Drawing the Invisible: The Many Ways Artists Have Imagined Black Holes

The mystery of what a black hole looks like has puzzled scientists and artists alike for decades. 

A black hole is, by definition, unseeable — a region of space with a gravitational pull so intense light cannot travel outward to bring us an image. But, using the laws of physics and our understanding of the cosmos, scientists are able to recreate what a black hole should look like to a reasonable degree of accuracy.

The resulting images depend on a number of factors, for example, whether the black hole is active or not, or whether it’s spinning, but they do share a number of features. Where many of these images end up diverging, ultimately, is in how scientifically accurate they actually are.

This image is a quite accurate depiction of what scientists think a black hole with an accretion disk of hot gas and dust around it might look like. The two rings we see are actually just one; gravity bends the light from the rear of the disk around the black hole on both top and bottom so that it appears perpendicular to the real thing.

Because the disk is spinning so quickly from left to right, the Doppler effect comes into play as well. Light on the left side appears brighter as it comes toward us and dimmer as it moves away.

The black hole itself, of course, is the black sphere in the middle, defined by the absence of light. The bright line that divides light from dark on the inner ring demarcates the inner edge of the photon sphere, the innermost region where we can still see particles of light escaping from the black hole’s pull.

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