Of space, black holes and Hollywood films

Professor Rajaram Nityananda at Infosys, Electronics City. DH PHOTO/AKHIL KADIDAL

Christopher Nolan's 2014 science-fiction film, Interstellar, appeared to hover just beneath the surface of a scientific discussion on black holes on the Infosys campus at Electronics City here on Wednesday. 

Opening his talk with a preamble that astrophysicists often open discussions on black holes with an apology, Professor Rajaram Nityananda, a physicist at Azim Premji University, said that was no longer necessary because of recent headlines. 

On April 10, scientists released the first photograph of a black hole located in Galaxy M87, a thick cluster of stars and planets 60 light years away, following two years of data collection using a network of eight radio telescope sites around the world, collectively known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). 

Professor Nityananda specified that the doughnut-like imagery of the black hole released in April was misleading in that the outer yellow-red corona was actually the radiation field emitted by the black hole which occupied the invisible centre of the doughnut. 

While much of the professor's hour-long discussion examined weighty subjects such as how suns which collapse into black holes are 20 times the mass of our sun, the properties of gravity, the challenges of coordinating telescopes to study one celestial body and the necessity of deploying more advanced radio telescopes in order to detect black holes which are 1 light day in size, Hollywood seemed just on the event horizon of the audience’s mind. 

Bhavna Mehra, general manager of the Infosys Science Foundation, described her first impressions of black holes as a "sinister, monstrous" entity with "an insatiable appetite", which sucked up all matter. This state of thought, she said, persisted until she watched Interstellar, which featured a planetary system revolving around a black hole. 

The film was referenced later when a young IT worker asked the professor about whether time moved slower within the "event horizon" of black holes as it did in the film, allowing astronauts who spent time near a black hole to theoretically travel to the future. 

This prompted Professor Nityananda to declare that the effect was real, and was first proposed by Albert Einstein as the "twin" paradox.

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