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Ultramassive black hole discovery leads to huge international media attention

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(Cover image: ESAHubble, Digitized Sky Survey, Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org), N. Bartmann)

In March 2023, Dr James Nightingale from our Department of Physics revealed that he and his research team had discovered one of the biggest black holes ever found, by taking advantage of a phenomenon called gravitational lensing.

The find, which was initially published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, led to international media coverage, and in honour of National Space Day this May, Dialogue followed up with Dr James to find out more about his research.

How did it feel to make the discovery of a black hole 30 billion times bigger than our Sun?

It feels amazing  - the best part is that this is probably the first discovery in my research that I can talk to my friends, family and members of the general public about, and they already have an interest and understanding of the discovery.

Most astronomy research is quite technical and niche, so having something so simple and widely recognised is refreshing!

Could you describe in layman’s terms how gravitational lensing works?

Let's imagine you have a flashlight, and you shine its light towards a mirror. Normally, the light would bounce off the mirror and come back to you in a straight line. But what if the mirror is really heavy, like a giant planet or a black hole?

In that case, the mirror's gravity becomes so strong that it bends the path of the light. It's similar to how a magnifying glass can bend sunlight and make things look bigger. In this situation, the gravity of the heavy object acts like a lens, just like the lens in your glasses or a camera.

So, when the light from the flashlight passes by the heavy object, it gets bent and curved. Instead of going in a straight line, the light follows a curved path around the massive object. This bending of light is called strong gravitational lensing.

What do you make of the international media coverage this discovery has garnered?

It’s much appreciated and coming back to what I said about friends and family being interested, I think it’s attestable to the fact that black holes are just really, really cool. People have a huge amount of interest in things that push the limits of physics and nature and which begin to verge on the realms of science fiction.

The coverage has also been extremely positive - everyone I've spoken to is just enthusiastic and positive to hear about astronomy research.

What is the next step for you and your research?

Given how rare it is for a gravitational lens to be found where the light travels so close to a supermassive black hole, the next steps are to find more gravitational lenses where this occurs.

The European Space Agency’s Euclid space satellite, which will launch in July 2023, is poised to discover over 100,000 gravitational lenses. Even if just 1% of these objects reveal supermassive black holes, this means we will still be able to measure over 1,000 supermassive black hole masses (compared to the 100 supermassive black hole masses currently known).

Longer term, therefore, the goal is to make this measurement on this bigger scale and gain new insights into how the largest black holes in the Universe form within galaxies.

If you would like to find out more about James or his discovery you can visit the our website as well as our YouTube channel for an explanation into how gravitational lensing works.

 

 

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