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  • The Physics of Sorrow
  • Leonard Winograd (bio)

Supposedly, someday soon, The Event Horizon Telescope is going to release the first picture ever of a black hole. I'm very curious about this, even anxious. What to expect? A picture of nothingness? A ravenous monster? A dark tunnel leading to a white wormhole? Evidently, the picture will be a silhouette of the black hole's event horizon, caused by the furnace of subatomic particles spewing out of its flaming perimeter. If the silhouette, in my infinitesimal understanding, is circular, it confirms Einstein's theory of gravity (general relativity). If it's anything but, it shows that the theory at least there is wrong and black holes don't follow Einstein's ordered and elegant equations. Scientists evidently are hoping for the latter. They want this picture to topple the old, to shake things up, to rattle the hinges. They thrive on chaos.

I'm hoping for the former.

The picture is years in the making. Requiring telescopes around the world to focus on the center of our galaxy (and also the center of M87 for a shot at another black hole), scientists had to have perfect weather for a period of days. And they did. Then, once the pictures were taken, they've taken months to screen out all the dust [End Page 65] and starlight that could mar the image; they had to eliminate all other possible interference between the mirrors and the source twenty-five million light years away.

Mind boggling.

In my own tiny way, I know what they're trying to do. Since I retired, I find myself with my ten-inch reflector, twenty-five miles south of Pikes Peak, on a high plain at 9600 feet, trying more and more often to locate galaxies and nebulae over my small piece of land. Sometimes in the summer the air is clear and dry, as it should be this high up in Colorado, the sky above studded with moonless light, the Milky Way a swath of stars. But other times the weather's different: there's moisture in the air and it's full of currents smearing what you're trying to focus on; my eye blurs and tears up at the eyepiece. Worse, there are often fires thousands of miles to the west and north and south, and smoke from those fires stains the sky. It's hard to see anything. And now the fires grow near.

We've thought about our own defensible perimeters, my wife, Kathy, and I, around our stone timberframe (our own redoubt, our own fortress), and so we chainsaw dead aspen, but more for aesthetic than preventive reasons. After all, we leave aspen trees feet from the front door because they were there when we planted this cabin; we dug its foundation so the aspen would surround us—a perimeter, a circle, especially in fall, of blazing gold trees. Besides, the land to our west has no trees—it's grassland. But these days, the flames are so intense—more so than I had ever imagined—that even sparse grassland is no barrier; it carries fire too. What can a few less aspen do to save us?

At home, in Littleton, in our quiet neighborhood a mile from Columbine High School, now nearly forgotten, our other safehouse is fraying from top to bottom. With time on my hands, I interview earnest serious contractors who want to help me, who want my money. Our foundation has cracks in it, and the western wall has moved in a couple of inches, I'm told. They recommend wall anchors, which cost thousands of dollars and require digging up the yard. I recommend putting prayers in the cracks, which of course they don't get. For now, I've just marked the ends of the cracks with a red magic marker, hoping [End Page 66] against hope (an expression I've never understood) that those marks in my shaky scrawl will magically contain and parenthesize them, keep them from spreading, growing. Our cement board siding is also peeling off in places along the roofline, letting air and water seep in, rot things. Again, thousands of dollars...