Continued Controversy on the Ring of Light

For general readers: A week or so ago, I wrote about my skepticism concerning the claim of a “detection” of the photon ring that’s widely expected to lie hidden within the image of a black hole. A nice article in Science News appeared today outlining the current controversy, with some quotes from scientists with differing … Read more

Has the Light From Behind a Black Hole Been Seen? Does the Claim Ring True?

Back in 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) made history as its scientists used it to create an image of a huge black hole — or rather, of the “accretion disk” of material surrounding a black hole — at the center of the galaxy M87. The dark central gap reveals where the disk’s material vanishes from view, as it presumably flows toward and disappears into the black hole.  

EHT’s image of the M87 galaxy’s black hole’s accretion disk, created from radio-wave measurements. [How do we know there’s a black hole there? I left an answer in the comments.]

What the image actually shows is a bit complicated, because there is not only “light” (actually, radio waves, an invisible form of light, which is what EHT measures) from the disk that travels directly to us but also (see the Figure below) light that travels around the back of the black hole.  That light ends up focused into a sharp ring, an indirect image of the accretion disk.  (This is an oversimplication, as there are additional rings, dimmer and close together, from light that goes round the black hole multiple times. But it will be a decade before we can hope to image anything other than the first ring.)

Left: A glowing accretion disk (note it does not touch the black hole). Light from the right side of the disk forms a direct, broad image (orange) heading toward us, and also a focused, narrow, indirect image (green) heading toward us from the left side, having gone round the back of the black hole. (Right) From the entire accretion disk, the direct image forms a broad disk, while the indirect image would be seen, with a perfect telescope, as a narrow circle of bright light: the photon ring. Unfortunately, the EHT blurs this picture to the point that the photon ring and the disk’s direct image cannot be distinguished from one another. [Long and careful explanation given here.]

Regrettably, that striking bright and narrow “photon ring” can’t be seen in the EHT image, because EHT, despite its extraordinary capabilities, doesn’t yet have good enough focus for that purpose.  Instead, the narrow ring is completely blurred out, and drowned in the direct image of the light from the wider but overall brighter accretion disk. (I should note that EHT originally seemed to claim the image did show the photon ring, but backed off after a controversy.) All that can be observed in the EHT image at the top of this post is a broad, uneven disk with a hole in it.

The news this week is that a group within EHT is claiming that they can actually detect the photon ring, using new and fancy statistical techniques developed over a year ago.  This has gotten a lot of press, and if it’s true, it’s quite remarkable. 

However, having looked at the paper, I’m skeptical of this claim, at least so far.  Here’s why.

  1. Normally, if you claim to have detected something for the first time, you make it clear to what extent you’ve ruled out the possibility it actually isn’t there… i.e., if there’s only a 0.01% chance that it’s absent, that’s a strong argument that it’s present. I don’t see this level of clarity in the paper.
  2. Almost everyone is pretty darn sure that in reality the photon ring is actually present. That introduces a potential bias when you search for it; at least unconsciously, you’re not weighing the present vs. absent options equally. For this reason, it’s important to demonstrate that you’ve eliminated that bias. I don’t see that the authors have done this.
  3. Simulations of black hole surroundings and theoretical estimates both suggest that the photon ring should have significantly less overall brightness than the broad accretion disk. However, the ring measured in this paper has the majority of the total light (60%). The authors explain this by saying this is typical of their method: it combines some of the disk light near the photon ring (i.e., background) with the actual photon ring (i.e. signal). But normally one doesn’t claim to have detected a signal until one has measured and effectively subtracted the background. Without doing so, how can we be sure that the ring that the authors claim to have measured isn’t entirely background, or estimate how statistically significant is their claim of detection?

I’ve included more details on the following section, but the bottom line is that I’d like a lot more information before I’d believe the photon ring’s really been detected.

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Could CERN open a portal to… somewhere? (anywhere?)

For general readers:

Is it possible that the particle physicists hard at work near Geneva, Switzerland, at the laboratory known as CERN that hosts the Large Hadron Collider, have opened a doorway or a tunnel, to, say, another dimension? Could they be accessing a far-off planet orbiting two stars in a distant galaxy populated by Jedi knights?  Perhaps they have opened the doors of Europe to a fiery domain full of demons, or worse still, to central Texas in summer?

Mortals and Portals

Well, now.  If we’re talking about a kind of tunnel that human beings and the like could move through, then there’s a big obstacle in the way.  That obstacle is the rigidity of space itself.

The notion of a “wormhole”, a sort of tunnel in space and time that might allow you to travel from one part of the universe to another without taking the most obvious route to get there, or perhaps to places for which there is no other route at all, isn’t itself entirely crazy. It’s allowed by the math of Einstein’s theory of space and time and gravity.  However, the concept comes with immensely daunting conceptual and practical challenges.  At the heart of all of them, there’s a basic and fundamental problem: bending and manipulating space isn’t easy.  

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Black Holes, Mercury, and Einstein: The Role of Dimensional Analysis

In last week’s posts we looked at basic astronomy and Einstein’s famous E=mc2 through the lens of the secret weapon of theoretical physicists, “dimensional analysis”, which imposes a simple consistency check on any known or proposed physics equation.  For instance, E=mc2 (with E being some kind of energy, m some kind of mass, and c the cosmic speed limit [also the speed of light]) passes this consistency condition.

But what about E=mc or E=mc4 or E=m2c3 ? These equations are obviously impossible! Energy has dimensions of mass * length2 / time2. If an equation sets energy equal to something, that something has to have the same dimensions as energy. That rules out m2c3, which has dimensions of mass2 * length3 / time3. In fact it rules out anything other than E = # mc2 (where # represents an ordinary number, which is not necessarily 1). All other relations fail to be consistent.

That’s why physicists were thinking about equations like E = # mc2 even before Einstein was born. 

The same kind of reasoning can teach us (as it did Einstein) about his theory of gravity, “general relativity”, and one of its children, black holes.  But again, Einstein’s era wasn’t first to ask the question.   It goes back to the late 18th century. And why not? It’s just a matter of dimensional analysis.

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Coordinate Independence, Kepler, and Planetary Orbits

Could you, merely by changing coordinates, argue that the Sun gravitationally orbits the Earth?  And could Einstein’s theory of gravity, which works equally well in all coordinate systems, allow you to do that?  

Despite some claims to the contrary — that all Copernicus really did was choose better coordinates than the ancient Greek astronomers — the answer is: No Way. 

How badly does the Sun’s path, nearly circular in Earth-centered (geocentric) coordinates, violate the Earth’s version of Kepler’s law?  (Kepler’s third law is the relation T=R3/2 between the period T of a gravitational orbit and the distance R, which is half the long axis of the ellipse that the orbit forms.)   Since the Moon takes about a month to orbit the Earth, and the Sun is about 400 = 202 times further from Earth than the Moon, the period of the Sun would be 4003/2 = 8000 times longer than the Moon’s, i.e. about 600 years, not 1 year. 

But is this statement coordinate-independent? Can it serve to prove, even in Einstein’s theory, that the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun does not orbit the Earth? Yes, it is, and yes, it does. That’s what I claimed last time, and will argue more carefully today.

Of course the question of “Does X orbit Y?” is already complicated in Newtonian gravity.  There are many situations in which the question could be ambiguous (as when X and Y have almost equal mass), or when they form part of a cluster of large mass made from many objects of small mass (as with stars within a galaxy.)  But this kind of ambiguity is not what’s in question here.  Professor Muller of the University of California Berkeley claimed that what is uncomplicated in Newtonian gravity is ambiguous in Einsteinian gravity.  And we’ll see now that this is false.

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Black Hole Announcement Expected Thursday

In 2019, the first image of the surroundings of a black hole was produced, to great fanfare, by the astronomers at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The black hole in question was the enormous one at the center of the galaxy M87.

The “image” of the surroundings of a black hole in galaxy M87. What does it actually show? It is most likely an image (in radio waves) of an “accretion disk” of material around the black hole, its radio emissions somewhat distorted by the warped geometry around the black hole.

At the time, there was also hope that the EHT would produce an image of the region around the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. That black hole is thousands of times smaller, but also thousands of times closer, than the one in M87, and so appears about the same size on the sky (just as the Moon and Sun appear the same size, despite the Sun being much further away.)

However, the measurements of the Milky Way’s black hole proved somewhat more challenging, precisely because it is smaller. EHT takes about a day to gather the information needed for an image. M87’s black hole is so large that it takes days and weeks for it to change substantially — even light takes many days to cross from one side of the accretion disk to the other — so EHT’s image is like a short-exposure photo and the image of M87 is relatively clear. But the Milky Way’s galaxy’s black hole can change on the times scale of minutes and hours, so EHT is making a long-exposure image, somewhat like taking a 1-second exposure of a tree on a windy day. Things get blurred out, and it can be difficult to determine the true shape of what was captured in the image.

Apparently, the EHT scientists have now met these challenges, at least in part. We will learn new things about our own galaxy’s black hole on Thursday morning; links to the press conferences are here.

In preparation for Thursday, you might find my non-expert’s guide to a black hole “silhouette” useful. This was written just before the 2019 announcement, when we didn’t yet know what EHT’s first image would show. The title is a double-entendre, because I myself wasn’t entirely expert yet when I wrote it. The vast majority of it, however, is correct, so I still recommend it if you want to be prepared for Thursday’s presentation.

The only thing that’s not correct in the guide (and the offending sections are clearly marked as such) are the statements about the “photon ring”. It took me until my third follow-up post, two months later, to get it straight; that post is accurate, but it is long and very detailed. Most readers probably won’t want to go into that much detail, so what I’ll do here is summarize the correct parts of what I wrote in the weeks following the announcement, repeating a few of the figures that I made at the time, and then tell you about a couple of new things that have been learned since then about M87’s black hole. Hopefully you’ll find this both interesting on its own and useful for Thursday.

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A Ring of Controversy Around a Black Hole Photo

[Note Added: Thanks to some great comments I’ve received, I’m continuing to add clarifying remarks to this post.  You’ll find them in green.]

It’s been a couple of months since the `photo’ (a false-color image created to show the intensity of radio waves, not visible light) of the black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, was made public. Before it was shown, I wrote an introductory post explaining what the ‘photo’ is and isn’t. There I cautioned readers that I thought it might be difficult to interpret the image, and controversies about it might erupt.EHTDiscoveryM87

So far, the claim that the image shows the vicinity of M87’s black hole (which I’ll call `M87bh’ for short) has not been challenged, and I’m not expecting it to be. But what and where exactly is the material that is emitting the radio waves and thus creating the glow in the image? And what exactly determines the size of the dark region at the center of the image? These have been problematic issues from the beginning, but discussion is starting to heat up. And it’s important: it has implications for the measurement of the black hole’s mass (which EHT claims is that of 6.5 billion Suns, with an uncertainty of about 15%), and for any attempt to estimate its rotation rate.

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The Black Hole `Photo’: Seeing More Clearly


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