On Thursday, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released imagery of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*. It is a direct detection of one of the most elusive types of astronomical objects and the culmination of more than a century of theoretical and experimental astronomical studies. The results are also a brilliant demonstration of the possibilities created by human labor coordinated on an international and scientific basis.
More than 300 astronomers and hundreds of engineers and support staff from 60 institutions in 20 countries and regions on seven continents performed the observations, processed the data, and maintained the technical infrastructure necessary for such a huge undertaking. After the observations of Sgr A* in 2017, thousands of terabytes of data were transported to the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Max Planck Institute of Study to be processed and analyzed on some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Five years of work proved necessary to characterize and understand the results.
The immediate result is the product of more than two decades of planning by the collaboration, which was launched in 2009 with the primary goal of observing the two largest black holes in the sky as seen from Earth, Sagittarius A* (Sgr A *) and the black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87. To do this, the collaboration incorporated radio telescopes from around the world and combined their observing capabilities to see astronomical objects never seen directly before.
Telescopes involved in capturing the data needed to produce the final graphic include the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment in Chile, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona, the IRAM 30m Telescope in Spain, the James Clerk Telescope Maxwell and the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica.
The graphic design produced is also a resounding blow against all forms of irrationalist thought, be it the mysticism of religious obscurantism or postmodernism and its assertion that all ‘narratives’ are equally valid. There is in fact an objective, material reality, which is governed by physical, knowable laws.
More in-depth results are expected to follow in the months and years to come. EHT completed its latest observing campaign in March, which included three new telescopes that will enable even better imaging. And now that data has been collected and published on the collaboration’s two main targets, it will explore other, even more esoteric regions of the Universe, in particular the galactic-scale energetic jets produced by supermassive black holes when large amounts of gas and dust flow into it. .
As with any scientific discovery, the EHT array itself is the product of more than a century of pioneering work in theoretical astrophysics and advanced engineering. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, upon which the modern understanding of black holes is based, was developed in 1915. The initial detection of radio waves from the galactic nucleus occurred in the 1930s and the astronomical techniques needed to detect spiral matter in a black hole were developed in the 1960s. It was not until the 1980s that Sgr A* was first assumed to be a black hole, and observations in the 1990s and 2000s ruled out the vast majority of other possibilities.
At the same time, the production of such images is an inherently international process. In order to achieve the resolution needed to view the black hole (actually the extremely hot gas surrounding the invisible object), radio telescopes must be built and maintained at opposite ends of the globe, turning the Earth itself into a radio antenna. giant capable of detecting extraordinarily weak signals.
These vast scientific undertakings are becoming more and more routine. The Large Hadron Collider, the detection of gravitational waves, the IceCube experiment to detect neutrinos, as well as virtually all space missions, require an international effort to succeed. As a negative example, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, which was due to launch this year, will now not launch until at least 2028 after Russia withdrew its participation in the mission following sanctions imposed. in the country after it was provoked by the United States and NATO in the war with Ukraine.
The need for international collaboration was underlined by Xavier Barcons, the director general of the European Southern Observatory, who told a press conference to announce the findings that “this extraordinary result would not have been possible without ‘obtained by a single facility or even national astronomical community from a single country. It took eight radio observatories around the world, and this network has already grown to 11 today, many of which have been built, funded, operated and supported by international organizations in many countries around the world.
Barcons then felt compelled to note that the discovery “shows what we can achieve when we cooperate, when we work together. It is very important to remember this in the times in which we live, where the world is unfortunately not going in this direction.
Indeed no. Presumably Barcons was referring to the spiraling conflict between NATO and Russia, which threatens humanity with nuclear annihilation. Or perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide and where rich countries have stockpiled vaccines and other therapeutics.
Barcons could also have been referring to the ongoing and accelerating climate catastrophe, which world governments have done nothing to mitigate and which threatens to drown the world’s shores by the end of the century. And despite warnings for more than half a century of impending doom, nations have consistently refused to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the name of their national capitalist interests.
This state of affairs is the product of definite social and political relations and objective economic processes. It is the division of the world into rival nation states competing in a global capitalist marketplace that produces such horrors, not to mention the crushing inequality and poverty faced by billions of people every day.
Serious scientific collaboration involves some conscious effort on the part of those involved to reject the chauvinistic and nationalistic mantras spewed out by every government, governments that would much rather see these scientists produce increasingly terrible weapons of mass destruction than working together to understand nature and our place in it. this.
These same governments have overseen an astronomical redistribution of wealth during the pandemic, pumping trillions of dollars back into Wall Street and other financial markets, while forcing workers back to work amid a pandemic to pay for bailouts. . The war in Ukraine has led to shortages of basic necessities, food and infant formula, while inflation has soared, pushing more and more of the world’s population into destitution.
But towering scientific achievements like the Sagittarius A* imagery provide insight into another basis of social organization. If the principles of scientific planning and international collaboration that enabled this triumph were applied to contemporary society, it would be possible to end war, poverty, preventable disease and all other forms of social misery.
The capitalist class has proven that it is only bent on the continued accumulation of private profit, regardless of the consequences on Earth’s ecology or the cost in human lives. It is therefore up to the working class, the objectively revolutionary and international social force in society, to overthrow capitalism as a whole, paving the way for a new and superior social order, socialism.