Every black hole has an event horizon, a point at which its escape velocity is equal with that of light, therefore beyond which light cannot escape. Therefore, as far as our knowledge of black holes is concerned, we are, quite literally, in the dark. Light and knowledge are closely linked in Western thought, as we call the process and the period through which we began our modern quest for comprehension of the world the ‘Enlightenment’. Yet the way of (again, quite literally) looking at the world that started then is challenged within theoretical physics, and through the efforts of scientists to understand objects that we cannot see, such as black holes. Black holes lend themselves to speculation, rather than to factual knowledge and inference, and the knowledge created about them can come from more than one direction.
This, of course, does not stop scientists from trying, as discussed in the TED talk by Katie Bouman. Recently, telescopes all over the world have been put together to form one immense radio dish – the ‘Event Horizon Telescope’ – which gathered 1,024 hard drives worth of data by observing two supermassive black holes throughout ten days. Astronomers hope to combine this data into the first image we could have of a black hole – or, at least, of what can be seen of it. Before this immense effort, however, a French astrophysicist and poet, without the possibility of looking at one, offered an accurate image of a black hole in 1979, using a punch-card computer and ink on paper. The appropriately named Jean-Pierre Luminet worked out a way of visualising the right way light should hit a black hole so that the paths it takes can provide an image. Luminet envisioned the way ‘accretion disks’ (matter ‘swirling into the black hole’), which emit light and radiation because of their high temperatures, illuminate a black hole. Taking into account the light, the curvature of spacetime, and the speed of the rotating holes, Luminet produced an image of what the accretion disks allow observers to see, the best we can get to what a black hole ‘looks’ like.
With more advanced technology, one of the most accurate images of a black hole which reached the general public was brought by the participation of the famed physicist Kip Thorne in the making of the 2014 film Interstellar. In other creations, however, artists have allowed themselves more freedom in imagining black holes and how these immense spatial phenomena can be brought in front of us. The Einstein Collective, for instance, at the Montana State University, created two short films to be projected in rooms into which visitors of their exhibition, The Black (W)hole, enter. Formed by both scientists and artists, the collective wanted to provide an immersive sensorial experience of being in a black hole, celebrating the wonders of space and the achievements of astrophysics alike. A similarly immersive fusing of science and art came out of the Australian artist Lily Hibberd’s collaboration with the group Extreme Light, creating Data Horizons. The installation contains an ‘analogue’ black hole, created by using gas and graphite to control light, slowing it down in a spiralling movement to less than the speed of sound.
Other artists have taken on trying to depict black holes using the matter available around us. Shea Hembrey, an artist from Frenchtown, NJ, in an exhibition in which he tries to uncover the invisibilities of the universe, has created a black hole using wheat straw. Rather than trying to capture what is ‘out there’, Stockholm artist Orestes Grediaga has turned within to use the black holes’ unknown to picture the pain within himself. By putting black resin on paper, he materialised both his own feelings, and the cosmic events that scientists are still to pin down. The New York artist Cair Crafword has resorted to drawing black holes in order to pin nothingness down, picturing the relation that the thought has with the unthought. Swiss artist Fabian Oefner has created colourful black holes, reflecting on the process of painting itself. He applied different paints to a metallic rod attached to a drill, photographing their swirling play of colours which appears when the drill is started.
It is difficult to know what black holes are, especially what they are holes in. Ultimately, they are holes in our knowledge and imagination. Without light, we cannot see them, but we have not shied away from filling them with our own meaning. The spaces they make allowed people like Luminet to solve scientific puzzles, but also provided artists the means to explore our relation to the cosmos and our relation to ourselves. They have been used as mechanisms of understanding the way we relate to nothingness and to the complex systems of information we are part of. Ultimately, what holes-that-are-not-quite-holes in the distant space seem to do for us is release our imagination.
Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)