mathematicians and astrophysicists could see black holes in their theoretical formulas.

What's implied by this discovery is a chance to test the theories against hard, observable facts. For instance, note the definition scientists like to give of "black holes": rips in the fabric of space-time. Sounds great, until you fasten on the concept of a "rip." Einstein proved that space and time were part of the same thing early in this century. So if their interrelationship is really a "fabric" described by mathematical equations, what's underneath?

Another concept open to investigation is the idea of collapsed, super-massive matter. If the burned-out centers of overworked gas giants really are able to be compressed beyond the observable limits of ordinary, not-highly-stressed atoms -- so much so that a big enough version could "fall" out of this universe -- where could it go? A hole massive enough to gobble up a galaxy, over millions of years, must surely be on its way out.

It isn't yet practical to think of sending astronauts to M51. It took 13 billion light years to get here from there. With humanity's current technology, getting even a robotic probe close enough to tell us useful things would take so long our civilization would be long extinct by the time it arrived.

So scientists will have to make do with electromagnetic observations from afar. That shouldn't be too big a handicap, since getting closer would be a handicap to our own sun's health. Not only is the Hubble Space Telescope available -- this distance is within its myopically shortened range -- but a whole new class of orbital observatories could be designed to examine the "gas torus" and light-cone emissions. With a real-life black hole finally at hand, science might even make something useful of all those theories on the origin of time.

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