A group of astronomers has done something incredible: They captured the first photograph ever taken of a black hole. The image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope and released by the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency, is haunting in its simplicity: a hazy red loop of cosmic flame set against the backdrop of space, ringed around an even deeper blackness. So powerful is the gravitational pull of that inner void that nothing, not even light, can escape.
The public responded with a modicum of awe and some jokes. (The image does bear a striking resemblance to the Eye of Sauron.) But it wasn’t hard to find disdain among some observers. “Science, let us know when you find a more photogenic black hole,” Slate’s Heather Schwedel quipped. “If you told me instead, ‘You are looking at a scientific marvel that should really blow your mind,’ I would say: no I’m not,” Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan wrote, perhaps tongue-in-cheek. “Maybe your mind is more easily blown [than] mine. That I would believe.”
This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance. The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive. But judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted. One also has to consider the thought and labor behind its creation. The photograph might not depict the horror of galactic destruction as some expected, but it represents something even better.
Physicists have suspected the existence of black holes for almost 90 years, since special relativity toppled Newton’s vision of an orderly universe. “Here, according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space, and time come to an end and vanish like a dream,” The New York Times’s Dennis Overbye wrote of the black hole. But actually sighting one in the wild is no easy feat. This particular black hole dwells in Messier 87, the scientific name for a distant galaxy in the constellation Virgo. An international team of astronomers used a network of ten radio telescopes across four continents to hunt for it. “For a few days in April 2017,” The Atlantic’s Marina Koren wrote, “the observatories studied the skies in tandem, creating a gargantuan telescope nearly the size of the planet.”
Think about it: A group of mostly hairless primates, stranded on a rock circling a nuclear spark, used radio waves to photograph an invisible sun-eater so far away that a person would have to travel for 55 million years at the speed of light to reach it. It’s hard to not feel a frisson of awe at the scale of the feat. This context is vital to fully appreciating the image itself, in the same way that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is even more impressive when you know that Michelangelo spent three years of his adult life bent over backwards to paint it.
Maybe the modern era has deadened our capacity for awe. A not insignificant share of the news now revolves around horrifying imagery distributed across the planet at dizzying speed. Silicon Valley built social media platforms that prioritized relentless engagement over ethical consumption; they’ve struggled to rein them in ever since. The white nationalist who slaughtered 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand mosques last month livestreamed the attack as he carried it out, saluting a popular YouTube personality before opening fire. Tech companies struggled to take down footage as it spread through Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and other sites like a virus.
This phenomenon is all too familiar as a journalist. I’ve watched more videos of fatal police shootings and random terrorist attacks than I can count over the past five years. At times, I looped them over and over again to make sure I got the quotations and the sequence of events correct for my articles. Once, when researching the history of botched executions, I stumbled across a photograph in court records taken after one of Florida’s last uses of the electric chair. I won’t describe the contents here, but I could do so in great detail—perhaps for the rest of my life. At times, it feels like one has to make a conscious decision not to let blood and fire be the only thing that provokes an emotional response.
Our ancestors had it easier, at least in some ways. They may have lacked radio telescopes to peer across millions of light-years at far-flung galaxies. But they did not need them to grasp their place in the cosmos. They could simply look up at night. Stretching out above them were countless stars wheeling overheard, with comets and meteors flashing across the inky canvass, all riven by a great white galactic belt that spanned the night sky. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh sent his brother Theo a sketch of what would become his famous painting of the starlit Rhone. Painting Arles at daytime, he wrote in an accompanying letter, “doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for—shall I say the word—for religion, so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”
Van Gogh would find it much harder to commune with the universe today. Light pollution now prevents at least 80 percent of North America’s inhabitants from seeing the Milky Way at night. The effect is particularly bad for wildlife: Researchers blame the perpetual glow of city lights for sending confused migratory birds into tall buildings, killing as many as one billion of them each year. For humans, the omnipresence of artificial light can disrupt sleep cycles and harm one’s health. The existential impact is harder to measure. When large swaths of urbanized humanity look up at the night sky, all they see is a washed-out void and the occasional airplane.
A blurred photo of a distant black hole can’t fill the void within. It can certainly help, though. Nourishing a sense of cosmic wonderment is more valuable than ever in a world where humanity is separated from the stars and skies that dazzled it for thousands of years. The Messier 87 photograph may not be as grandiose or evocative as the illustrations traditionally used to depict black holes. But to be disappointed by that is to miss the point. There’s still a beauty and awe that can be found in the universe’s stark simplicity—if you’re willing to see it.