For many kids of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Disney’s 1979 film “The Black Hole” occupies a particularly nostalgic place. In kindergarten, I owned a tin lunchbox with the film’s art plastered on every side. And I wasn’t the only kid who loved the movie at the time.
Last week’s scientific photo of a black hole reminded me of the old film right away.
It was not a terribly good movie (5.9 of 10 stars from IMDb and 43% from Rotten Tomatoes). It’s a menacing sci-fi B film about a crew of explorers find a ship thought lost 20 years ago on the “event horizon” of a black hole (the threshold beyond the black hole’s inescapable pull). Its evil genius commander, who is still alive on the ship, served by a crew of lobotomized slaves, promptly imprisons the crew.
The idea of a black hole continues to defy our everyday understanding. It’s a gravity hole so great that it vacuums up everything in its reach, including light. The mystery and menace of such a thing likely drove the concept for the film. It was strong enough to capture the imaginations of 6-year-olds of the time.
I suspect that many who were excited by the work of the team that produced last week’s images of the black hole don’t suffer from the nostalgia of the “The Black Hole.” But there’s certainly something of the childlike wonder in the reaction to seeing those images.
A lot of people were pretty excited by the images. But many probably wondered what the big deal might be. To be fair, there’s plenty going on right here on planet Earth about which to be concerned. Why care about a picture of some space phenomenon 55 million light-years away?
The big deal is that before the image of last week, black holes were more theory than confirmed reality. They were not much more than sci-fi plot devices around which intrepid space ship pilots must beware or be lost forever. Today, we have scientific evidence of a gravitational “hole” that is sucking in every piece of matter and light that comes within its reach.
Heino Falcke, a professor in the Netherlands who chairs the science council of the Event Horizon Telescope, the massive project that produced last week’s images, put it well.
“You have probably seen many, many images of black holes before,” he said. “But they were all simulations or animations. And this [image] is precious to all of us, because this one is finally real.”
It might be hard to believe that there’s much in 2019 about which we don’t know. But then, something happens like the scientific proof of the existence of a black hole, and you have to realize there is still so much that remains a mystery. It might not be as cool as robots, lost spaceships and megamaniacal interstellar bad guys, but it is a moment that truly deserves our wonder.