The community of Guilford reacts to the discovery of the closest black hole to Earth

The community of Guilford reacts to the discovery of the closest black hole to Earth

A poster in Smith’s office shows the X-Ray Timing Explorer he was working on, which he used to discover black holes. (Liz Poole)

Astrology can be a popular subject on college campuses as students try to figure out their place in the world and analyze others. Students are full of wonder, and college can be a pivotal time for asking questions about the world and even the universe. On November 4, astronomers found a black hole in Earth’s “backyard.”

According to that New York TImes Kareem El-Badry, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered the next known black hole called Gaia BH1. The black hole is about 1,600 light-years away, and the nearest known black hole is 3,000 light-years away, in the constellation Unicorn.

To find the black hole, El-Badry traced data from Europe’s GAIA spacecraft, which can track the movement and position of stars in the Milky Way. According to the New York Times “dr El-Badry and his team discovered a star, virtually identical to our Sun, that was quivering strangely, as if it were being gravitationally influenced by an invisible companion.”

To see what that was, El-Badry and his team used the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. They chose this telescope because it can measure the speed of an object and the movement around it. The telescope’s data showed that the object was not just a star, but a black hole.

Donald Smith, a physics professor at Guilford, discovered black holes with a satellite called the X-Ray Timing Explorer while he was a PhD student at MIT. Smith explained that a black hole is not a hole punched through something, but an object.

“…Think of it like a planet or a star that’s been crushed to a very, very, very small size,” Smith said. “Earth would have to be crushed to the size of a pea to be a black hole. The sun would be crushed into something the size of a city… It becomes so small, but its gravity is so strong that not even light can come out, creating a black hole… The mass is the same. It’s just great, super focused.”

According to that Smithsonian, Gaia BH1 is about ten times larger than our Sun and one of 20 known black holes in the Milky Way. It’s a dormant black hole, which means it doesn’t emit large amounts of X-rays, making it even more difficult to spot. Scientists estimate that there are 100 million other black holes in our galaxy, larger than Earth’s sun, waiting to be discovered. Corresponding NASABlack holes are created by a strong gravitational force that does not allow anything, not even light, to escape. Because of this, scientists had to analyze the motion to find Gaia BH1.

Parker O’Keefe, a first-year physics student at Guilford, explained her fascination with black holes: “I’m interested in black holes because they can suck up matter and light themselves. I love the mystery of where it goes or (if) these elements are destroyed, which challenges other theories.”

O’Keefe hopes to study black holes in the future, but wants to make sure she fully understands the physics behind them.

“It takes a lot of complexity and a lot of knowledge to get to the bottom of it,” she said. Describing her academic drive to learn more about physics, she said, “It’s the science of everything around us: visible and invisible, and I find it fascinating.”

Black holes offer opportunities to study the laws of physics. They can play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies. There are unsolved mysteries and questions about how dormant black holes like this play into galaxy evolution. Gaia BH1 questions people and doors open to wonder.

Eric Mortensen, Professor of Religious Studies at Guilford, Faculty Advisor for the Cloud Gazing Society and a practicing Buddhist, offered his perspective on wonders and discoveries like Gaia BH1. Mortensen believes that science and religion work together, not against each other.

“That’s what religion is, an attempt to provide answers to what we don’t know,” Mortensen said. He added that discovery and religion allow for wonder: “It allows for curiosity. It enables creativity and imagination.”

Mortensen has an idea of ​​why people wonder and constantly try to discover new things. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it,” he said. “I think we always try to look for meaning in things, whether we find it in things that are far from our planet.”

According to Mortensen, through wonder and discovery, people can see how they fit into life and the universe around them. “One of the things that happens when you look through a telescope is that you start to get a much more humble view of the world, that you don’t see yourself as the center of things anymore,” Mortensen said.

Smith agrees with Mortensen: “…I hope people would take away from this…that there is still so much to discover out there, and it just takes time and the will to learn.”

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