Friday, January 11, 2008

Rogue Black Holes

Rogue black holes...the highwaymen of the universe. I beg forgiveness of those astronomers or telescope enthusiasts who may be reading, but I had to post this bit of sensational prose from today's AP Science:

"The research findings from this week's annual meeting of U.S. astronomers range from blue orphaned baby stars to menacing "rogue" black holes that roam our galaxy, devouring any planets unlucky enough to be within their limited reach."

This is what I love about journalism, and I'm not even being ironic - only a journalist has the liberty to come up with such wildly raw statements.

Despite glib references to "post-menopausal stars" and similar cosmic effects, the article is definitely good reading: a quick scan of a host of recent discoveries and theories about the stars at which we gaze at night (or at which we don't get to gaze, if we live in the city and they're washed out by the light). Is there any emerging myth around the idea of the "black hole"?

It's a compelling idea - a hole in space in which the mass is so compact and the gravity so violent that once drawn in, nothing escapes, not even light. Hollywood has made several attempts at a mythology of the black hole, and David Brin tackled the black hole in a long science-fiction novel in the 1980s. The digital painting shown above is Black Hole by Jason Warren, the artist whose Solar Voyager site shows dramatic portraits of the universe's wonders.

The fascination with the heavens cannot have completely left us with the decline of funding to NASA; a young child I know went to Halloween recently dressed as a black hole, and eager to explain his costume (which to my mind was the most creative costume I saw that year).

Madeleine L'Engle used to comb through news of recent scientific discoveries for just such nuggets as this: black holes that wander wild through space and devour planets. She would have woven it into a story that was wondrous and strange and breathlessly new.

Such an anomaly as the black hole demands a good myth.

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