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Delighted by the black holes? We are too

The first image of a black hole dazzled people around the world when it was presented in April 2019, the result of a scientific feat in which scientists and observatories from around the world participated.

We now have a new snapshot of the elusive beast in the center of the galaxy M87, and it is as attractive as the first. This new image reveals magnetic fields that revolve around the accretion disk of the black hole, the superhero gas that surrounds the center of the black hole. These magnetic fields are believed to play a key role in black hole behavior, as staff writer Maria Temming reports in this issue.

Here at Science News, we look for black holes: we’ve been covering them extensively since we used the term in the journal in 1964, when its existence was still a big question mark. Decades of work by scientists have revealed not only that black holes are real, but that they are at the center of most galaxies and influence star formation. And although they are huge, strange, and very distant, they seem to reflect the human experience. “They are an ideal metaphor for any unknowable space, any deep abyss, any effort that consumes all our efforts while giving little in return,” Elizabeth Quill, editor of Science News special projects, wrote in our ongoing story series which marks our 100th anniversary (SN: 13/02/21, p. 16). Oh, but they give so much.

“Black holes were key to getting me interested in science,” Temming says, and she’s not alone in that. “If you talk to a lot of science writers or a lot of astronomers, black holes are one of those shared experiences – they’re so mysterious and mind-boggling that you can’t stop sucking,” he says. Temming became interested in astronomy in high school, when she was captivated by a galaxy poster in her physics classroom. Her teacher, Mrs. Girkin, took the poster off the wall and gave it to Temming; he hangs everywhere he lives. Along the way, he also earned college degrees in physics and English, then a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

Temming was part of our team’s coverage of the April 10, 2019 announcement of the first image of a black hole. He attended the press conference in Washington, D.C., and presented notes and quotes to our editors through Slack so we could post the image within minutes of the big revelation. Temming followed with a story explaining how astronomers captured the image by combining observations from seven stations around the world, known as the event horizon telescope network (SN: 27/04/19, p. 7). His explanations of this extremely complex and accurate process, which involved so many terabytes of data that had to be sent from various observatories around the world by post, are compelling and clear.

“Covering the image of the black hole of 2019 felt like a great culmination of many, many decades of science,” says Temming, going back to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. "I feel very fortunate to enter the scene as a science writer right when this was starting to happen." She is delighted to cover this new era of astrophysics and we are glad she is on pace.

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