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Black hole’s shadow boosts the case for relativity

The first-ever picture of a black hole is the gift that keeps on giving — in the form of new insights into the dynamics behind the mysterious phenomenon and new evidence that Albert Einstein was right.

The validity of Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been proven time and time again over the course of the past century. But physicists keep coming up with new ideas for tweaking the theory’s equations in unorthodox ways.

To figure out how much leeway there could be for variations on Einstein’s theme, researchers took a closer look at the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87.

M87’s black hole, which lies about 55 million light-years from Earth, was featured in a history-making close-up last year, produced by a radio astronomy collaboration known as the Event Horizon Telescope. The achievement is likely to win the EHT collaboration a Nobel Prize as soon as next week.

The team behind the relativity-checking research, published this week in Physical Review Letters, measured the size of the black hole’s shadow — that is, the dark central region from which light rays can’t escape, due to the gravitational pull of a singularity that’s 6.5 billion times as massive as our sun.

The predicted size of the shadow could vary, depending on which theory of gravity you go with. But in M87’s case, the size matched up precisely with Einstein’s theory.

“Using the gauge we developed, we showed that the measured size of the black hole shadow in M87 tightens the wiggle room for modifications to Einstein’s theory of general relativity by almost a factor of 500, compared to previous tests in the solar system,” the University of Arizona’s Feryal Özel, a senior member of the EHT collaboration, said in a news release.

“Many ways to modify general relativity fail at this new and tighter black hole shadow test,” Özel said.

The Event Horizon Telescope’s findings add to a bonanza of black hole data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, and Europe’s VIRGO detector.

“Together with gravitational-wave observations, this marks the beginning of a new era in black hole astrophysics,” said lead study author Dimitrios Psaltis, a University of Arizona astronomer who recently finished his stint as the EHT collaboration’s project scientist.

And the EHT isn’t stopping with last year’s image. Just last month, the collaboration unveiled a “movie” that shows a wobbling pattern of emissions from the surroundings of M87’s black hole. The analysis of black hole dynamics over time, published in The Astrophysical Journal, was created by feeding more than a decade’s worth of observations into a computer model.

Eight observatories around the world contributed to the initial round of observations for the Event Horizon Telescope project. For the EHT’s next campaign in 2021, there’ll be three more observatories on the case, in Arizona, Greenland and France.

The added capacity should result in higher-fidelity images — not only of M87’s black hole, but also of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Up-close views of black holes could well shine a light on another prediction made by general relativity, known as the no-hair theorem. This theorem states that the characteristics of black holes are completely determined by their mass, spin and electrical charge.

If the theorem is correct, all black holes with the same values for those three attributes would be identical to each other. Any other distinguishing characteristics for black holes and their history — their “hair,” metaphorically speaking — would disappear forever inside the black hole’s event horizon.

In a theoretical paper that was published months after the death of British physicist Stephen Hawking, he and three co-authors argued that black holes might be surrounded by a distinctive kind of “soft hair” that’s left behind as they evolve. This would have deep implications for general relativity, and for a long-running, almost metaphysical debate over what happens when something falls into a black hole.

Was Einstein right, or was Hawking? Thanks to gravitational-wave detectors and the Event Horizon Telescope, we could well find out.

Flash interactive: Putting Einstein to the test

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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