Last week, a group of UC Berkeley researchers led by astronomy professor Chung-Pei Ma discovered an extraordinarily large black hole. A “supermassive” black hole, one of such extraordinarily powerful, light-compressing darkness that it could swallow 5.5 quadrillion Earths with the same masochistic nonchalance of a fraternity brother shot-gunning a Keystone Light. Imagine it: the equivalence of 17 million suns, flowing smoothly down the back of the throat, signaled only by one pungent belch. That’s one supermassive black hole.
Even more impressive than its “supermassivity” is the fact that this black hole popped up out of nowhere: in a galaxy not surrounded by many others. A lone hermit living in the backwoods, creepily quiet, weirdly detached from its neighbors, yet all of the sudden it had a supermassive black hole in its belly. This is surprising. According to the researchers from the study, black holes typically prefer the urban squalor of the universe, where the presence of more matter leads to increased gravitational forces, and hence, the black hole. Contrary to popular belief, black holes are not simply the absence of light; they are a product of a great amount of gravity that makes it so light cannot escape. And overall this supermassive light-sucker is a pretty big deal to the science world.
Yet, as nonsciencers, as mere human beings with vague and fleeting interest in astronomy, this supermassive black hole in a galaxy far, far away is horribly and tragically insignificant. If you want to argue, if you want to say, “No, hey, I care about all the birds and bees, even a massive hole of darkness 5.5 quadrillion times larger than planet Earth and super fucking far away,” let me mention that last week, less than half of our undergraduate population voted in our own student government elections. A black hole 200 million light years away is hardly something I can imagine that even the most worldly, I mean, universally aware person, will keep in their mind for long.
But, maybe it should be. As humans we have this funny habit of neatly overconstructing our routine, small and gentle lives into formations relating to the larger, mighty actions of our universe. “You’re my sunshine,” “We’re in the eye of the storm,” “I’m drizzle and she’s a tornado” or whatever. Should we then not see this black hole as an entirely new place to understand ourselves, a wide-open metaphor malleable to our creative yet greedy little hands? This black hole, when scaled down to human size, fitted and molded to our own lives and pressed in a nice machine, could become something very petty and miniscule, but also maybe more meaningful.
I thought that. I truly and sincerely did. Since coming across Ma’s research, I’ve been attempting to do the exact work my English major has taught me to do: find a small metaphor and stretch it really far with complicated syntax and bullshit-y diction. On Monday, when I told the opinion editor I was writing something, something elusive and grand about how this black hole represents something in our lives, he asked, “OK, well what does it represent?” And I told him, in the calm voice I reserve for telling my parents when explaining a horribly thought-out plan, “I’ll figure it out as I go along.”
But you see, after a couple days of brainstorming, of wistful loops drawn in my journal while I gazed out on the Bay, of late night consultations with my best friends at Caffe Strada, I surprisingly didn’t find the next best metaphor. The black hole, and its significance, evaded me.
Should we then not see this black hole as an entirely new place to understand ourselves, a wide-open metaphor malleable to our creative yet greedy little hands?
On the other hand, I did find out a lot about what I wanted it to represent. I wanted to take its overwhelming inscrutability and apply it to a current relationship of mine that neither he nor I can seem to figure out. I wanted to take its randomness, sculpt it into my own anxiety and emblazon it as a symbol of the days I don’t want to get out of bed. I wanted it to be a pretentious simile for what I’ve accomplished, but at the same time, a modest metaphor for all I’ve failed to do.
When I was drunk, I wanted the black hole to be a place I’d go to in the future, where instead of the constant acute rawness of being a 20-year-old woman, I would simply meet nothing and float. Mostly, though, I wanted the black hole to be something I could figure out, so I could say that my one article this semester wasn’t bullshit. I desperately wanted the black hole to explain why on Wednesday I was eating pad thai with my hands in the fading afternoon light, and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the bottom of my shower, letting the shampoo run into my eyes.
Yet as much I felt these things, as much as I wanted the black hole to serve as some overarching explicatory metaphor for my life, it was too much of a stretch. (“See my comments below. B+,” I imagine a professor writing on this hypothetical paper of life.)
The black hole is simply a black hole, an enormous leech in the universe that refuses for the light to escape and potentially illuminate.
This past week, I sat sober on the bathroom counter of a dingy San Francisco club, my best friend leaning into me in that annoyingly affectionate way drunk people do when they have forgotten boundaries. “I just don’t get it,” she said, fingering the pack of cigarettes in her pocket. “I mean, we get hurt, and we always get over it. But what does all the hurt amount to? Where does it all go?” A rush of music filtered into the bright, almost sterile (yet distinctly unclean) environment of the bathroom as an older person strode in. They began examining their lip piercings and blue spiked hair in the mirror, then they took off their shirt and gazed at themselves in their leather bra. For a second, I turned away from my best friend’s beer breath to observe this person. I wondered by the surprising amount of wrinkles on their face, matched with the distinctness of their appearance, if maybe they knew the answer.
“What does all the hurt amount to?” I imagined asking them, my lips softly forming around the hard t’s of the question. They would let out a raspy laugh in the way old people do when “naive youngsters” ask them questions they once wondered themselves. They would tell us what all the hurt amounted to, and I could have subsequently solved the mystery of the black hole. But I remained silent.
As UC Berkeley students, as intelligent young adults desirous of knowledge, as rational and thoughtful people seeking to define their worlds, we aren’t so good at this not understanding stuff. I could never turn in a paper with the answer, “I simply do not know, professor. What you are asking is kind of bullshit-y.” But maybe we need to learn to do this, this unapologetic willingness to just not understand. Maybe sometimes we have to give up on figuring out what the black hole is.
In all truth, we can’t know. We cannot understand and we will never understand, and I think to a level this is what makes us the humans, and the rest of the universe, well, the universe. No matter how far back we push on questions of ontology, there is always one more question to be asked. The Big Bang made us, but who made the Big Bang? Who made the laws of the universe that allowed it so the Big Bang could occur? Who made God? Is he nice? Does he know my grandfather?
As UC Berkeley students, as intelligent young adults desirous of knowledge, as rational and thoughtful people seeking to define their worlds, we aren’t so good at this not understanding stuff. I could never turn in a paper with the answer, “I simply do not know, professor. What you are asking is kind of bullshit-y.”
There is this theory in philosophy called the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or PSR, which states that it is intuitive and universally believed by humans that there must be an explanation of the existence of any being or positive fact. But the modern day philosopher William Rowe argued that you cannot base any argument on this, based on the fact PSR is intuitive and not verifiable by quantitative data. So, we are left to ask, to what level do we trust our intuitions and just believe, and to what level do we not trust our intuitions and not believe? What caused this big, gaping black supermassive black hole 200 million light years away, and how does it relate to me?
Don’t look to me — as you know by now, I don’t have the answers. Rowe was trying to figure out God, and I am just trying to figure out what is up with this big black hole in Galaxy NGC 1600. All I know is that one day you can be eating pad thai with your hands, the afternoon sunlight spilling in through the window and everything feeling all right, and then the next day you can feel like absolute shit. We don’t need the black hole to tell us that.
In a way, I have failed. I do not know what the black hole is, I did not find its metaphor, and it will remain as a nonmetaphor. But that’s OK, I think. It is OK not to know, to continue being raw and acute and at times, vaguely bullshit-y.
Sarah Gabrielle Adler is the editor of the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]