SOMETHING IS DANCING IN SPACE
Written in Dutch for the newspaper De Standaard - Column 'The Opinion' #4
An asteroid just passed us. No worries, NASA said beforehand, it’s not dangerous and we won’t be harmed. But we should notify the people, the space-experts thought, remind man of how small he is. Let him rage, with his strange priorities and his endless racing and continuous efforts to understand life. But let him halt every now and then at the mention of an asteroid. Let him realize that there is more in the universe. Let him find comfort in the realization that we have so little under control and that there is so much more outside of us.
Or maybe they meant nothing by it, the men and women of NASA.
We are constantly confronted with our finiteness. When I feel lost, I often grab the dictionary. I try to get back to the essence of things, a simple definition, an explanation. I find comfort in language and science.
My nightly excursions on Google brought me from the asteroid notification to a new discovery, this past night. The shadow of the big black hole in the elliptical galaxy M87 appears to be moving. Neel V. Patel describes it in MIT Technology Review as a ‘dancer in the dark’, a dancing shadow.
I get excited without knowing what it means. The movement is promising. I search for explanations and possible consequences, but find none for now. Science does not know everything.
But there is something dancing in space.
The word “hole” in the online Flemish dictionary Van Dale mentions “black hole”. Not as the phenomenon where time and space are curved, not as the bottomless pit in the universe that swallows everything whole because gravity weighs so heavily there that nothing can escape it. No, they only mention it as part of the Flemish expression we use to say that we don’t quite know what to do. We are sometimes lost in a black hole.
I think back to a story that I often replay, written by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, told by one of his characters. A man falls into a deep hole and can’t get out. A doctor and a priest who walk by throw - in an attempt to help - two notes into the hole; a prescription for medication and a prayer. A friend walks by and jumps in the hole with him. The man curses. Now they’re both stuck down there. “Yeah,” the friend says, “but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Around the black hole in space is the event horizon. Everything that happens inside of it, cannot be seen from the outside. That’s how it often goes in our proverbial black hole, I think. That’s how it often goes for us. What happens in our heads and hearts can’t be seen from the outside. No one sees it.
But - science teaches and comforts us - there is always something or someone slowly approaching, standing still around us, observing our shadow. Someone who might recognize the dance, and who perhaps - just maybe - knows the way out.