It’s a long way from Albert Einstein’s notebooks to the center of the Messier 87 galaxy — nearly 54 million light years. But the now-famous image of a black hole dramatically demonstrated the reach of human imagination: in this case, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which predicted the phenomenon a century ago.
What’s also significant about the image is that it’s an actual picture — not an artist’s rendering or simulation, but a direct photograph, taken by eight radio telescopes around the world, working in sync to collect some 5 petabytes of data.
Two of those telescopes, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array, sit atop Mauna Kea.
“We were pretty sure black holes were out there,” said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the Maxwell scope. “But pretty sure isn’t the same as certain. Now we’re certain.”
The black hole fittingly bears a Hawaiian name: Powehi, or “embellished dark source of unending creation.” The name and the image reinforce the importance of Hawaii’s telescopes in cutting-edge astronomy, and the possibilities for future discoveries from new facilities like the Thirty Meter Telescope, planned for Mauna Kea. And the excitement generated by this discovery reminds us that the thirst for knowledge is a thread that joins humanity past and present; after all, long before Einstein was born, Native Hawaiians studied the heavens with similar scientific rigor, seeking to understand the seeming chaos of a starry night.