Nautilus

How Supermassive Black Holes Were Discovered

This essay is one of the five winners in the 2019 writing competition held by the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University. “The Black Hole Initiative offers a unique environment for thinking about the topic of black holes more creatively and comprehensively,” says BHI director, Avi Loeb. To add context to the exciting April 10 announcement that astronomers have observed a black hole for the first time, this week Nautilus is featuring all five winning essays.

In the 1700s, John Michell in England and Pierre-Simon Laplace in France independently thought “way out of the box” and imagined what would happen if a huge mass were placed in an incredibly small volume. Pushing this thought experiment to the limit, they conjectured that gravitational forces might not allow anything, even light, to escape. Michell and Laplace were imagining what we now call a black hole.

Astronomers are now convinced that when massive stars burn through their nuclear fuel, they collapse to near nothingness and form a black hole. While the concept of

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