The Sciences

Look Behind the Low-Res Black Hole

The EHT has a 10-year headstart on any new collaboration that wants to image a black hole – 10 years that are very difficult to abbreviate because they are about the sociology, not the technology.

Yesterday, science journalists’ Twitter feeds were full of the image of the M87 black hole, and it must have been highly unlikely for the Twitter feeds of non-science-journalists to have not contained the image once every 10 or 20 tweets – unless they had completely walled themselves off. The fuzzy picture was everywhere, and the social media strategy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, it seems, was perfect. Everyone was talking about it from a few hours before the announcement to many hours after.

Most accounts I follow on Twitter are those of scientists and/or science writers (a superset that includes science journalists, in case you were wondering). So most of the time, it is difficult for me to gauge whether excitement on my Twitter is the excitement of the people, in general, or that of the community of people who have a greater intellectual proximity to scientific work. This is intentional: the excitement of the people on social media is often hazardous to mental well-being, and I compensate for it in other ways. However, to call it meaningless would be folly. It is in fact quite meaningful in its own right, even if it tends to be myopic and/or slanderous.

This preamble is for the following tweet:

Also read: International Team of Astronomers Obtains First Direct Image of a Black Hole

It is evident that the person who wrote this Slate article – Heather Schwedel – just doesn’t get it. I admit, as the headline of Schwedel’s article goes, that the black hole photo is not very good indeed. It is blurry; one scientist at yesterday’s US National Science Foundation (NSF) presser admitted it:

Your question was on the sharpness of the edge. So, we have actually spent a considerable amount of time trying to upsize the particular details of this ring of light feature, and the sharpness, it falls off in less than 10% of the radio, that is the resolution that we have. Insofar as we can tell, it drops off nearly instantly.

Compared to pictures of about-to-be-eaten food on Instagram and Hubble Space Telescope’s spectacular shots of distant cosmic events, the EHT’s image of the M87 black hole is blah. But this is a profoundly useless comparison; it wasn’t ever about matching up to the Double Negative gravity-renderer, for example. There is no historical record that anyone cares about that reads “first ever 60 MP image of a black hole”; if they are, then that is a case of the bottom scraping the bottom.

One MP or 60 MP or 10 GP is a question of degree. What we have here is a question of kind. Yesterday’s announcement was about the supra-human (not a typo) effort it took to obtain it. And to be honest, part of the issue here lies with a news narrative that led with the fact that we had captured the first direct image of a black hole’s event horizon, and not with the socio-engineering feat that was the real achievement.

We did write about it but our Twitter feeds contained images of the black hole, not the telescopes and the people that made it possible. Many of us, myself included, attempted to condense a complex multi-year international, intergovernmental, multidisciplinary industry into a 250 kb file, so Schwedel’s comment is not entirely surprising.

Yes, the image is what they had to show for it, and we said as simply as could possibly be said that XYZ is the kind of effort it takes to obtain just that one blurry image. To Schwedel – and many others, actually – it seems the need to work backwards to explore the engineering feats that may have been fascinating was not instinctual, but unless these people were scientists or science journalists familiar with the assiduity at work here, it might never have been. This is an audience fattened on a diet exemplified by the Orion NebulaNikon’s photomicrography contest and slow-motion videos of jet sprays.

Also read: A 200-Year-Old Experiment Has Helped Us See a Black Hole’s Shadow

What Schwedel’s comment should prompt us to consider is that someone somewhere failed to communicate the event’s true significance properly (or that everyone did and Schwedel just – again – didn’t get it, but this alternate possibility does not require much elaboration). In my view, Shep Doeleman, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s department of astronomy, painted the right picture at the NSF presser yesterday. He said:

Over the past decade, the accomplishment has been in the building of a team, more than 200 people strong, many institutes over 20 countries and regions. If you want to reduce the data, if you want to develop new imaging algorithms, if you want the image of a blackhole, then you need a large team. It has included many early career scientists, senior scientists, and many of them were here with us today.

Right now, if anyone wanted to image a black hole and had the necessary sub-mm telescopes ready for first light, they would immediately be 10 years behind the EHT collaboration – 10 years that would be very difficult to shorten or abbreviate because they are about the sociology, not the technology. So perhaps there is some good (albeit tad masochistically) that Schwedel spoke up (though the way she did just does not fly: in many parts, she seems to be going for sarcasm but it just stinks of ill-founded snark).

Assuming, somehow, for a moment she was not being sarcastic: the article is the sort of commentary space debris that can ding your morning zen right out of orbit. But it is also public opinion, and nobody should be asking anyone to STFU. In fact, it offers a really, really faint opportunity: for us to slip behind the image’s black veil and recast the story.