On 17 July the Musiaon hosted a public lecture by astrophysicist, Professor Roger Deane, who was one of the key-players involved in the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project that was responsible for providing the first ever image of a black hole located in the center of Messier 87, one of the largest galaxies in the universe. The program began with an introduction by Professor Jean Lubuma, who elaborated on Prof. Deane’s illustrious career. Prof. Lubuma highlighted that “Math is the language of science”, stressing the fact that science allows mere equations to be transformed into ground breaking discoveries such as the black hole imaged by the EHT team.
Prof. Deane’s presentation began with a detailed description of the black hole phenomena, followed by explanations of how the Earth telescope worked. Eight telescopes interspersed in different geographical locations mimicked the power of an earth sized telescope. In exploring the many layers of tedious procedures, Prof. Deane explained that the dilemma that arose in imaging the black hole stemmed from the fact that the black hole itself did not emit any light. Prof. Deane explained that by using the accretion disk, which are the jets of light around the black hole, they were able to obtain the silhouette of the Event Horizon. The challenging part of imaging the super massive black hole was that scientists of the EHT team were at the mercy of weather conditions. Ideal, clear skies were sought after at each of the eight geographical locations for a period of five days. However, Prof. Deane argues that “to image an extreme of physics, one must go to the extremes of the earth”.
“Math is the language of science”
The procedure used by the EHT team to obtain the image is called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Prof. Deane summarised the EHT as,“like a broken mirror stitched together by software”. The data collected by the EHT took half a ton of hard drives to store. Scientists analyzed this large volume of data, sifting through the necessary pieces to construct the image of what we now know as the black hole. Despite successfully obtaining an image out of the EHT, Prof. Deane urges that “transferring the telescopes into space will be a real game changer as the telescopes will be able to stich pixels together much faster than the EHT”. This opens up a myriad of opportunities in the astronomy discipline, allowing scientists to further their understanding of the universe in a shorter span of time. Despite the complex nature of a discipline such as astrophysics, Prof. Deane drastically simplified the infinite algorithms behind the mammoth process, into simplistic analogies that allowed the public to comprehend and participate in the lecture. One of the most notable moments in Prof. Deane’s lecture arose when he unveiled a simulation that journeyed into the centre of a milky way, demonstrating just how small the black hole is relative to us on Earth.
“to image an extreme of physics, one must go to the extremes of the earth”
The simulation ended with the appearance of the iconic picture of the black hole, which drew gasps of awe from the crowd. Furthermore, Prof. Deane ended his informative lecture by highlighting the role Africa had to play in the aftermath of the black hole imaging. He unveiled the pioneering venture to install millimeter telescopes in Africa. The first of these has been proposed to be installed on Gamsberg Mountain, Namibia, a location deemed as paradise for many astronomers. The name given to the project is Africa Millimeter Telescope (AMT) and it will be the first of its kind on the African Continent. This venture is to continue with other geographical locations in Africa, with South Africa being a possibility in the list of potential geographical locations for the AMT project.
Although the image of the black hole has reached acclaim in the scientific community, the Event Horizon team is to repeat the same procedures annually to obtain other images of the event horizon to validate their findings. Prof. Deane believes that the next step for the team is to image the black hole at the center of our own milky way. However, Prof. Deane warns that “there is still much work to be done” and the image “will definitely not be out this year”.
“like a broken mirror stitched together by software”
In imaging the back Hole, Prof. Deane believes that we have just opened the Pandora’s Box of astronomy. A concept that was almost discarded into oblivion by the global scientific community in the past now resides in the form of an image viewed by 4.5 billion individuals.
Prof. Deane’s immense contribution to the EHT project and his expertise garnered in the process, equips UP with the necessary skills to increase the number of students who enroll for the astronomy discipline. Prof. Deane’s pioneering efforts coupled with the potentiality of Africa being an astronomical hub, will aid in kick starting the program that aims to deploy highly qualified professionals out of UP and into the forefront of astronomical discovery.