I.“He had begun by speaking of mines and metals, of gold and diamonds and all precious elements buried deep in the earth, but now, without my knowing how, he had ranged out into the depths of space, and was telling me of quasars and pulsars, of red giants and brown dwarfs and black holes, of heat death and the Hubble constant, of quarks and quirks and multiple infinities. And of dark matter. The universe, according to him, contains a missing mass we cannot see or feel or measure. There is much, much more of it than there is of anything else, and the visible universe, the one that we know, is sparse and puny in comparison. I thought of it, this vast invisible sea of weightless and transparent stuff, present everywhere, undetected, through which we move, unsuspecting swimmers, and which moves through us, a silent, secret essence.”
John Banville, “Ancient Light”
II.“Ever incomplete, terrestrial, and then again celestial,
you circle around in pursuit of sprightly phantoms,
you force light into the nether world…”
Orphic Hymn to Night
III. “You have no form, even though with the help of Maya, you take on myriads of forms. You have no beginning, though you are the beginning of all. It is you who creates, upholds and dissolves the worlds.”
Mahanirvana Tantra (quoted from “Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy” by Wolf-Dieter, Ph.D. Storl)
Having listened to a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time dedicated to black holes, I was particularly struck by one observation made during the show. The remark was a definition of singularity, which lies at the centre of a black hole – “a place where gravity becomes infinite and where physics transcends what we now understand.” Anything that enters a black hole, having crossed the so-called event horizon, enters the sphere of mystery: it is no longer observable, while all communication with it is lost. A hypothetical body sucked into the black hole by way of its irresistible gravitational pull would be cruelly ripped apart. It is dense mass and gravity that overwhelms all other forces, including light, and also obliterating the power of time. Anything that falls into the black hole will release infinite amount of energy, emitting blinding brightness of quasars or exploding stars. Although no energy comes from the black hole itself, objects interacting with it are energized to a tremendous extent.
A fascinating issue divides physicists: what happens with the information that gets sucked into a black hole? Some believe it is just lost, though this goes against the scientific axiom of quantum mechanics that it should be conserved. Stephen Hawking upholds that the information must survive:
“’I propose that the information is stored not in the interior of the black hole as one might expect, but on its boundary, the event horizon,’ Hawking said at a conference back in August 2015. ‘The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly come out in another universe.’
The idea is that when charged particles get sucked into a black hole, their information leaves behind a kind of two-dimensional holographic imprint on the event horizon. This means that while all the physical components of an object would be so totally obliterated by a black hole encounter, its blueprint lives on.”
Leaving an exciting possibility of black holes being portals to other universes aside, another question seems even more pressing: Was the Big Bang and the creation of the universe a result of a black hole seeding the manifest reality? This has been strongly suggested by Stephen Hawking. However, nothing is certain or proven as of yet:
“It could be time to bid the Big Bang bye-bye. Cosmologists have speculated that the Universe formed from the debris ejected when a four-dimensional star collapsed into a black hole — a scenario that would help to explain why the cosmos seems to be so uniform in all directions. The standard Big Bang model tells us that the Universe exploded out of an infinitely dense point, or singularity. But nobody knows what would have triggered this outburst: the known laws of physics cannot tell us what happened at that moment.
‘For all physicists know, dragons could have come flying out of the singularity,’ says Niayesh Afshordi, an astrophysicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.”
Black holes are said to be extremely efficient in converting matter into energy through the process of accretion. The spinning matter forms a brightly shining belt around the event horizon of the black hole. This luminous halo is called a quasar. It is postulated that a supermassive black hole lies at the very centre of our galaxy. Before the twentieth century and the theory of relativity, such an idea was inconceivable. The concept of the existence of black holes has been proven beyond doubt now, but when the idea was first postulated by John Mitchell as early as in 1783, nobody was mentally equipped to grasp it. The long-forgotten concept had to be rediscovered in the last century.
In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe published a non-fiction work called Eureka: A Prose Poem. Some of its part were subsequently interpreted as postulating the existence of black holes, albeit in a purely intuitive, non-scientific fashion. In an essay dedicated to Eureka, David Grantz wrote:
“Poe states that God created matter from His spirit. The matter originally assumed its simplest form, without distinct kind, character, nature, size, or form. This primary particle comprised Oneness, which Poe believed to be the ‘natural’ condition of the universe. … However, for reasons unknown, the primary particle was willed by God into the ‘abnormal condition of Many.’ Because of gravity and according to their proximity, the irradiated atoms coalesced, later becoming suns, galaxies, planets, moons, and other cosmic debris. Finally, differentiation of particles by size, kind, form, character, and nature became possible, awaiting only the dualistic mind required to perceive the differentiations. Today’s astro-physicists speak more specifically in their discussion of particles than did Poe, who merely speaks of atoms; but the process of the irradiating universe is the same.
Very important is Poe’s idea that the normal condition of the universe can be achieved only in the unity of the primary particle. As a result, all matter longs to return to that which gave it birth. The force which compels all matter to return to simpler forms is gravity. Because of gravity, all atoms lump together in the most comfortable posture possible until the particle proper is completely reassembled.
Even before the primary particle becomes completely reassembled, aggregations of ‘various unique masses’ (Harrison 210) are possible, each mass assuming the characteristics of the original One. Today scientists call these particles black holes. They constitute energy and matter in their undifferentiated form, possessing gravity so great that not even light can escape from them.
Poe believed that the multitude of stars, having spiraled from their source, were bound to return to the Unity from which they were spun.”
I read on black holes with fascination, and if you are anything like me, you will agree that they are incredibly poetic. Echoing the Heart Sutra, to understand black holes is to understand that “emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form” (translated by E. Conze). I can imagine the mysterious singularity, simultaneously acting and non-acting, as the Heart of Perfect Wisdom. The sphinxlike qualities of black holes fascinate and elude full understanding. They seem to be associated with stillness, yet the objects pulled by them are locked in an ecstatic dance, swirling around the invisible dark centre.