For my own sanity, and for the simple fact that so much of the science and math of astronomy are a bit beyond my ability to fully understand and digest, I try to keep this column very straightforward. After all, our own solar system gives plenty to write about, along with the countless number of stars and oddities that comprise our galaxy. However, my desire to find a way to cope with the present madness of COVID-19, social unrest, climate change and economic distress, has pushed me beyond my normal boundaries. Call it luck or maybe serendipity, but just recently an article appeared on my phone, via CNN, about scientists discovering the oldest quasar and its parent black hole. That’s what I wanted: to be led as far away as possible from current events. So, all credit and thanks to the author, Ashley Strickland, for the piece that was posted on January 14, 2021. Even more, thanks to the two University of Arizona astronomers who co-authored the study based on their research. Go CATS!
“Quasar” stems from the combination of quasi and stellar, a star-like object. Supermassive black holes appear to serve as the driving forces behind the creation of these incredibly luminous regions located at the heart of galaxies. As gasses near the black hole begin to collapse into it, a vast amount of energy, of electromagnetic radiation — light — is released.
The quasar just discovered, according to the article, is not just incredibly bright, but its black hole is more massive than one billion suns. It is effectively pulling in and devouring the equivalent of 20 suns every year.
But what really makes this quasar different from all others is that the light emanating from it took 13 billion years to reach us. Feel free to do the math: light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Nothing similar has ever been found.
Now, though, let’s return to luminosity. This measure goes beyond brightness. Two identical flashlights set at different distances can appear brighter or fainter to an observer. To correct for this, luminosity measures the actual amount of energy an object emits. In the case of our quasar, it is estimated to be 10 trillion times more luminous than the sun.
The discovery has led to new questions about black hole formation. It’s amazing, isn’t it? We can see it, calculate its age and its energy output. But, at least for now, we can only guess how it formed.
So, why is this at all important when so much horror, hate and fear surround us? I marvel at the technology, at the human genius and determination that has made such measurements possible. I marvel at the infinite possibilities found in the universe. How is it that we can find so much to argue about when so there is so much yet to learn?
Long before there was even a single celled organism on our planet, well before our planet was formed, and billions of years before our own sun exploded into existence, a black hole was consuming the stars, dust and gas that created the quasar whose light has been on the move for 13 billion years. But here, now, we find reasons to fight over just about everything.
I guess we do it to feel important, to feel in control. I’d rather we all found self-importance in our ability to realize just how incredible it is that each of us has the ability to begin to grasp that light, time – let’s call it life itself – has been on the move for 13 billion years. Really, what the hell are we fighting about?