i imagine

Black Holes and Humankind

Looking to the stars to help us better understand ourselves


Who are we? What are we made of? Where do we come from? The search for answers to these questions isn’t limited to the philosophy department at the U. To uncover the mysteries of life, look up to the skies, says Anil Seth, associate professor of physics and astronomy. “All the elements the Earth is made of were made in stars,” he says. “A fundamental piece to understanding our existence is based on astronomy.”

Seth has been unraveling the evolution of black holes, galaxies, and star clusters for nearly a decade to better understand humankind’s place in the universe. In 2014, he discovered the first supermassive black hole that wasn’t at the center of a galaxy—with a mass five times that of the black hole in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy. Since then, he’s found and studied black holes with masses great and small. Yet we still don’t know much about these mysterious objects. “There are lots of weird things that happen around black holes. Time slows down. If you were falling into a black hole, you would get stretched out into a little piece of spaghetti,” notes Seth.

Being an astronomer makes you think about the world in different ways, he says. “It opens your mind to how vast the universe is. But it’s also made me appreciate how precious our Earth is.”

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  1. Thank you for the presentation, Seth. I also think answers to all the big questions regarding life resides in information we can observe, or will be able to observe in the future, in the stars, galaxies, and far distant solar systems. I have one specific question, how did you find a black hole that was not at the center of a galaxy? And what does finding a black hole outside of a galaxy tell us about the formation of galaxies? Does it tell us that unless there is enough free gas near a black hole that galaxies do not form? Or, might it tell us that the supermassive black hole you found consumed all the free gas residing near it and thus a galaxy did not have a chance to form? If not the latter, where did the original gas that formed the star that turned into a supermassive black hole come from?

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