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

Beyond The Shadow of A…?

“Alright, Vinnie, what’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what, Sy?”

“You wouldn’t have hauled that kid’s toy into Al’s shop here just to play spitballs with it. You’re building up to something and what is it?”

“My black hole hobby, Sy. The things’re just a few miles wide but pack more mass than the Sun. A couple of my magazines say they give off jets top and bottom because of how they spin. That just don’t fit. The stuff ought to come straight out to the sides like the paper wads did.”

“Well, umm… Ah. You know the planet Saturn.”

“Sure.”

“Are its rings part of the planet?”

“No, of course not, they go around it. I even seen an article about how the rings probably came from a couple of collided moons and how water from the Enceladus moon may be part of the outside ring. Only thing Saturn does for the rings is supply gravity to keep ’em there.”

“But our eyes see planet and rings together as a single dot of light in the sky. As far as the rest of the Solar System cares, Saturn consists of that big cloudy ball of hydrogen and the rings and all 82 of its moons, so far. Once you get a few light-seconds away, the whole collection acts as a simple point-source of gravitational attraction.”

“I see where you’re going. You’re gonna say a black hole’s more than just its event horizon and whatever it’s hiding inside there.”

“Yup. That ‘few miles wide’ — I could make a case that you’re off by trillions. A black hole’s a complicated beast when we look at it close up.”

“How can you look at a thing like that close up?”

“Math, mostly, but the observations are getting better. Have you seen the Event Horizon Telescope’s orange ring picture?”

“You mean the one that Al messed with and posted for Hallowe’en? It’s over there behind his cash register. What’s it about, anyway?”

“It’s an image of M87*, the super-massive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. Not the event horizon itself, of course, that’s black. The orange portion actually represents millimeter-radio waves that escape from the accretion disk circling the event horizon. The innermost part of the disk is rotating around the hole at near-lightspeed. The arc at the bottom is brighter because that’s the part coming toward us. The photons get a little extra boost from Special Relativity.”

Frames again?”

“With black holes it’s always frames. You’ll love this. From the shell’s perspective, it spits out the same number of photons per second in every direction. From our perspective, time is stretched on the side rotating away from us so there’s fewer photons per one of our seconds and it’s dimmer. In the same amount of our time the side coming toward us emits more photons so it’s brighter. Neat demonstration, eh?”

“Cute. So the inner black part’s the hole ’cause it can’t give off light, right?”

“Not quite. That’s a shadow. Not a shadow of the event horizon itself, mind you, but of the photon sphere. That’s a shell about 1½ times the width of the event horizon. Any photon that passes exactly tangent to the sphere is doomed to orbit there forever. If the photon’s path is the slightest bit inward from that, the poor particle heads inward towards whatever’s in the center. The remaining photons travel paths that look bent to a distant observer, but the point is that they keep going and eventually someone like us could see them.”

“The shadow and the accretion disk, that’s what the EHT saw?”

“Not exactly.”

“There’s more?”

“Yeah. M87* is a spinning black hole, which is more complicated than one that’s sitting still. Wrapped around the photon sphere there’s an ergosphere, as much as three times wider than the event horizon except it’s pumpkin-shaped. The ergosphere’s widest at the rotational equator, but it closes in to meet the event horizon at the two poles. Anything bigger than a photon that crosses its boundary is condemned to join the spin parade, forever rotating in sync with the object’s spin.”

“When are you gonna get to the jets, Sy?”

~~ Rich Olcott