See no black hole. Hear no black hole?

“Supermassive black holes in the universe are like a raucous choir singing in the language of X-rays. When black holes pull in surrounding matter, they let out powerful X-ray bursts. This song of X-rays, coming from a chorus of millions of black holes, fills the entire sky — a phenomenon astronomers call the cosmic X-ray background.”

Chorus of Black Holes Sings in X-Rays, Whitney Clavin, Caltech

A view from the bustling center of our galactic metropolis. Spitzer Space Telescope offers us a fresh, infrared view of the frenzied scene at the center of our Milky Way, revealing what lies behind the dust.
An X-ray image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, taken from NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array), is inset in an infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voracious reader would be an overstatement, but I do consume my share of text-heavy NASA press releases and news stories. (Hey, this is “Lit for Space.” I’m all about text-heavy.) The above quote comes from a NASA JPL News story featuring the NuSTAR mission. What does the NuStar mission entail? Here’s a short video.

NuSTAR’s orbiting pair of telescopes make highly sensitive observations of distant phenomena, especially black holes. Given the mysterious nature of these invisible marvels, how does NASA make black holes comprehensible to non-scientists like myself? Ms. Clavin at Caltech chose a choir analogy. Having many cherished choir memories, I relished this choice.

If you ever attempt to read a technical article from an academic journal, you may wind up with a headache. I did. Such writing comes laden with jargon and complex math. It is an arcane style of communication that, however crucial to science, fails miserably to educate the masses. When informing the tax-paying public who funded the research, the value of a well-crafted analogy becomes apparent.

Scientists Debate on StarTalk Radio

A recent podcast from StarTalk Radio visited the topic of sound analogies. Everybody’s “personal astrophysicist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, took a contrarian position. He did so in reference to gravitational waves, not to be confused with NuSTAR’s choral X-rays. The context was a discussion with scientists involved with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

Last year, LIGO researchers made the first-ever observation of a gravitational wave. In the resulting publicity, scientists and reporters have, um, gravitated toward sound analogies. Dr. Tyson pushed back against using this literary device.

First, Tyson cited the famous movie tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream.” This quote appeared on posters for the sci-fi classic Alien. It also constitutes a scientifically accurate statement. Sound waves cannot propagate in empty space. Tyson asked, “So why this urge to always analogize it to sound? I think that’s misleading the public.”

Tyson’s objection provoked some fun banter, a specialty of StarTalk broadcasts. Dr. Janna Levin pushed back by saying this: “It’s actually stronger than an analogy. Let’s say two black holes collide. … They will literally ripple the shape of space-time.” Dr. Levin went on to explain how this rippling could, if you were close enough, set your eardrums ringing.

When it comes to sound-based analogies, Levin may be a little biased. She recently published a book called Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outerspace. Now, if you’ve made it this far, I’d like to know what you think.

Questions for Comment

What cosmic analogies have science communicators used to teach you? Why did you, or did you not, find them helpful?

Author: Jake Christensen

Jake Christensen is a Michigan-based writer currently exploring his Mormon heritage through poetry. Also a space enthusiast, he has attended NASA Socials at Glenn Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center. In addition to past performances in regional and educational theater, Jake periodically appears in Moth StorySLAMs.

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