An Introduction to the Black Hole Institute
By Grace Lindsay | NAUTILUS
Fittingly, the Black Hole Initiative (BHI) was founded 100 years after Karl Schwarzschild solved Einstein’s equations for general relativity—a solution that described a black hole decades before the first astronomical evidence that they exist. As exotic structures of spacetime, black holes continue to fascinate astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and the general public, following on a century of research into their mysterious nature.
The mission of the BHI is interdisciplinary and, to that end, we sponsor many events that create the environment to support interaction between researchers of different disciplines. Philosophers speak with mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers, theorists speak with observers and a series of scheduled events create the venue for people to regularly come together.
As an example, for a problem we care about, consider the singularities at the centers of black holes, which mark the breakdown of Einstein’s theory of gravity. What would a singularity look like in the quantum mechanical context? Most likely, it would appear as an extreme concentration of a huge mass (more than a few solar masses for astrophysical black holes) within a tiny volume. The size of the reservoir that drains all matter that fell into an astrophysical black hole is unknown and constitutes one of the unsolved problems on which BHI scholars work.
We are delighted to present a collection of essays which were carefully selected by our senior faculty out of many applications to the first essay competition of the BHI. The winning essays will be published here on Nautilus over the next five weeks, beginning with the fifth-place finisher and working up to the first-place finisher. We hope that you will enjoy them as much as we did.
—Abraham (Avi) Loeb
Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science, Harvard University
Chair, Harvard Astronomy Department
Founding Director, Black Hole Initiative (BHI)
Black holes are the most extreme objects in the universe. Pitch black, with masses as much as a billion times that of our sun and with the strength to anchor whole galaxies, such extreme objects call for equally extreme methods to study them. Indeed, scientists go to great lengths to pick up whatever signals they can from these invisible beasts: telescopes launched into space to detect X-rays that are emitted from black holes but can’t pass through our atmosphere; kilometers-wide neutrino detectors placed on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, catching elementary particles coming from the black hole births; and over $600 million spent building the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which offers the first opportunity to observe black hole activity directly.