Event Horizons, pt. I
This is the end of the universe. Itâ€™s also the heart of a galaxy.
This is a picture of M87, a supermassive elliptical galaxy located approximately 53 million miles from our solar system. Actually, to be more accurate, this is a picture of the galactic core of M87. This is the nucleus of the entire galaxy, the center point around which everything else revolves.
M87 (or Messier 87, for Charles Messier, the 18th Century French astronomer who first observed this â€œnebulaâ€) is a truly gargantuan beast. Some 240,000 light years in diameter, the galaxyâ€™s total mass may outstrip that of the Milky Way–by over 200 times! Anything that mindbogglingly-big needs something equally as mindbogglingly-big around which to orbit. And thatâ€™s really what this is a picture of.
A reddish-orange circle defines a spherical chasm of light. Thatâ€™s the true subject of this photograph: a black hole. The end of the universe.
Inside the black holeâ€¦ well, weâ€™re not really sure what happens inside a black hole. The laws of physics themselves bend and fray the closer you get to a black hole, and beyond a certain point even those laws must surrender to chaos. Past that brightly-colored circle, there is no escape. Any mass, even something as minuscule as light, will be ripped to shreds and consumed. It truly is the bottomless pit from which even our imaginations recoil. To enter the black hole is to know death more completely than anyone else ever has.
Still, itâ€™s not what fascinates me about this picture.
Iâ€™m fascinated by, and irresistibly drawn to, that bright red-orange circle. Thatâ€™s the inner limit, the minimum safe distance around a black hole where stable orbits can still exist. In fact, thatâ€™s exactly what that circle is: matter racing impossibly quickly in stable orbits around the equator of the black hole.Â
Itâ€™s called an event horizon. Itâ€™s the last safe place in the universe; itâ€™s the very edge of a cataclysm.
I think Iâ€™m obsessed with event horizons. For one, thatâ€™s a cool name. Event horizon. Mostly, though, itâ€™s that juxtaposition that draws me in. Itâ€™s that eternal balancing act between existence as we know it, and utter oblivion. Event horizons are the most precarious, dangerous places in the known universe. They might also be the places where itâ€™s possible to feel the most alive.
But beyond their beauty, and the philosophical musings they are wont to induce within me, theyâ€™re deathtraps. They gather anything and everything in their path, sucking in entire solar systems like bug zappers hoovering up mosquitos. You may feel more alive than ever before as you coast along an event horizon, but it wonâ€™t last long.
I think Iâ€™ve coasted along several event horizons in my life. I think there have been these pivotal moments or life-altering events that Iâ€™ve been sucked into, and hard. And as I try to navigate through those moments–or as I choose to surrender to those events–I fall into the last stable orbit of the event horizon. Itâ€™s like, at various times, Iâ€™ve hovered across the face of unthinking darkness, just sped right across it like the Millenium Falcon at full throttle. I think I really did get closer in those moments to the end of all things.
Not that Iâ€™ve necessarily had a lot of â€œnear deathâ€ experiences. No light-filled hallways to walk down, no mysterious portals beckoning. (Although, I did see a purple cathedral once.) These laps around the event horizons have been existential in nature, though. Theyâ€™ve even been critical experiences, I would say, wherein â€œcriticalâ€ is given to mean, â€œhaving the potential to become disastrous; at a point of crisis.â€ So far, none of them has shifted from â€œcriticalâ€ to â€œterminal,â€ though I would hope that was rather obvious at this juncture. But theyâ€™ve all had that potential. You could say they all had the makings for a one-way trip down the gullet of a black hole.
In posts titled, â€œEvent Horizons, pt. X,â€ I want to write about some of those encounters with my own event horizons. Almost all of these are stories Iâ€™ve told before, to some audience or another, at one time or another, under the influence of one substance or another. Now, though, I want to put them all in one place. I also want to introduce these stories to a new audience (or two). I want to tell you about my event horizons–my orbits around destruction–because theyâ€™ve made me who I am. Like a lucky piece of matter ejected up and out from the event horizon, farther and farther away, safe from the black hole, I know Iâ€™ve been spared from total ruin more than once. Thatâ€™s why I want to tell you about them, I think: because I still can.
So, letâ€™s see how close we can get. Letâ€™s see how low our orbit can go. Letâ€™s see how far into the event horizon we can sail.