The Star That Would Not Die

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Artist’s conception of Cygnus X-1 (Courtesy of Chandra X-Ray Observatory, NASA)

Black holes give me the creeps.

Today’s announcement of the first image ever produced of the super-massive black hole at the centre of a massive galaxy 500 million trillion kilometres away sent shivers down my spine–and although the 50-something year old me knows very well that a black hole is not going to show up on my doorstep, ring the bell (because, you know, black holes are polite) and then proceed to suck me, the cats, and heckin’ everything into its infinite maw, I still have a fundamental existential dread of them.   The fact that this particular black hole is 40 billion km across and is being described as “a monster” doesn’t help.  Black holes are, well, black.  You know, dark. Evil. Like Darth Vader. They will literally crush your soul (not to mention your physical body) into an infinitesimally small space, the size of a pinhead (or less).  That’s gotta hurt.

I partially blame Walt Disney.  In 1979, just a couple of years after Star Wars Disney released The Black Hole, its first-ever PG movie (thanks to some hells, damns, and the odd reference to Dante.)  Its plot revolves around a spaceship of really boring white people and a cute robot who run across another ship that’s hanging out by a big black hole.  The ship turns out to be populated by a mad scientist with a sinister accent (played by Maximillian Schell), his creepy red robot (even more creepily named Maximillian), and a bunch of what seem at first to be his robot army, but turn out to be his lobotomized crew army.  Hijinks ensue, robots fight, and eventually everyone gets sucked into the black hole. Cue the visions and metaphors of Hell we’ve been expecting since the Dante reference (not that I knew that in 1979), the mad scientist becomes one with Maximillian (didn’t see that coming, did you?) and the good guys pop out the other side, no worse for wear. Despite this upbeat ending, the whole thing is dark.  Definitely not the Disney Star Wars most people were expecting. Neil de Grasse Tyson has proclaimed this movie to be the worst movie ever made from a scientific standpoint, and I don’t recall it being a marvel of acting and screenwriting, either.

But as an astronomy geek, I’d encountered black holes long before this movie.  As a kid, I was deathly afraid that something horrible was going to get me.  This included tornadoes (as I’ve written about), various diseases (I was a bit of a hypochondriac, and had a litany of diseases I would recite every night in prayer, a little like the list of people Arya Stark’s vengeance list, except I was praying to be saved from these things), plane crashes (why I didn’t fly on a plane until I was 29 years old) and yep, black holes.  Back in the late 70s, black holes were still quasi-hypothetical, even their existence was postulated under the theory of relativity. The first candidate for a black hole was only identified in 1979.  (more on that one in a moment).

The formation of a black hole involved the death and collapse of a star.  “Given the bizarre character of black holes, it was long questioned whether such objects could actually exist in nature or whether they were merely pathological solutions to Einstein’s equations,” mentions the Wikipedia article on black holes. The whole language of black holes involves death, decay, and–as this quote demonstrates–pathology.   And that was what–is–scary.  Black holes don’t care about justice, or morality.  They’re brutal and inexorable.  You can’t reason with a black hole.  (You can’t reason with the Sun, either, but at least it’s sparkly and doesn’t suck you in. You’ll die later from skin cancer.)

Remember that first possible black hole?  That was Cygnus X-1.  And there’s a song by Rush about that, the final song on A Farewell to Kings.

In the constellation of Cygnus
There lurks a mysterious, invisible force
The Black Hole of Cygnus X-1

Six stars of the northern cross
In mourning for their sister’s loss
In a final flash of glory
Nevermore to grace the night

To telescopic eye
The star that would not die

All who dare
To cross her course
Are swallowed by
A fearsome force

Through the void
To be destroyed
Or is there something more?

Atomized, at the core
Or through the astral door
To soar

I set a course just east of Lyra
And northwest of Pegasus
Flew into the light of Deneb
Sailed across the Milky Way

On my ship, the ‘Rocinante’
Wheeling through the galaxies,
Headed for the heart of Cygnus
Headlong into mystery

The x-ray is her siren song
My ship cannot resist her long
Nearer to my deadly goal
Until the black hole
Gains control

Spinning, whirling
Still descending
Like a spiral sea

Sound and fury
Drowns my heart
Every nerve
Is torn apart

Neil Peart’s lyrics contain considerably better science than the Disney movie, and two years earlier, to boot.  (My only quibble is that the constellations are not flat patterns in the sky).   Cygnus X-1 is also a pretty creepy song.  The first two stanzas are spoken in a distorted voice (the voice of producer Terry Brown, in fact) as part of a dissonant,  warped electronic introduction.  A bass solo ensues in shifting time signatures, before we venture off with the unnamed protagonist on the Rocinante.  By the end, the song has descended into a swirling cacaphony to mirror the lyrics, and it ends with Geddy Lee singing–no, screaming–the highest note he would ever sing, a B♭5 (that’s the one above the treble clef, the one right at the top of my own singing range).  And it does nothing to allay my existential dread of black holes.

Speaking of guys named Neil, Neil de Grasse Tyson (remember him?) has described what would happen were you to fall into a black hole as “spaghettification“–and yes, it’s genuinely horrifying (or morbidly funny, if you’re de Grasse Tyson):

“First, you’re stretched as far as you can be stretched, until you’re literally split in two. This sounds like a quick death, but Tyson is kind enough to inform us that we would survive, as we would be bifurcated right below the spine, and below the waist there are only “important but not vital” organs (insert penis/vagina joke here). Eventually, you would be split into four, and then eight, and then sixteen, in which case you’ll probably be dead. But your body will still be doing “morbidly funny” things; as a result of the huge gravitational force, “you are stretched head-to-toe and squeezed much the way tooth paste comes out through a tube.”

You know, I had vaguely intended when I started writing this to prove that while I found black holes scary when I was younger, that had changed now that I understand them better.


They’re scarier than ever–but in the fascinating way that anything that approaches the infinite is to me.

And if one does show up on my doorstep, I just won’t answer the bell.  That’ll work, right?