ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Scientists have taken the first photo of something invisible - a black hole. For decades, black holes have captured people's imaginations.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There is an inexorable force in the cosmos where time and space converge.
SHAPIRO: That's the trailer for the 1979 movie "The Black Hole." Well, today researchers unveiled what a black hole really looks like. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce was there.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The press briefing in Washington, D.C., was packed.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, in the interest of making sure the fire marshal does not have any issues, I need a clear lane for...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Two kinds of people were milling around - folks who were dying to see the black hole photo and scientists who weren't allowed to show them yet. Feryal Ozel was one of the latter. She's an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona.
FERYAL OZEL: I have seen these images. I've worked a lot on these images and the interpretations.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ozel says a black hole is like a cosmic vacuum with such strong gravity that it sucks up everything.
OZEL: We have no other object quite like a black hole. It just distorts the space-time around it, and in the interior, it distorts it so much that even light is trapped. So it is the absence of light that we're looking for.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: People sat down, and speakers took the stage, including Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard, who led this effort. It involved about 200 people in 20 countries. In 2017, they used eight radio telescopes around the world to peer at the center of a galaxy around 50 million light years away, a place where a black hole is thought to be lurking.
SHEPERD DOELEMAN: We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And then what looks like a blurry ring of fire appeared on a screen above him.
DOELEMAN: Here it is.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some high school students were in the audience. I asked Ana Humphrey (ph) how she'd describe this photo.
ANA HUMPHREY: There's definitely, like, a dark shadow - a circular shadow in the center of the image. And then around the black hole, there's this sort of orangey halo.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The halo being bright gasses swirling towards oblivion. Her schoolmate Gregory Durkin (ph) was glad to see something that matched the predictions of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.
GREGORY DURKIN: So I was not surprised, but it was a great, great pleasure and privilege to see a black hole and live in the generation that can see it first.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists plan to use more telescopes to get better close-ups of this black hole and others like it. Sera Markoff is an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam.
SERA MARKOFF: It's just the beginning, you know? You can think of it as a picture, but it's also one of the most profound things humanity has ever seen.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says to her, it's like looking into the pit of nothingness, one of the most fundamental mysteries of the universe. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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