Science

We Need to Admit That the Black Hole Photo Isn’t Very Good

I mean, it’s just not that aesthetically pleasing.

The black hole with a thumbs-down emoji in the center.
Not impressed!
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by National Science Foundation and Apple.

It’s like the universe had a royal baby: That’s how excited everyone is for this first glimpse of a black hole, which astronomers announced Wednesday morning in D.C.

The image is based on data from radio telescopes all over the world, so it’s not technically even a picture of a black hole. Black holes are, scientifically speaking, unseeable. So it’s really confusing that everyone’s acting like we have a picture of one. This is actually a composite that shows the shadow of a black hole. This may or may not account for why the black hole looks different from how scientists and Hollywood have previously imagined it: It appears as a blurry circle of fire, not unlike, as Twitter users have pointed out, a bright orange doughnut. Also a hoop earring, the letter O made of neon, a SpaghettiO, the bagel emoji, etc. I mean, it’s a circle—it could be anything!

Because of the importance of this achievement—by all accounts, it’s a major breakthrough—the image of the black hole will be practically inescapable in the news and on social media certainly today, and perhaps for the rest of this week.

This is disappointing, though, because … it’s really not a very good picture? In addition to not being “real,” it’s so blurry. Haven’t these scientists ever heard of filters, or enhancing? You don’t have to post that first blurry picture, remember!

And yet the blurriness hasn’t stopped writers from waxing poetic about the image, like the New York Times comparing the black hole to the “Eye of Sauron”—which is a Lord of the Rings thing, I Googled it—and calling it “a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature.” If you say so!

There’s also no sense of scale—the black hole is reportedly 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun.* But looking at the image, you’d really have no idea, making it more of an unimpressive blur. That blur? Pssh, I’ve seen better. Couldn’t another planet have stood in, like a coin or a pencil, to show scale?

I want to join the scientists in their excitement, but folks, this black hole needs a makeover. Maybe it hasn’t found its angles? Seems at least possible the situation has improved for the black hole since this photo was taken, given that it’s 55 million light-years away. (Given the distance, a visual of its current state hasn’t traveled over yet.)* At any rate, I’m with him:

Science, let us know when you find a more photogenic black hole.

Correction, April 10, 2019: Due to an editing error, this post originally misstated that the black hole is 6.5 million times the size of the sun. It has 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun.

Correction, April 11, 2019: Due to an editing error, the post also originally misstated that the black hole was 55 million light-years old. It is 55 million light-years away.