Illustration | Sandor Paulus

Brainmatters | Black hole


One night squirrel and ant were sitting high up in the tall beech tree. It was late, but the sky was clear and thousands of stars were twinkling. “I’d like to travel there one day,” said ant. “Not to the light, but to the darkness between the stars.”

“To the darkness between the stars,” thought squirrel quietly, “isn’t that really far away and really empty?”

“The darkness is the very place where there’s a world waiting to be discovered,” continued ant enthusiastically. “That’s where the black holes are. And that’s where the greatest mystery lies.”

Squirrel tried pondering the mysteries and black holes. No thoughts came to his mind; it made him feel a little dizzy. “What’s so fascinating about black holes? Isn’t our forest infinitely more beautiful? The leaves, how the moonlight falls on them, and how it rustles when all the animals fall silent?”

“Yes, this is beautiful,” said ant, “but out there in the universe lies the answer to the beginning and end of all things.” “Perhaps if you could fly like owl,” suggested squirrel, “then you could get a little closer and catch a glimpse on a clear night like tonight” - a glimpse, squirrel liked that, but then it didn’t sound as black as that darkness behind the canopy of stars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” said ant, “it’s much too far away, and if you did get close to a black hole, you’d disappear into it and never return. The only way to learn more about black holes is by pondering them deeply. Only the truly great minds can do that. They say that a hole like that is very heavy and endlessly dark, it sucks up everything, but at its rim you should be able to see everything that has ever disappeared into it.”

Silence fell. Squirrel tried his very best. He tried to think about holes, weight, and great minds, but his thoughts would not form. Light and fleeting, they evaporated. “My brain,” he thought, “that too is a mystery.” But this seemed better left unsaid.

Together ant and squirrel looked at the darkness between the stars. There, momentarily, a warm glow seemed to light up the darkest spot. “Look, something is disappearing forever,” sighed ant. Silence fell. Ant thought of what had passed away. Squirrel held onto the idea that even this event would leave behind an impression forever.

In memory of Stephen Hawking and with thanks to Toon Tellegen.

Yvonne de Kort, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

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