A source of unending awe, embellished in Pretoria

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By SUNDAY TIMES

Seeing is believing, and this week the world saw what astrophysicists have believed ever since Albert Einstein came up with his theory of relativity - proof of the existence of a massive black hole. The proof came in the form of a photograph, an achievement of note for many reasons: the audacity of thinking it was possible, the precision and patience that went into the planning, and the international collaboration necessary for the project to bear fruit.It is cause for national celebration that South Africans were among the 200 scientists who facilitated this giant leap forward in understanding one of the mysteries of our universe. As we report elsewhere in the newspaper, University of Pretoria astrophysicist Roger Deane, 36, used computer code written by his PhD student Tariq Blecher, 27, to create a simulation of what the Event Horizon Telescope group might find as they scoured the skies for evidence of the black hole. The simulation enabled scientists to identify the black hole in the Messier 87 galaxy some 55-million light years away from us. The M87 galaxy is a giant elliptical galaxy that helps to anchor about 2,000 other galaxies - including our own Milky Way. The black hole - which has been described as "one of the most powerful galactic engines in the local universe" - has been named Powehi, a Hawaiian term meaning "embellished dark source of unending creation". It is 6.5-billion times the mass of our sun and 40-billion kilometres across. Evidence for Powehi was gathered by connecting telescopes from different parts of the world and combining their data. Atomic clocks (which lose only one second every 100-million years) helped to synchronise the telescopes. A supercomputer corrected time differences and produced the image of glowing plasma swirling around a dark sphere at close to the speed of light. The Powehi photograph represents a high point of human endeavour, and is a dazzling beacon of what can be achieved when people from many nations act in common purpose to produce something that enriches us all with knowledge and wonder. We stand in awe.

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