Watch for the full episode, coming soon to Cosmic Journeys. Far out in space, in the center of a seething cosmic maelstrom. Extreme heat. High velocities. Atoms tear, and space literally buckles. Photons fly out across the universe, energized to the limits found in nature. Billions of years later, they enter the detectors of spacecraft stationed above our atmosphere.
Our ability to record them is part of a new age of high-energy astronomy, and a new age of insights into nature at its most extreme. What can we learn by witnessing the violent birth of a black hole?
There have been times when our understanding of the universe has reached a standstill, when our grasp of the workings of time and space, the nature of matter and energy, do not fully square with what we observe. In those times, opposing worldviews cannot be resolved.
So it was in the spring of 1920, when astronomers debated the scale of the universe. The scene was the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. On one side was the astronomer Harlow Shapley, known for his groundbreaking work on the size of our galaxy and the position of the sun within it.
Shapley described the galaxy as an island universe. As large as his measurements suggested it was, it might indeed be all there is. That included mysterious fuzzy shapes known as spiral nebulae. He argued they were merely gas clouds. On the opposing side, Heber Curtis argued that some nebulae were also island universes. That idea was not new. 165 years earlier, the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant described the nebulae as galaxies unto themselves...
"It is noted only in the Milky Way," he said," that whitish clouds are seen; several patches of similar aspect shine with faint light here and there throughout the aether, and if the telescope is turned upon any of these it confronts us with a tight mass of stars." It took a new generation of powerful telescopes for astronomers to finally measure the distance to those mysterious objects.