This is the first part of a three-part series on creation and destruction. Black holes are the most destructive force in the universe. But what if they’re also creative?

An event horizon is the point of no return at the border of a black hole. In this series, I’m exploring that edge. Over the next three episodes, consider with me the boundary between destruction and creation. First, we’re going to learn something startling about black holes. In the second part, we’ll get into the spiritual and artistic side of creation and destruction. Finally, in Part 3, I’ll share a story about a woman who found life in death. This series is a little different for HumaNature—but it’s still us, turning our love of storytelling to some big questions.

It all started when I sat in on a class of Ph.D. students who were learning about how to communicate their work to the media. One by one, they went around and pitched their dissertations as news stories. They were answering questions, like: what can exotic birds in Paraguay tell us about climate change? What if deer are less adaptive to changes in habitat than we thought? Eventually, eyes turned to a woman sitting directly across the room from me. She gave a half smile. And then she said, “My name is Michelle Mason, and I study black holes.”

Michelle said most of her research was tedious. Unlike the folks who studied deer or birds, she couldn’t exactly go out into the field. She sat in front of the computer, day after day, analyzing mathematical data. But what those data represented was extraordinary: black holes, the most destructive force in the universe, might also be integral to creating galaxies.

The fact that if you do approach a black hole you will get ripped to shreds is kind of a bummer for black holes,” Michelle says. “Doesn’t give it a good reputation.”

Poor black holes.

“A black hole isn’t any stronger than any other object with its same mass,” Michelle says. “So a black hole with the mass of our sun isn’t any stronger at pulling things toward it than our sun itself. The thing that gets it is because black holes can get so enormous, their power starts to grow a lot.

“What I study are supermassive black holes, the ones found at the center of every massive galaxy. Those guys are the best. The ones I study in particular are called quasars. They’re actively eating up all the material around them in the galaxy. But if the galaxy is taking on too much material, before the material falls onto the black hole, it can release light and some heat.

“So this light can stream out and essentially cause winds. And then that wind going out can serve as a shock wave. The shock wave can go out, hit gas and dust in the galaxy, and that stuff can collapse. These winds from the black hole can actually stimulate star formation.

“I will say, people are still arguing about that. There’s just a lot of arguing in astronomy, and people smacking each other with their gloves at conventions. There are some people that believe that these black holes, and the winds that come from them, can actually stimulate star formation in a galaxy. So yes, even though they do destroy everything that comes too close to it, they can have large-scale creation effects.”

I ask Michelle if this is the only way galaxies are formed.

“We think the supermassive black hole and the galaxy coevolve,” she says. “So you can’t have the galaxy without the black hole but you can’t have the black hole without the galaxy. It’s a big muddled mess. You need both of them. The galaxy provides food for the black hole, and a home for it, and the black hole provides essentially, like, I don’t want to say stability, but a center.”

The galaxy wouldn’t exist without it.

I thought about that, over the next few months. Sometimes, when I was walking my dog or drifting off to sleep, I would suddenly remember: black holes! They create galaxies!

I didn’t know what to do with that. I couldn’t let it go.

I would bring it up to everybody I knew. Did you KNOW black holes create GALAXIES?

I was obsessed.

I knew almost nothing about space, or the universe. All I knew was that when anything went into a black hole it no longer existed.

I started reading Stephen Hawking. Hawking defines a black hole as a set of events from which it is not possible to escape to a large distance. That means NOTHING can escape. Including light.

So unlike most things in science, we can’t directly observe black holes. We can only INFER that they exist. A black hole is a point of massive absence.

 “We infer their existence because the stars moving at the center of our galaxy are moving really, really fast around a very compact object,” Michelle says. “Just like our planets move around the sun, we can predict how stars will orbit the center of our galaxy.

“Well the ones in the very middle, in the bulge, of our galaxy, are moving much faster than we would expect. And we are able to trace their orbits, and say, okay, based on all of these orbits of these different stars, there has to be an object at this location, and this has to be its mass.

“Since something with that big of a mass would normally be extremely large—but this particular object has to be very small—we say it’s a black hole. It’s a supermassive black hole because its mass is enormous, but the reason we think it’s a black hole is its size has to be extremely small. And the only way you can get a lot of mass in a small space is typically a black hole.”

We don’t know what happens inside a black hole. “Once you fall into a black hole you can’t get out,” Michelle says. We can’t send anything inside it to observe without getting it destroyed. “The premise of a black hole is that once you pass the event horizon—that’s the point of no return—once you go in, you can’t come out.

“In astronomy, we get all our information from light particles coming from different objects. There are no light particles coming from inside a black hole, so we have no information coming from inside a black hole. And even if we were to send a spacecraft to the nearest black hole, it would just get torn apart by what we call tidal forces.

“Some people think black holes rip the fabric of spacetime—bend 3D space into 4D space. I can’t understand what a four-dimensional spatial universe looks like, but that’s what some people believe black holes do: they bend spacetime to the point that they tear it open.”

Black holes represent the ultimate end, more decisive and less comprehensible than death.

Once inside a black hole, there’s nothing knowable: no new physical form, no possibility of renewal. Black holes represent death on the scale of the universe.

And apparently galaxies can’t exist without them. They coevolve: a galaxy, a supermassive black hole. A glittering whorl of possibility. A destructive absence.

The most destructive force in the universe is also inherently creative. Does that mean the opposite is true?

What if creative forces are also inherently destructive? That’s in Part 2 of this three-part series, The Event Horizon. Also coming up in the series, a story about a woman who found life in death.

– Erin Jones

Cover photo
jpl.nasa.gov

Music Credits
Red Shore by Artem Bemba is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License
As Colorful As Ever by Broke For Free is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License
The Frequency Shift by Ars Sonor is licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike License
Mile Post 1 by Alex Fitch is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License

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