IMAGE: ChiccoDodiFC/SHUTTERSTOCK

IMAGE: ChiccoDodiFC/SHUTTERSTOCK

Last year, an international group of scientists using data from a global network of radio telescopes released the first-ever photo of a black hole, the type of collapsed star with gravity so strong even light doesn’t escape. It looked like a lopsided doughnut made of orange fire, but if you harbor the slightest bit of inner nerd, it was a big deal, even if you’re not quite sure what it means, science-wise.

Still, black holes are desperately interesting to astronomers, physicists, and many other scientists, and for lots of reasons—among them the hope that a more complete understanding of these exotic objects will help answer fundamental questions about the nature and composition of the universe, space, time, gravity, light, and a thousand other things.  

Two funders who also get excited about such cosmic questions are the John Templeton Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. They recently teamed up to commit $7.2 million to support the Harvard University-based Black Hole Initiative (BHI), established with a Templeton grant in 2016.

Emerging Research, New Funding

The funding—each foundation will provide $3.6 million over three years—will support BHI’s operations and enable it to build on the work by the Event Horizon Telescope, which is the international scientific collaboration that created the photograph of the black hole. According to Moore and Templeton, the grant also will support the completion of a feature-length documentary about the project to produce the black hole image and more generally how scientists pursue these cosmic questions.

Moore’s part of the new round of funding will support many of the post-doctoral fellows who will spend a few years at the Harvard-based project before moving onto other positions, said Robert Kirschner, Moore’s Chief Program Officer, Science. The multidisciplinary BHI project brings together people from the fields you’d expect—physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, computer scientists—but also liberal arts types such as philosophers and historians of science. "They have lots of interaction," said Kirschner. "It’s actually pretty unusual for a university to have philosophers talking to historians, or mathematicians talking to philosophers."

That photo released last year energized black hole research. Black holes may be keys to figuring out where gravity comes from, itself a giant question mark in our understanding of the universe. Gravity is central to the study of dark matter and dark energy—the ideas used to explain puzzles like why the universe is expanding. Investigators at the BHI and elsewhere are studying how black holes form from stars, what role they have in the structure of the universe, and so many more questions.

"How the geometry of the universe is arranged is not a solved problem," said Kirshner, himself an astronomer on the Harvard faculty for 31 years before his role at Moore.

Grants to Answer “the Big Questions”

The majority of philanthropic giving, of course, is concerned less with the nature of time and space and more with pressing, earthly needs. But for the Templeton and Moore organizations, asking big fundamental questions is their mission. Templeton literally has a program area called Science & the Big Questions, which is intriguing not just because they aim to help generate additional knowledge for science textbooks but also because the funder actively works to link the so-called hard sciences and the equally mysterious search for insight into the human condition.

Folks at the Moore Foundation don’t see their work as restricted to ivory-tower thinkers. “We have a lot of confidence that if you just follow the frontier of science you will get to a place that might turn out to be some practical value—that today’s basic science becomes tomorrow’s technology and products," said Kirschner.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, was for many years emblematic of that sort of purely intellectual pursuit without practical application. But decades after Einstein developed his theories, engineers turned to relativity to make the corrections that enable GPS satellites to function. So keep that in mind next time you navigate perfectly to that new restaurant in the hinterlands.

Back to that photo of the black hole: it’s at the center of a galaxy called M87, which is 55 million light-years away. More specifically, what’s visible in the picture is not the black hole, from which not even light can escape, but superheated matter that’s falling into the gravity well of the black hole. Einstein would have been impressed.

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