ALBERT EINSTEIN DIDN’T believe in black holes and yet here we are: the Nobel Prize for Physics announced this week was shared by a scientist who showed that black holes agreed with his findings. For Roger Penrose, the Nobel citation went: ‘for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity’. The two others who won it showed that a black hole is not as remote as one would imagine. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez got the award ‘for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy’. The press release of the announcement had this quote from David Haviland, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics: ‘The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole.’
Or, in other words, very little is known of them even now. They are black because even light can’t escape it. And what then can you see: nothing. You can only look at what is happening around it and make inferences from trillions of kilometres away. The thing itself always remains out of reach. That can be frustrating to physicists. But for the creative mind, it leads to limitless possibilities. Take the latest and most famous example of a movie that has a black hole in it, Interstellar, where Chris•toper Nolan took great pains to get the science correct. For this, he roped in Kip Thorne, a physics Nobel laureate himself. A Wired article about their col•laboration said: ‘Nolan’s story relied on time dilation: time passing at different rates for different characters. To make this scientifically plausible, Thorne told him, he’d need a massive black hole—in the movie, it’s called Gargan•tua—spinning at nearly the speed of light.’ They even came up with a model of what a black hole could look like up close. But, despite the spectacle, what is Interstellar’s story itself? Just a man on a desperate mission losing his way and returning home to reunite with family, a trope that has been around for thousands of years. Or take one of the recent Star Trek movies in which a vil•lain from the future creates black holes to destroy planets—just an ordinary tale of revenge in a new setting.
Anything can be done to a black hole and since the late ’60s when the term was first coined by science, it has been so. If no one knows what is inside a black hole, then fill it with worlds. Fiction continued to appropriate every new addition to the science—miniature black holes, singularities, event horizons. Minds less sophisti•cated than Nolan would make cruder stories but who is to say it is any less authentic because nothing as we know it operate inside it. Everything becomes as real or unreal.