Shadow Plays

“A strawberry scone and my usual black, Al.”

“Sure thing, Sy, comin– Hiya, Cathleen, see my new poster? Event Horizon Telescope pictures of the two big‑guy black holes we’ve actually seen so far. Those white-hot blobs buried in those red rings. Ain’t it a beaut? What’ll you have?”

“They’re certainly wonderful graphics, Al. I’ll have a caramel latte, please, with a plain scone.” I’m waiting for it, because Cathleen never passes up a teachable moment. Sure enough — “Of course, neither one actually looks like that or represents what you think. Those images were created from radio waves, not visible light or even infrared. The yellows and whites don’t represent heat, and that darkness in the middle isn’t the black hole.”

“Whoa, don’t harsh Al’s happy, Cathleen. Maybe just go at it a step at a time?”

<sigh> “You’re right, Sy. Sorry, Al, I just get frustrated when press‑agent science gets in the way of the real stuff which is already interesting on its own. For instance, I haven’t seen anything in the pop‑sci press about the EHT people using the same 2017 data to produce both images, even though the two objects are almost 90° apart in the sky. I think about our optical telescopes and the huge high-tech motors it takes to point them in the right direction. These guys just re-work their data and they’re good for another round.”

“It’s a cute trick, alright, Cathleen, steering a distributed telescope with arithmetic.”

“OK, you guys are over my head — distributed telescope?”

“The EHT Collaboration works with eight radio telescopes scattered across the world. The signal from any point in the sky has a different time offset at each telescope depending on the angle to the point. If you know the baseline between each pair of scopes and you’ve got really good clocks keeping track of time at each location, when you combine the data from all eight locations it’s just arithmetic to pick out matching signals at the right set of offsets for any point of origin.”

“A lot of arithmetic, Cathleen.”

“I’ll give you that, Sy. Al, it took the researchers and some hefty compute facilities two years to boil down the data for the M87 monster. In principle, when they wanted to inspect the Milky Way’s beast all they had to do was run through the same data selecting for signal matches at the offsets pointing to Sgr A*. Awesome tech, huh?”

“Awesome, yeah, but if the colors aren’t heat, what are they?”

“Electron density, mostly. Your red‑and‑yellow Jupiter poster over there is like most heat maps. Researchers figure a pixel’s temperature by comparing data from multiple wavelengths with the Planck curve or some other calibrated standard. These images, though, came from a single wavelength, 1.3 millimeters. Light at shorter wavelengths can’t get past the dust, longer wavelengths can’t give us the image resolution. Millimeters waves are in the radio part of the spectrum — too low‑energy to detect moving charge inside atoms or between molecule components. The only thing that can give off those photons is free‑floating electrons. The brightest pixels have the most electrons.”

“So the hole isn’t the black hole?”

“Depends on your definition, I suppose. Everyone visualizes that black sphere, the event horizon, when they think ‘black hole.’ That’s not what the dark patches are. By my definition, though, a ‘black hole‘ is the whole package — central mass, event horizon, ergosphere if it’s spinning, a jet maybe and everything else that’s associated with the mass. It’s as much a collection of processes as a thing. Anyhow, the bright stuff in these images does come from accretion disks.”

“The dark patch is the disk’s inside edge?”

“Nope, it’s the shadow of the photon sphere. Before you ask, that’s a light‑trapping shell 1½ times the horizon’s diameter. Depending on its angle of approach, a photon that touches the sphere either spirals inward, orbits forever, or swerves outward. Going straight doesn’t happen. The shadow memorializes Earth‑bound photons that bounced away from us.”

“I guess my happy’s back, Cathleen, but it’s different.”

“You’re welcome, Al. Now how about the coffee and scones we asked for?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Image: Lia Medeiros, ISA, EHTC

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