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The black hole: finding hope in the darkest of places

Professor Heino Falcke finds faith, hope and love in the depths of black holes.

A little over two years ago I had the privilege to present the first ever image of a supermassive black hole to the world on behalf of a global collaboration. It was an amazing experience that reminded me again how human science is and that some goals you can only achieve together.

We had taken this iconic picture using the entire world as one giant telescope. When we gave it back to the world, it embraced it much more than I had ever imagined: 4.5 billion people saw that one image and it was covered by newspapers and websites around the globe. Most astonishingly, however, when I stood at the football pitch the following weekend, watching my son play, all his teammates – certainly not all from academic backgrounds – had seen that image of a black hole too. Suddenly, I wasn’t the nameless “dad of” any more, but he became the “son of”… the black hole guy.

Black holes seem so utterly useless to society, so why do they capture people’s imagination? Why do we study them? All of the technology we use today goes back to some seemingly useless curiosity. When Einstein, Planck, Bohr and Heisenberg developed the foundations of space, time and quantum physics, they didn’t mean to develop the basic physics that enables GPS navigation systems, computers or DNA printers that can produce vaccines. They were just curious, and the same curiosity drives us today.

What we sometimes forget is science is not only about facts, it is driven by inspiration and it can inspire

Black holes have an extra twist though. They have become modern scientific myths. Next to their mathematical and physical beauty, they also represent our ultimate fear of death, destruction and eternal darkness. Now that we can image them, it feels like we are looking at the gates of hell from a safe distance.

Their edge is exotic to say the least. Time seems to come to a standstill and everything that goes inside never comes back – at least according to the theory of Einstein. What lies beyond black hole’s event horizon remains one of the big scientific questions of modern science, located at the crossroads of quantum physics and the theory of space and time. Some very fundamental discovery may still be waiting for us hidden in the shadow of black holes.

However, what lies beyond is also a deep-rooted human question. Whoever climbs a hill wants to stand on its top and see what lies beyond. This is why we study black holes, this is why we do science: we want to look further. This is also why humans are deeply spiritual beings. We long to look further than our eyes can see. It is this longing where science and religion have common roots. What we sometimes forget is science is not only about facts, it is driven by inspiration and it can inspire.

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I may be a bit old-fashioned, as a scientist who maintains his religious convictions, but I still think together we can make the world flourish

Some hills you have to climb on your own, but there are mountains that require more than just yourself. When we developed the daring idea to image the black hole it was clear that a world-sized network telescope was needed. We had to look at the black hole literally from all angles. This required bringing together institutions and scientists from very different cultural backgrounds. That wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always fun. However, everybody was driven by the same desire to see what we had only seen in our dreams so far. Together we turned dreams into a reality.

Many problems today require a global approach too. Collaboration in science can serve as an example. It doesn’t mean naively ignoring the fact that people are different, but making use of their differences. Every angle counts – as tedious as it sometimes can be.

Science and technology are an indispensable tool to address our problems today and they show us clearly where the problems are – even if some don’t want to hear this. Many of these problems we only have because of an unsustainable use of science and technology. Science has its limits and its perils, and the outlook it provides is not always uplifting. Occasionally this leads us scientists to appear as doomsday prophets that only see into the black holes of our future. Hence, as much as we need science, we need hope too. We need to share that we want to look beyond – together. The solution is never ‘science’ alone, the solutions is always ‘us’. I may be a bit old-fashioned, as a scientist who maintains his religious roots and convictions, but I still think together we can make the world flourish and look beyond. To do this we will need hard facts, but we will need faith, hope and love too. And a little bit of curiosity, of course.

Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, The Universe and Us by Professor Heino Falcke is out now (Wildfire, £20)

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