Who knew that nothing could be so fascinating?
OK, technically a black hole is something. A rather large something, at that. But the image in my mind has always been a bit like the Nothing in The Neverending Story, an unstoppable void that consumes everything in its path. Inexorable. Powerful.
And apparently, beautiful.
Recently, humanity received its first-ever photo of a black hole – darkness surrounded by a burning ring of fire, as though it had been willed into being by a Johnny Cash fan. Millions stopped for just a minute to literally stare into space, and not just because they were still mourning the demise of their March Madness bracket.
Who knew that it would look like this?
I’m still trying to decide why it’s so fascinating. Granted, I’m a longtime space geek, so I find just about anything in the Great Beyond fascinating. But this has – pardon the phrase – a real pull.
Is it the unexpected beauty of it all, like the colors and designs once captured by the Hubble space telescope?
Is it the sense of perspective, the understanding that amazing and marvelous things are happening beyond our reach and influence, the same sense of momentary awe we get at a solar eclipse?
Is it the labor that went into it, the research and invention and collaboration involved? The final photo was a composite of several photos – parts making up the hole, if you will – and the path there required just as many pieces to fit together.
All of it’s true. All of it’s important. But in my own mind, the most stunning piece of all may be the novelty. We had literally never seen this before. We had theorized black holes, modeled them, knew that they existed and how they worked. But no human eye had ever looked on one.
The mightiest pull in space does not belong to a black hole. It belongs to discovery. One of the most famous science fiction franchises of all time even has the concept embedded in its prologue: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Human curiosity is a restless thing, and we have boldly gone in a lot of directions in exploring our world and its phenomena. So much so that we sometimes to live in the midst of an age of wonder – and yawn. As a species, we’re sometimes on the verge of becoming the teenager that’s seen it all, for whom there’s nothing left to do. “Crossed the continents, explored the genome, created the Dairy Queen Blizzard. Oh, well, guess I’ll watch TV.”
But wonder doesn’t die so easily. It waits, patient and timeless. And a good thing, too. If wonder ever truly ceased to be, that would pretty much be our end as a species – we might still exist, but we wouldn’t truly live.
But it still stubbornly flares to life, light and fire illuminating the darkness. It might originate from something as simple as a tale well told, or as grand as the first glance of a cosmic marvel. But it becomes a reminder that there is still so much to discover, still so much to see. That with a universe to experience, we’ve barely stepped beyond our front stoop.
That’s an exciting potential. It inspires hope that we can be more than who we are, that today’s world may only be the beginning. That the stress of the moment may eventually be consumed by the potential of the moment ahead.
That’s a lot to pull out of a hole.
But sometimes, Nothing really matters.