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A Singular Problem

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SAN JOSE, Calif., Oct. 13, 2009 -- I should know better. Watching movies or TV shows I revered as a child can only end badly. As with so many things in life, the reality can never equal the paramnesia built of fading memories and unattainable ideals.

And yet I revisit old favorites time and again, always expectant and always devastated by the discovery of yet another piece of junk. I’ve asked my friends, and I beg of you, if I ever start talking about buying a bootleg copy of “Tales of the Gold Monkey” – the 1983 series starring Stephen Collins as a cargo plane pilot who, with his one-eyed Jack Russell terrier, gets mixed up in various types of intrigue in the South Pacific in the late 1930s – stop me. Do you what you must, just stop me. I’d like to retain some fond memories of my childhood.

The latest to fall prey to this transgressive tendency: the Disney space flick “The Black Hole.” I loved this movie – loved it – when I saw it in the theater in 1979. Hulking spaceships. Menacing, fire engine-red robots. What more could a boy want? Toys, I suppose, and I had those too. The action figure of V.I.N.CENT, the cheeky, good guy robot who resembled nothing so much as a squat trash can, still ranks as perhaps the most awesome piece of plastic ever.

The good vibes remained for some 30 years. But then, just a month or two ago, I rented the DVD of the movie. Of course: “The Black Hole” is actually irredeemably bad, from the script on down to a few questionable casting decisions (Ernest Borgnine as a space-faring journalist? really, Disney?). Also, while I didn’t take notes, I strongly suspect the filmmakers got the physics of the singularity all wrong.

To be fair, black holes are still very much a mystery. Case in point: For decades, astronomers have speculated about the existence of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Until recently, though, they lacked the tools to confirm or refute the possibility.

In the past year, Andrea M. Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles, and colleagues have offered the best evidence yet of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. During the excellent plenary session yesterday, Ghez described a decade of observations using the Keck telescopes and the latest advances in adaptive optics, which demonstrated an object at the center with a mass more than four million times that of our sun. This could only be attributed to a supermassive black hole, she said.

Dr. Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, discusses black holes during her plenary talk at Frontiers in Optics 2009. (Photonics Media photo by Melinda Rose)

(Not surprisingly, the observations also raised new questions. Spectroscopic measurements revealed massive young stars near the center of the galaxy that “have no right to be there,” Ghez noted. Researchers have suggested a number of theories to explain these stars – for example, they may be older stars masquerading as youths; “something we see a lot of in LA” – but none of these has yet been confirmed.)

Ghez continues to look forward. With further advances in adaptive optics and even larger telescopes, such as the thirty-meter telescope scheduled to go online in 2018, she hopes to get still closer to the center of the galaxy, to probe further the supermassive black hole there and to test various models of galaxy formation.

Gary Boas 

View all our coverage of Frontiers in Optics 2009
Oct 2009
adaptive optics
Optical components or assemblies whose performance is monitored and controlled so as to compensate for aberrations, static or dynamic perturbations such as thermal, mechanical and acoustical disturbances, or to adapt to changing conditions, needs or missions. The most familiar example is the "rubber mirror,'' whose surface shape, and thus reflective qualities, can be controlled by electromechanical means. See also active optics; phase conjugation.
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
adaptive opticsastronomyBasic ScienceDr. Andrea M. GhezFrontiers in Opticsgalaxygalaxy formationGary Boasgreen photonicsimagingKeck TelescopeMilky WayNews & Featuresopticsphotonicsphotonics.comspectroscopic measurementssupermassive black holes

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