Editorial: Scientists have shown us one of the mysteries of the universe, and the extraordinary power of human cooperation
If you work on something like theoretical physics, you feel like youre trapped inside a room, and outside people dont know, the physicist Carlo Rovelli said recently. While the stereotype of a space scientist is of a loner out of step with the humdrum of everyday life, Mr Rovelli is not alone in believing that his lifes work is not just to find things out, but to communicate.
This weeks first pictures of a black hole were a special moment for all those who believe that scientists role is not only to expand the sum of human knowledge, but to share it. Seeing is not always believing. But the fact that millions of us have seen the picture of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55m light years away, is an undoubted step forward for humankind. Created using data gathered from eight telescopes in four continents, the fiery doughnut of red and gold with blackness at its centre has now been given a Hawaiian name: Powehi.
We have known about black holes since Einstein, but it was not until the 1960s that they were given that name (borrowed from British colonial historys tale of an Indian prison, the Black Hole of Calcutta). Remarkable discoveries continue to be made in other fields: last months revelation of an enormous haul of fossils from the dawn of life on Earth 518m years ago is one example. But space has long held special status as the realm of science most awe-inspiring to humans. The distances are so immense; the physical laws so difficult to grasp (if you stood at the event horizon, as the black holes edge is known, the bending of light would mean that you could see the back of your own head). Beyond this, where light and matter disappear never to return, what happens? We have no means of finding out; these cosmic sinkholes are doors not just to the unknown but to the unknowable, now and possibly forever.
It is too soon to say what the pictures impact will be. Earthrise, probably the most influential space photograph, is credited with having taught us to see our planet as an oasis in a barren universe. The new image offers fresh proof of the infinite darkness that surrounds us; and of Einsteins general theory of relativity. But perhaps the weeks most important lesson is in the extraordinary, globe-spanning effort that brought us the image. So distant is the Messier 87 galaxy that capturing it is said to have been equivalent to photographing a bagel on the moon. Teams from Spain to Antarctica worked together to see what we thought was unseeable, in the words of Event Horizon Telescope director, Sheperd Doeleman.
Humans are a destructive species. Such achievements remind us that we are also a creative one. Curiosity, cooperation, ingenuity and tenacity among our finest attributes. Cultivating and celebrating these, while recognising our smallness in the scheme of things, has never been more necessary. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
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