Scientists At Dutch University Make Breakthrough Black Hole Discovery | Top Universities

Scientists At Dutch University Make Breakthrough Black Hole Discovery

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Stephanie Lukins

Updated Dec 14, 2020



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If you’re interested in researching or studying a discipline that enhances our understanding of the universe, there are arguably few areas of astrophysics more captivating than black holes.

Before 2019, the world had only ever ‘seen’ black holes as theoretical computer-aided software images.

That was the case until the Event Horizon Telescope Project, where Professor Heino Falcke – an award-winning professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud University in the Netherlands – played a leading role in capturing the first real image of a black hole lurking at the heart of a giant galaxy.

To scientists and researchers, it is considered to be one of the most important images in space history as it literally captures the ultimate limits of space and time.

Want to know more about the groundbreaking research happening in this area? We spoke to Professor Falcke to find out about the research scientists and students are carrying out, and what it means for the future of physics and astronomy.  

‘It was a wild dream 20 years ago’

Black holes are considered to be as terrifying as they are fascinating – and it’s human nature to want to know more about them.

It was more than 25 years ago during his PhD studies when Falcke had his suspicions that it was indeed possible to actually see and take a photograph of a black hole – despite an overwhelming lack of support at the time.

In 2013, Falcke secured significant funding from the European Research Council to help kickstart the Event Horizon Telescope Project. A project which would soon go on to become perhaps one of the most spectacular global astronomy projects of its kind.

Exciting projects like this are just one of the many benefits of studying at a research-focused university like Radboud University. 

“The students played at world level on a world stage. That’s what I’m particularly proud of,” he said. “It was competitive because some of the best scientists were working on the project, and so you really had to excel, and the students rose above expectations.”

‘Exhausting, exhilarating and in all respects – memorable’

The black hole, formally known as M87*, was photographed in a worldwide effort by a network of eight telescopes around the world – two of which are in Chile and two in Hawaii. The others are located at the South Pole, in the US, Spain, and Mexico. This was necessary because no single telescope would have been powerful enough to capture such an image on its own. 

Professor Falcke likened seeing the first ever image of a black hole to exchanging love letters with someone you’ve never met for 20 years, and then all of a sudden you’re meeting each other face-to-face for the first time and coming to the realization that it’s all very real.

“It did look pretty much like what we had predicted and calculated. But to really see it, looking into the face of the monster, is a completely different feeling,” said Falcke.

“But then the uncertainty starts whether that realization holds. You face reality, how does it compare to your dreams? This was a nerve-wracking process to actually reassure ourselves that what we were seeing was right,” he added.

It took Professor Falcke and the entire team two years to reach this landmark moment in astrophysics history.

“It takes a year to recover all the data, and then it took another year to scrutinize the data to make sure we were not fooling ourselves, so these were really two amazing years.

“Exhausting, exhilarating and in all respects, memorable,” he concluded.

‘Understanding astrophysics is a human enterprise based on fascination and curiosity’

Not long after unveiling the image of the black hole, the Event Horizon Telescope team was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics 2020. To make such extraordinary breakthroughs such as this demonstrates the significance and importance of astrophysics.

“Astronomy gives us this big picture. It tells us our place in the universe. And you need all of the different types of physics to describe and understand the universe. From particle physics to chemistry, and nowadays even biology,” said Falcke.

“It is very interdisciplinary and there are so many things you learn from it. You’re learning to work with big numbers and big concept and big ideas.

“From radio digital technology, to optical technology, x- rays, gamma rays, you name it, there’s hardly any technology that you’re not needing. It is so interdisciplinary, and you learn to think big and you find your way of uncovering the unknown.

“It really is a human enterprise that’s based on fascination and curiosity.”

‘You can choose your own direction’

When it comes to studying a field as varied as astrophysics, the possibility of specializations is almost endless. At Radboud University, students can opt to specialize in theoretical astronomy, observational astronomy and experimental astronomy – anything goes and “you can choose your own direction as you’re getting all the fundamental sciences at once,” said Falcke.

With access to the likes of the Radboud Radio Lab, which is where various instrumentation projects are developed, observing with the Event Horizon Telescope, and using supercomputers to emulate the nature of black holes – students will have the benefit of a well-rounded education which confronts the fundamentals of physics.

‘The future of astrophysics and black hole research will lay with space missions’

Looking ahead to the future of astrophysics research, the sheer complexity of the Event Horizon Telescope is a great example of what it means to have a respect for machines that operate at the very limit of human engineering and intelligence.

“I think the future will probably lay with space missions which a lot of the master’s students will be involved in as some are happening on a timescale of 10-15 years and even 20 years. So when they’ve completed their studies they could be the next leading physicists there – and that will be a major thing,” said Falcke.

Lead image credit: EHT Collaboration


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