M i k e  G a r c i a
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Why do you study black holes?

Mike Garcia:
I work on black holes because I find them the most exotic, most interesting, thing and because a lot of people find them interesting and exotic. There so many things in astronomy that are interesting and exotic and I found black holes: it was just a fluke, it was one thing I was interested in.

X-ray astronomy is great at studying black holes, you need x-ray satellites to do a good job at it. X-ray astronomy is a young field, about 30 years old but that's about the span of my time in astronomy. So it was really going when I started.

People starting astronomy now are probably not going to go into X-ray astronomy because now it's a well-developed field and they'll want something exciting and new, and now it's infrared astronomy, right now, or maybe millimeter wave astronomy, and there'll be something else, that is more interesting to them or more appropriate to study in the infrared or millimeter wave.

You mentioned that studying black holes because they help us test if Einstein's theory of general relativity is right or not. Why is that important? What difference does that make in the "real world"?

Mike Garcia:
Well the reason it's important to know if general relativity is right is because it's the theories of the way the world works that allow us to have an industrial and a technological society. And if we didn't understand electricity we would not have laptops, would not have cell phones, if we did not know how electricity works and how radio waves work. Those things were discovered by just basic research, looking into how things work... When Marconi invented the radio he was not thinking of cell phones. He was just thinking of how can I communicate over a large distance, and what are these radio waves, what are these things?

General relativity is the very most fundamental theory of how the Universe works. And we know that it is not the whole theory, that there is more to it. One can't easily predict what will happen from the most fundamental theories, but the most fundamental changes have come in the past from the most fundamental theories. So if general relativity is wrong, there must be something else that includes it, that tells us better how the Universe works.

We might discover how the Universe came into existence in the first place, you know, are there other Universes? Can we get from one to the other? Is the speed of light really the maximum velocity? How can we trick it? How can we get around it? You know, you've all seen warp drives, and wormholes and all these things. Until one really understands how general relativity really works and how it doesn't work in certain cases we don't have a prayer of building anything like that.

So we have to understand how it works before we can go to work building these far out ideas, or something else... Maybe it'll be something totally different, more far out all less, that gets us off this planet eventually.

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