Astronomers and physicists are over the moon with excitement over what is being hailed as one of the biggest eureka moments in the history of science.
An all-star team of astrophysicists announced last week that they have finally detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted a century ago. It was heralded as a hallelujah discovery. At last there is physical proof of Einstein’s theoretical prediction.
All the excitement and media frenzy about the scientific breakthrough glossed over the source of the gravitational waves, the cataclysmic collision of two massive black holes in deep outer space. To a layman, that seems to be really serious stuff. Donald Trump might have said it was a YUGE cosmic event that sent gravitational shockwaves ripping out through the universe.
In a part of space that’s nowhere near our Earth, two giant black holes collided with one another. The scale of the collision is pretty hard to imagine. One of the black holes was around 29 times the mass of our sun, the other 36 times. Those colliding black holes released the same amount of energy as would 8.5 billion trillion trillion Hiroshima nuclear bombs‼ Now, that was a really, really big bang!
That intergalactic train wreck would seem to be cause for a serious national security alarm. But, fortunately, the black hole collision occurred 1.3 billion light years away and as such presents no threat at all to our civilization. It’s really old… very old news.
Scientists say the next step is detecting bigger and even more dramatic black hole collisions. This collision of black holes was a big one indeed, but there are others that will dwarf it in size. One astronomer put the search succinctly, “Twenty times the mass of our sun is pretty big, but we know that black holes can become millions or even billions times bigger than our sun. They just keep gobbling up matter.”
For example, astronomers have reported that two giant black holes have been discovered at the center of a distant galaxy, called NGC 6240, born from the joining of two smaller galaxies, and are drifting toward a cataclysmic collision that will shake our universe to its core.
Where are those Star Trek heroes when we need them? Any Trekkie knows you need Warp Speed to escape the death grip of a black hole. Forget the perils of nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and the threat posed by ISIS — the very existence of civilization is in dire jeopardy. Talk about a dire national security emergency!
Chicken Little would really squawk about this one — “the sky really is falling.” But, scientists have reassured Chicken Little and the rest of us that this truly “universal” catastrophe won’t occur for hundreds of millions of years.
So, relax. The Obama administration’s national security team can stand down, and the Homeland Security Threat Advisory can be reduced to the “Elevated” level in light of the continuing ISIS terrorist threat (pretty mild stuff compared with the ominous peril of a hungry black hole devouring our entire solar system in a single bite).
The terror of these black holes colliding some 400 million light-years away is by no means immediate. In fact, our own Sun, which is by contrast only a small fraction of one percent of one light-year distant (93 million miles), is expected to explode in a nova extravaganza in three billion years, and perhaps then collapse to form a small black hole of its own, dragging the Earth and our solar system into a gigantic super massive planetary graveyard.
And, by then, who knows what the fate of our own species might be. It’s called sustainability. Can we really survive our own shortsightedness and stupidity? Will we have blown ourselves from the face of this planet with a nuclear holocaust? Or will we have simply choked ourselves to death in the toxins and greenhouse gasses that already signal our impending doom?
Will we continue to tinker with genetically modified foods and to tamper with the genetic sequences of our species until we are no longer recognizable as Earthlings? Or, will we become super-humans who, through the meteoric advance of science and technology, learn not only to save the planet from our own stupidity, but also to harness galactic powers to reverse the devastating effect of black holes? Who knows?
But, hold on. In another study, a team of French and Argentine astronomers report a more immediate concern — the detection of a stellar black hole streaking at 250,000 miles per hour across the Milky Way, our own galactic home. They say a companion star is being dragged along with the black hole and is slowly being devoured by it. Darwinism on a universal scale.
This black hole express train, which is a mere 6,000 to 9,000 light years from Earth, might have been created by an exploding star in the inner dish of our Milky Way. The good news is that it’s around 8.4 billion miles from here; the troublesome news is that’s a small fraction of the 400 million light years (3,360 trillion miles) distance those other black holes are from Earth.
Alas, our immediate future will be prelude. Scientists say that the merging of two similar-size galaxies into NGC 6240 resulting in the creation of the two ominous black holes, is a prelude to the future of our own Milky Way. They say that in about 4 billion years our Milky Way and the beautiful nearby Andromeda galaxy will collide and merge, fusing their black holes into one giant Darth Vader-style destruction force. But, relax, no problem. That’ll be a full billion years after we are snuffed out when our Sun implodes.
These are the cycles of life and death on a universal scale. Stars growing and expanding to supernova scale, then collapsing in the grand implosive style to become voracious black holes, sucking everything in galactic range into the depths of super massive death, devouring even the twinkles of light from dying stars. Birth, growth, development, expansion, old age and death. Never with a whimper. Always with a cataclysmic bang, trailing streams of stellar galactic glory.
These are the milestone points on a universal time-line, measured in millions of light years, billions of years. These impending cataclysmic galactic events make the seemingly urgent Iranian nuclear ambition and North Korea’s increasingly bellicose stance about its own nukes seem like a speck on the ocean.
The urgent crises of our daily lives shrink in significance when measured in inter-galactic terms. On a starry night, we stare in wonder at the expanses of our universe overhead and worry not about colliding black holes and super cataclysmic death.
After all, our Sun will burn out in 3 billion years as gravitational waves continue to crash through our solar system.
And, God only knows what we’ll do to ourselves in the interim.