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Solontoi looks forward to what’s next after photo of black hole

Barry McNamara
The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration announced Wednesday that it had photographed the contours of the supermassive black hole at the heart of M87, a huge elliptical galaxy that lies 55 million light years from Earth.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College physics professor said this week’s news of the first-ever photo of a black hole didn’t quite earn a perfect 10 when ranking big news in astronomy, but it is still a major event.

“I put this around an 8,” said Michael Solontoi, who calls himself a “planetary astronomer,” as opposed to one who studies black holes. “I would put if higher if it was unexpected – if we were doing all the science right, but we got a different result than we expected. Something like that would mean we don’t have all the answers about how gravity works, and it would knock things off scale in a big way.”

But Solontoi said he was impressed by the photo – which represented the first direct visual evidence that black holes exist – and also by the teamwork it took to generate it.

“Don’t get me wrong – an 8 out of 10 is still pretty big news,” he said. “A 10 out of 10 would mean I’d be so excited I’d be out spreading the news, knocking on every door from here to Chicago. This is still pretty neat stuff. It’s something we’ve never had before.”

In news reports, Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, said the photo has allowed researchers to finally see “what we thought was unseeable.”

Solontoi praised the “global science effort” required to turn the dream of photographing a black hole into a reality.

“I think every single continent was involved,” he said. “I’m not sure if the telescope in South Africa was used, but there were eight telescope arrays involved” and more than 200 researchers participating.

While it may be complex to photograph a black hole, Solontoi made it relatively easy to understand what one is: “A black hole is a region in space where there is just enough stuff where the gravity is preventing anything – even light – from escaping.”

To envision what that would be like, Solontoi said to imagine tossing a ball into the air.

“If we throw it 10 feet up in the air, it comes back. If we throw it 100 feet up, it comes back,” he said. “But if Superman throws the ball into the air, it goes so far that it doesn’t come back. A black hole is like that – the speed that things go into it is faster than the speed of light. You can go in but you can’t get out, just like ‘Hotel California.’”

Solontoi was asked what might be the next big news related to black holes.

“It would be really interesting to photograph the black hole in the center of our Milky Way,” which is about 30,000 light years away, he said.

Doing so would increase the sample size, which is always a good idea in science.

“If the only dog you’d seen was a German shepherd, and you thoroughly studied it, you could learn a lot about dogs,” said Solontoi. “But then if you were introduced to a dachshund, you’re going to be confused. There’s a substantial difference in size between the supermassive black hole photographed in M87 and the one in our galaxy.”