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Enchanted by black holes? We are, too

The first-ever image of a black hole dazzled people worldwide when it was unveiled in April 2019, the result of a scientific feat involving scientists and observatories around the globe.

Now we’ve got a new snapshot of the elusive beast at the center of galaxy M87, and it’s just as alluring as the first. This new image reveals magnetic fields swirling around the black hole’s accretion disk, the superhot gas encircling the black hole’s center. Those magnetic fields are thought to play key roles in black hole behavior, as staff writer Maria Temming reports in this issue.

We here at Science News are all in for black holes — we’ve been covering them extensively since we first used the term in the magazine in 1964, when their existence was still a big question mark. Decades of work by scientists has revealed not just that black holes are real, but that they sit at the center of most galaxies and influence the creation of stars. And even though they’re huge, strange and very far away, they seem to reflect human experience. “They are a go-to metaphor for any unknowable space, any deep abyss, any endeavor that consumes all our efforts while giving little in return,” Science News special projects editor Elizabeth Quill wrote in our ongoing series of stories marking our 100-year anniversary (SN: 2/13/21, p. 16). Ah, but they give so much.

“Black holes were instrumental in getting me interested in science,” Temming says, and she’s not alone in that. “If you talk to many science writers or many astronomers, black holes are one of those shared experiences: They’re so mysterious and mind-boggling, you can’t help but get sucked in,” she says. Temming first got interested in astronomy in high school, when she was captivated by a poster of galaxies in her physics classroom. Her teacher, Mrs. Girkin, took the poster off the wall and gave it to Temming; it’s been hanging in every place she’s lived since. Along the way, she also acquired undergraduate degrees in physics and English, then a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

Temming was part of our team coverage of the April 10, 2019 announcement of the first image of a black hole. She attended the news conference in Washington, D.C., and filed notes and quotes to our editors via Slack so we could publish the image within minutes of the big reveal. Temming followed up with a story explaining how astronomers captured the image by combining observations from seven stations around the globe, known as the Event Horizon Telescope network (SN: 4/27/19, p. 7). Her explanations of this exceedingly complex and precise process, which involved so many terabytes of data that they had to be shipped from the various observatories around the world by snail mail, are compelling and clear.

 “Covering the 2019 black hole picture felt like a great culmination of many, many decades of science,” Temming says, going all the way back to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “I feel very lucky to have come on the scene as a science writer just as this was starting to happen.” She’s excited to be covering this new era of astrophysics, and we’re glad she’s on the beat.

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