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Black holes can teach us how to live our best lives

A visualization of the accretion disk around a black hole.
Jeremy Schnittman / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
A visualization of the accretion disk around a black hole.

One of my favorite celestial objects in the universe is the black hole.

Granted, I'm an astrophysicist. But I know I'm not alone. People love black holes. They seem to hold a near-mythic status in movies and pop culture. These incredibly dense objects have such extreme gravity that not even the light in their orbit can escape them. They're beguiling and perplexing — even to the scientists who study them.

One such researcher is Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist and the chair of the astronomy department at Yale University.

Natarajan studies supermassive black holes. These are black holes that are at the center of almost all galaxies whose masses range from over a hundred thousand Suns to a few billion. And after talking with Natarajan about the science of black holes, I realized that these enigmatic objects are actually overflowing with valuable life lessons.

Lesson One: Push the limits, even if others doubt you

In 1915 Einstein presented his general theory of relativity. It presented a revolutionary idea: That the more massive something is, the more it alters space around it. And while it sounds simple enough, the theorem actually involves 10 interconnected equations — mathematically speaking, there's just a lot of moving parts. So when it came to applying the theorem to describe how a specific mass distorted a particular part of space, Einstein believed it would be extremely difficult to find solutions that weren't fuzzy approximations.

But a few months after Einstein published this work, physicist Karl Schwarzschild presented the first solution of how mass creates that gravitational force. It was a clean one, too – no fuzzy math required. And what it described was a mind-boggling entity that came to be known as a black hole.

Schwarzschild described this black hole essentially by sitting down and asking himself: according to Einstein's rules, what would happen if spacetime was warped by an enormous mass that was squeezed down to occupy the smallest possible space — essentially a single point? This point of infinite mass is known as a singularity.

"So it is actually the shape of space around a clump, like a point mass, like a really concentrated compact mass," says Natarajan. "That's the black hole solution."

Schwarzchild was really just testing the limits of his equations–a normal practice in math and physics. But by keeping an open mind, Schwarzschild helped expand our understanding of what was possible.

Einstein, for his part, was shocked by the solution and didn't like that it implied that there could be an object so extreme out there that the laws of physics broke down around it. Einstein would try to use the same math to prove that black holes could not exist in real life.

It didn't work.

In 1971, astronomers confirmed that intense X-rays (detected years earlier) were from a star being ripped apart by a black hole — iconic black hole behavior that brings us to lesson two.

Lesson Two: Reputation isn't everything

Black holes are associated with an insatiable appetite and penchant for destruction. And there's some truth to that, since smaller black holes are created from the death of a massive star — stars that are over 8 times the mass of our Sun — and because a black holes can gobble up dust, gas, whole stars – anything that ends up under its gravitational influence.

But Natarajan finds them beautiful. She studies supermassive black holes, the ones at the center of almost all galaxies in the universe. Astronomers today think these supermassive black holes may control the rates in which stars are formed within those galaxies.

"So we think that they fundamentally shape galaxies now," says Natarajan.

Black holes aren't just monsters; they are also creators.

Lesson Three: Do your thing, whether people get you or not

The universe has existed for 13.8 billion years. Black holes came onto the scene within the first billion years.

But humans weren't able to see animage of them until 2019, when astrophysicists captured the iconic photo of a black hole, with an orange donut of gas and dust surrounding it.

"That glowing donut — that's as close as we can ever get to seeing a black hole," says Natarajan.

The Event Horizon Telescope revealed the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 and its shadow.
/ EHT Collaboration
/
EHT Collaboration
The Event Horizon Telescope revealed the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 and its shadow.

No matter. Even if black holes can't be directly seen, they are still out there — whether they're whipping a galaxy into shape or just doing their own thing.

So, next time you're feeling unsure about your place in the world, remember: "Just because you are not seen, it doesn't mean that you are not there or that you are not, you know, playing a very, very important role," says Natarajan.

You, like black holes, are a complex being that is part of a bigger universe.

"We are part of the cosmic ecosystem," Natajaran says, "an integral part of the cosmic ecosystem."

You are capable of your own version of forming your own galaxy. And like black holes, you don't need validation from outside observers to keep being that amazing you.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.