The event horizon as a vanishing point: A history of the first image of a black hole shadow from observation

Change log
Skulberg, Emilie 

In 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHTC) released the first image of the shadow of a black hole based on observation. This is the closest astronomers have come to imaging a celestial object from which no light can escape. This dissertation offers an account of its formation and early reception based on historical analysis of black hole images published since 1973 in addition to fieldwork and interviews performed at institutions where members of the EHTC work in Harvard and Radboud University. A study of the research techniques and iconography built up over several decades demonstrates that earlier research played a significant role in both the production of [the image], reflected in visual and argumentative strategies deployed by EHTC scientists, and its reception amongst scientists and a broader public.

First focusing on points of views in black hole imaging, I show how the framing of the observer in General Relativity took the role of a ‘photographer’ of black holes, and then changed as it was believed that observation from Earth could be possible if using multiple telescopes across the globe. Examining the portrayal of spatial depth in these representations, I trace several ways in which perspective techniques were employed to make spaces close to black holes intuitive to researchers and other audiences, identifying when scientists used approaches which did not rely on forms of perspective familiar from art history. I then focus on the roles spatial relations played in the social and epistemic aspects of the production of images within the EHTC. Finally, I analyse the reception of [the image] with a focus on how the existing iconography of black holes influenced the ways various audiences perceived and reframed the first image from observation.

Staley, Richard
Chang, Hasok
Black holes, Images in science, History of science, History of astrophysics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Williamson, Rausing and Lipton Funds, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge; and St John’s College, University of Cambridge.