Two months ago, the country was melting down, the virus was winning, and the prospect of being sucked into a black hole in outer space was the only scenario terrifying enough to dwarf the rest of my angst. I read to distract myself, but the explanations confused me from the start: Black holes are not really holes at all, NASA observes: “They are the opposite of empty! Black holes have the most matter stuffed into the least space of any objects in the universe.” That density gives them a gravitational pull so powerful not even light can escape.
My child-brain pictures a monster waiting to consume me, but black holes are not monsters. They are not even things. A black hole, explains astrophysicist Janna Levin, is nothing: “pure empty spacetime—no atoms, light, strings, or particles of any kind, dark or bright. It’s empty space—or, in physics slang, the vacuum.” It might form from exploded, crushed matter, but that matter is no longer present. Crushed into absence, it has vanished from sight, leaving only its energy.
“Black holes are not stuff,” Levin repeats in her surprisingly lyrical Black Hole Survival Guide. If starlight comes close, the black hole will swallow it. If you come close, you will be inhaled into nothingness, stripped of your bearings, and dissolved. “Nothing,” says Levin, “is the worst thing you could encounter.”
At this point, my temptation is to hide under a nice, solid, bright white mattress—but it is prudent to know one’s enemy. How, then, do you find something that is invisible? You search for its effects. Black holes exert gravitational force on other stars, so if a star appears to be dancing with an unseen partner, it could be a black hole. Also, black holes can be surrounded by a luminous disc of gases that turns them into quasars—which, paradoxically, are the brightest objects in the cosmos. With the darkest nothingness at their core.
This dark, voracious core reminds me of the people some call “psychic vampires,” emotionally needy and oblivious to boundaries, sucking your energy without apology. My husband teases that our dog is “a black hole,” insatiable for affection, but Willie is at least reciprocal, careful to fulfill his part of the bargain by being a Good Dog. Humans who are black holes of need can be charismatic at the outset, but they do little giving back. As the novelist Josephine Hart wrote, “Damaged people are dangerous.” Try to rescue them, and they will twine their fingers into your hair and pull you closer, make it impossible for you to extricate yourself.
When we meet people that damaged, we try to pull them apart, detangle all those dense layers of emotional history and trauma that have compressed and hardened. But the point is what is not there: empathy, compassion, thoughtfulness. In her guide to black holes, Levin writes what could easily be a parable for broken-glass relationships, addictions, and obsessions: “If you find yourself approaching an utterly dark shadow, visible only in contrast to a bright background of light, beware. Avoid at all costs…. If you get too close you will need all the fuel in the universe to escape, and that will not be enough.”
Is this too tenuous, though, to pull metaphor down from the heavens and use it to lasso the sociopaths?
In another context, Levin once remarked that “we are all navigating an external world—but only through the prism of our own minds.… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.” We think in metaphor because we must.
And the black hole is the perfect metaphor for evil.
Because I grew up after Vatican II, evil was not much talked about. Like dog trainers bearing treats, we focused on the positive. But as I read about black holes, I begin to understand why people with traditional religious beliefs get so edgy about avoiding the Darkness. They would never tie their faith to astrophysics, but the dynamics are not so different. Augustine defined evil as the absence of the good, which we describe as the absence of light. The rejection of light. In its place are only dark motives, a craven emptiness that sucks us in, weights us, makes it impossible to have a light heart or a free spirit.
We are still not sure how black holes originate, but we are closer than we are to understanding evil. The most poetic theory is that black holes are born when a big, brilliant star exhausts itself. Its mass flows inward, and the star explodes. If that explosion is powerful enough to overcome the star’s gravitational force, a supernova flashes into being. But if there is too much mass, the star collapses in on itself, crushing its own matter and creating (can one create “nothing”?) an almost impossibly dense black hole. In a crowded star cluster, that black hole will sink to the center, and as more and more black holes land there, gravity will pull them into a sort of cosmic dance.
The mind-bending mystery of all this comes as no surprise. All the atoms that are familiar to us—the hydrogen and oxygen on Earth, even the stuff of other planets and stars—account for only five percent of all the matter and energy in the cosmos. The other ninety-five percent is an inscrutable, invisible mix of dark matter and dark energy, the thought of which makes me shudder. I still cannot quite imagine a black hole, but I can, by analogy to a few disastrous relationships, imagine the terror of being sucked into one.
Bleary-brained, I turn to NASA’s little-kid explanations, hoping for a little clarity. “Black holes do not go around in space eating stars, moons and planets,” I read. “Earth will not fall into a black hole because no black hole is close enough to the solar system for Earth to do that.” Wish somebody had mentioned that sooner.
From Earth’s vantage point, then, black holes are not the most terrifying no-thing in the universe. We are.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.