Black holes are the most destructive force in the universe. But they may also be necessary for the creation of galaxies. If creative and destructive forces are linked, what does this say about artists, or mothers, or god, or even death?
An event horizon is the point of no return at the border of a black hole. I’m exploring that edge. 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, I’ll share a story about a woman who found life in death.
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?
And that led me to wonder: is this an insane thing that only happens with black holes, or does it happen in other places too?
“I think creation is always usually borne out of destruction and vice versa. I think they feed each other,” says oil painter Luke Anderson.
Writer Ammon Medina agrees: “I have to write two hundred words to find fifty that I like.”
Luke says after he finishes most of his paintings, they’ll sit for a few months or a year. Then he reconsiders them. “I’ll either totally paint over it, or remove the canvas and start over completely new. Or I’ll tear it off and actually cut the canvas into multiple different mini compositions and create new paintings from that destruction.”
“Yeah I think any act of creation is an act of destruction,” Ammon says. “If you look at the canon there are thousands of stories that are told throughout history about white men, right? And in those stories the stories of women are being destroyed, the stories of people of color are being destroyed. In that creation we’re excluding—we’re destroying—other creations of narrative that we’re not giving space to. In my poems, I’m writing about my past and I’m seeing it in a way that maybe my mother will have a different memory of. So even my creation or construction of that is excluding or, perhaps, as it’s published and more people are reading, kind of destroying other people’s memories of those moments.”
I’ve been reading a lot about creativity lately. Everybody has different ideas: Austin Kleon, the author of Steal Like an Artist, says to jump in, that you’ll figure it out as you go. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes a magical concept of an ideaverse, where ideas float around and attach to you in an effort to collaborate.
And all of this—everything I’ve read lately about creativity—feels really familiar. That’s because before I read Kleon or Gilbert, I read Julia Cameron.
She wrote a book back in 1992 called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. The premise is that we’re all creative people, and that creativity is a natural flowing force. All we have to do is unblock the flow. In the book, Julia Cameron outlines a set of activities and exercises toward this unblocking aim. I see the influence of The Artist’s Way in pretty much every book I read now about creativity.
And so I wanted to know what Julia Cameron thinks about whether creativity and destruction make each other.
“I think an alert attention is integral to creation,” says Julia. “And that may sometimes mean that we come across something that needs to be deconstructed in order for us to go forward.”
Julia Cameron thinks of the creative flow as a spiritual experience. “I think when you work with Artist’s Way tools, you are put in touch with a benevolent force. You begin to have a sense of optimism and a feeling that maybe what we’re doing is supported by a benevolent force. And some people call that god.”
I point out that in many different religions, God can be a pretty destructive force: the Old Testament God, several Hindu gods. I ask her then what the relationship is between God’s destructiveness and God’s creative benevolence.
“Well, I think the destructiveness is always moving us in a good direction, even though it doesn’t always seem like it,” Julia says. I ask her what she means. “I mean that there’s always a silver lining, which we need to learn to be alert for.” Then she says that this is an unusual interview, that she doesn’t focus much on destruction.
But why DO our stories about God…or a god, or the gods…have this duality between creation and destruction?
You know, like black holes. Creative, destructive, somehow outside the bounds of space and time, and seemingly outside the limits of moral interpretations.
And then I started reading about a goddess who embodies all of this.
Kali is a Hindu goddess. Her name means time, or force of time. She’s a mother and a wife and a nurturer. But also, in stories, she is the decisive one, the violent one, the one who won’t be controlled. Folks call upon her to help them in the battlefield. Space and time don’t apply to her: she’s always existed and always will. Things that are usually non-negotiable—qualities like good and bad—are irrelevant when it comes to Kali.
Vrinda Dalmiya is a feminist philosopher at the University of Hawaii. She writes about the poetry of Ramprasad Sen, a Kali worshipper who lived in the 1700s. Dalmiya describes how Kali is portrayed in Ramprasad’s poems.
A naked and intoxicated female—dark, bloodstained, and disheveled—dancing on the prostrate body of Shiva, her husband, with her tongue lolling out, wearing nothing except a garland of human heads around her neck, a girdle of severed human hands around her waist, and infant corpses as earrings. Yet, strangely enough, the devotee sees in this macabre picture an “impossible beauty” and a “mother.” The mother here is anything but domestic and anything but nurturing.
Dalmiya says Kali could be read a few ways: she might be as terrifying as she is because of male fear of female sexuality; or she might be feminist, “a mother who is not afraid of stepping out of the conventions of motherhood to express herself—her rage and her needs.” Mostly, Kali is divine contradiction.
But thinking about Kali led me to wonder about mothers here on Earth.
Think of a really good mother…nurturing, comforting, loving.
But if artists and Kali—both creators—are destructive, aren’t mothers, too?
You could argue that mothers are the most literally creative people that exist: they make other humans. They make ourselves.
And if someone has the power to give life, can’t they also destroy it?
(To be clear: I’m not talking about a bad mom who neglects or abuses a kid. I’m talking about good moms.)
I think Kali can help us think about the way mothers are destroyers.
Kali is nature: birth and decay all at once. She is change itself.
Here’s more of what Dalmiya says:
Whatever (or whoever) is associated with nature—women, indigenous cultures, emotionality, sexuality—is consequently perceived as being in need of control and ultimately is appropriated and owned. In an attempt to overcome death, man has sought self-definitions in forms that deny his embeddedness and necessary dependence on nature (the realm of death and decay).
Basically, attempts to control nature are attempts to control death.
Mothers ARE nature. In creating life, they are inextricably implying death: life begets death.
If you birth somebody, you set them on an inexorable path to death.
Kali is a storm of contradictions. Maybe it’s because she embodies the space where death and life define each other. So do black holes…and maybe artists and mothers.
Let’s hear a story about a woman who found life in death. And her story ties all of this together. To Alua Arthur, life made no sense. But then she began to make sense of death.
Demeter and Persephone
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
The Tree Of Life (2011)
Children of Men (2006)
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