Black holes: unboxing the wonders of God’s cosmosWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Seeing is believing, the old saying goes – even if the thing observed is invisible by nature.
Black holes are nothing new, of course. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted their existence over a century ago. For decades, astronomers have tracked them indirectly via their disruptive effect on stars and other matter in their vicinity. Over the years, they’ve become speculative fuel for science fiction stories and movies, most notably Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film, Interstellar.
However, thanks to their ability to trap light, black holes were considered nearly impossible to observe directly – until an international science team captured the image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of galaxy M87, now made famous on social media.
While astronomers and space buffs celebrated the discovery, other more jaded voices greeted the fuzzy image with a shrug. There were playful comparisons to the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings movies. Next to the spectacular (and fictional) CGI black hole in Interstellar, it all seemed a bit underwhelming.
Still, for those who look to the skies with an eye of faith, visual evidence of one of the great mysteries of the cosmos can’t help but create awe and wonder at the God who made it.
Seeing the invisible
Strictly speaking, the image doesn’t show the actual black hole in M87. That would be impossible. Black holes don’t have a surface, as such. Instead, they have a boundary known as an event horizon, beyond which all matter and energy that wanders too close, including visible light, gets trapped by the immense gravity and disappears. The dark spot in the middle of the image is in fact the black hole’s shadow, created by absorbing all the light behind it, against a backdrop of hot supercharged gas.
Even so, the black hole in M87 is about 55 million light years away, far too remote to be detected by normal means, even with the most powerful telescopes. The project required a concerted effort using multiple radio telescopes spread across the globe from Spain to Antarctica, all pointed at M87 at the same time, like the compound eyes of an insect. According to Katie Bouman, the computer scientist who led the development of the algorithm to process the collected data into an image, it was like trying to take a picture of an orange sitting on the surface of the moon.
A different face of glory
The heavens declare the glory of God, wrote King David – a verse that typically evokes a clear night sky, beautiful and calm. But beauty and glory can wear other faces; as the Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth, heavenly bodies differ from each other in glory. And at the end of the Book of Job, God himself listed some of the fiercer beauties of his creation: lightning and thunder, blasting cold, the dark depths of the ocean, the dreaded marine creature Leviathan.
The black hole in M87 would fit well into that list. It’s unimaginably massive and dense, with gravity powerful enough to tear nearby stars to shreds. It packs a mass of 6.5 billion suns into an area roughly the size of our solar system, and its shadow at the centre of the image is 38 billion kilometres across, about seven times the average distance from the sun to Pluto. The glowing corona surrounding it is the black hole’s accretion disk, a colossal maelstrom of superheated gas and dust whipping around the event horizon at velocities approaching the speed of light.
There appear to be similar black holes at the centre of all large galaxies, including our own Milky Way. And despite their enormous destructive potential, they serve as cosmic engines and centres of gravity that power each galaxy and hold it together. In fact, the galaxy M87 with its black hole is more massive than most, and it functions as a gravitational anchor for the local neighbourhood of galaxies to which our Milky Way belongs.
Made for God’s pleasure
In light of the mind-blowing discoveries of modern astronomy, skeptics have argued that the earth with its inhabitants is nothing special, merely an insignificant speck in a vast, dreadful and indifferent universe. Notwithstanding, such discoveries do raise legitimate questions from a theological perspective. If God is chiefly concerned with the earth and humanity made in his image, then why bother making all this other stuff out there? Why create a cosmos on a scale that defies human observation, to say nothing of human comprehension?
The answer is that God created the universe not primarily for us, but for his own pleasure and glory. He didn’t need to do it. He wasn’t bored or lonely or looking for a project. He simply wished to express himself, to display his power and beauty in all its facets through his created order. This encompasses everything from the serene beauty of a starry night to the terrible power of a supermassive black hole that devours stars and gas and dust, and even the light that comes across its path.
Unboxing the cosmos
At the same time, God is unboxing the wonders of his cosmos for his human image-bearers to discover and appreciate – but slowly, gradually, according to his own sovereign schedule. He gives men and women the desire and resources to explore his creation to the degree he sees fit in every era. Millennia ago, this was limited to looking at the heavens with the naked eye. Today it includes a global network of radio telescopes that can capture the image of a black hole 55 million light years away.
Just as God revealed himself in stages via the books of Scripture, and ultimately in his Son Jesus, so he continues to do via the book of nature. The heavens declared the glory of God well enough in David’s day, when all David could see were the constellations in the night sky. How much more do they do so in our own time, when we can capture images of black holes and galactic clusters, separated by distances so vast and harnessing energies so immense that they stagger the imagination?
According to Scripture, God created the cosmos through his Son, who holds it together by his power. He controls the course of every object in the heavens, and calls each of them by name. In the blurry glow of a supermassive black hole, these truths about God take on a sense of wonder and awe that the ancients could never have imagined.
Sources and further reading
Pat Brennan, “What is a black hole?” NASA Exoplanet Exploration, April 9, 2019.
Calla Cofield, “The giant galaxy around the giant black hole,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, April 25, 2019.
Guillermo Gonzalez, “Astronomers release first image of a black hole,” The Stream, April 12, 2019.
Lisa Grossman, “The M87 black hole image showed the best way to measure black hole masses,” Science News, April 22, 2019.
Elizabeth Landau, “Black hole image makes history; NASA telescopes coordinated observations,” NASA, April 10, 2019.
Ota Lutz, “How scientists captured the first image of a black hole,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, April 19, 2019.
Sarah Mervosh, “How Katie Bouman accidentally became the face of the black hole project,” New York Times, April 11, 2019.
Mamta Patel Nagaraja, “Black holes,” NASA Science, May 10, 2019.
Jake Parks, “The nature of M87: EHT’s look at a supermassive black hole,” Astronomy, April 10, 2019.
Doris Elin Salazar, “Black hole photos could get even clearer with space-based telescopes,” Space, May 10, 2019.
Lonnie Shekhtman and Jay R. Thompson, “First image of a black hole,” NASA Solar System Exploration, April 10, 2019.
“Spitzer Space Telescope puts M87’s black hole in context,” Astronomy Now, May 8, 2019.
Image source: NASA
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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