COLM O'REGAN: Let's talk about The Black Hole

By now, you will have seen the photo of the black hole. It may even have a cuddly name at this point: Hell’s Polo Mint, FAI at the Oireachtas, or just Holey. It was the big news of the week.

Literally big. The numbers are staggering. The black hole has the mass of six billion times the sun. To try and comprehend that, think about the mass of the sun. Now, think about something that’s way, way mass-ier. And then add a load more mass. That’s how heavy we’re talking.

With that scale, you could be forgiven for being a little disappointed that the photo looked a bit blurry, that it didn’t come with a soundtrack. And maybe you were expecting spaceships to be skirting it, reloading their warp-drives with energon.

But that’s what you get when you turn a planet into a telescope, point it to something 55m years in the past, and gather five petabyes of information. A petabyte is a million gigabytes, or a gillion migabytes. That’s nearly half the amount of racism uploaded to YouTube in a month.

The scientists look happy with the photo. It looked like what they were expecting.

If your brief is to get a photo of a black hole and you come back with something that’s circular and dark, with flames around the edges, it must be a huge sigh of relief all round. Imagine if the printer spat out something that looked like a willy

It’s such a tantalising subject, because it is as close to magic as you are going to get. It changes our whole perception of reality. For example, a black hole has such an intense gravitation that it can warp light and, therefore, a photon of light could travel in a circle, so that you could, literally, see the back of your own head. Which would explain how there is no evidence of a barber shop near a black hole, because they’d be driven demented by you micromanaging what was going on back there.

The news of the black hole will also lead people to try and find out more about it, possibly via Wikipedia. And that’s another vortex.

You look up ‘black hole’ and then you have to click on space-time after three words and then you go off to learn about relativity. When you get there, you have to figure out what relativity is, and, by the time you come back, you’re scuttling off to see what’s an event horizon. If you make it back from there, the theories have changed and you’re also 94 years old and all your friends are dead.

We will see mathematicians brought onto the media attempting to explain things to us mortals and if you listen closely, you will hear them give a little sigh. A sigh that says:


But the best thing about the black hole is that amongst all the tools like me who go searching the internet for context and then collapse in a pool of our own limitations, a few will be directed for the first time along this glorious path of understanding life, the universe, and everything.

Maybe they’re rediscovering maths and physics, having been disillusioned by it in school. Or maybe they are only eight, with a newly minted brain that doesn’t have a hang-up yet, that hasn’t yet spent time thinking about Brexit or why stacyhunzoxox and jonno212 haven’t followed them back.

Inspired by this photo, they will grow up to be someone amazing. Perhaps even someone who can get answers out of the greatest conundrum know to humanity: WTF is the FAI at, at all? And after that, the secret of the universe is a doddle.

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