The picture 12 billion years in the making

Caleb Scharf, writing about the end of a journey that began long before our planet was even a thing, in his book Gravity’s engines:

Finally, as if playing their part in some great cosmic tragedy, they are captured within a cylinder that is only 4 feet across, a mere 0.0000000000000000001 percent of the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy within which it is embedded. Instead of sailing on to infinity, the photons are caught in the high orbit of planet Earth, inside the great Chandra Observatory, where they are coaxed deep into a series of nested tubes of iridium-coated glass. In the next few nanoseconds these ancient photons of X-ray light finally encounter something in the path of their long journey through the cosmos: a piece of meticulously prepared silicon, itself composed of atoms that were forged inside another star, dead for billions of years. The silicon absorbs their energy and, where each photon lands, releases electrons into the microscopic pixels of a camera. Within a few more seconds a voltage automatically switches on, sweeping these electrons off to the side toward a line of electrodes – like a croupier gathering up the chips on a roulette table. Here, after a journey of 12 billion years, the photons are registered as electrical charges and converted into something new. They have become information.

That information is now a picture in a book you can hold. That picture shows “signs of a young and extraordinarily massive black hole”, flanked by “dragonfly wings of light” that are “hundreds of thousands of light-years across” and so bright that they represent “an energy output a trillion times greater than that of our sun”.

Just in case you weren’t feeling particularly small today.