July 28, 2015 / 9:28am
Harris Johnson’s painting Black Hole (2015) addresses the bizarre scientific concept of the same name, a concept that is strange and fraught with existential paradox. Calling something a “hole” implies that it is an empty space; a void, a vacuum, an absence. And to our human eyes, that’s what black holes look like: they’re black, empty circles; they are points in the sky where the stars have been erased and nothing is left behind to see. But scientifically speaking, that understanding is patently false. A black hole is not nothing. In fact, it’s so much something that it forces space-time to bend to accommodate it.
Many black holes begin as large stars. Within the dense, hot center of the star, the nuclei of atoms become so hot that they fuse to one another. That fusion lets loose a huge amount of energy, projecting heat and light outwards from the center. Meanwhile, gravity pulls in the opposite direction. These two forces balance one another for the lifetime of the star.
Eventually, however, the star runs out of fusible atoms for fuel. The outward force lessens, and the star’s gravity overwhelms it. Even as the star burns brighter and larger than before, its core is squeezed tighter and tighter. Most of the mass of the star collapses inward, and the outer layer explodes outward in a supernova, creating the ethereal swirls of colorful light that we see around dying stars.
Black holes are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their pull. So, to us they look like black voids in the sky—light can’t reflect off of them, and is instead absorbed.
The illegible glyphs in Johnson’s painting orbit the black hole at its center, skirting inescapability. Is it the knowledge they might represent that we’re losing forever?
- Rachel Krislov