“We are in a revolution on so many fronts,” said world class astronomer, Dr. Karl Gebhardt, as he spoke to a packed house of students and professors in Hardin-Simmons University’s Holland Health Sciences Building.
Over the last several years, Gebhardt, esteemed Herman and Joan Suit Professor of Astrophysics at University of Texas, Austin, has been one of the leading scientists among a team using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope located at the McDonald Observatory in the Texas Davis Mountains. One of the most unusual recent discoveries is that of a super-sized black hole, “A crucial component of understanding all galaxies,” he told his audience on Friday, January 24, 2013, adding that all galaxies have a black hole at their center.
Having already found the two largest black holes known to man, Gebhardt and the astronomy team added the granddaddy of them all last November when they detected one weighing 17 billion suns in the distant galaxy known as NGC 1277, about 220 light years from Earth.
To help put this black hole in perspective, Gebhardt described it as significantly bigger than our solar system. He said, “It is so large that it can be observed from anywhere in the Universe,” musing, “Of course, you can’t actually see a black hole, you can only see how stars and matter react around it.”
Gebhardt added, “As a part of this revolution, we are finally beginning to understand our universe. We are beginning to break through and define what is going on. Up until this point, 95 percent of the Universe has been stuff we don’t understand, 5 percent is stuff we know. It’s embarrassing, really.”
The lack of knowledge, however, punctuated Gephardt’s advice to his audience. “So far we have not yet been able to make a model of the Universe with this much ignorance,” he said. “Appreciate what is happening in this revolution.”
Outlining some of the major things we do know, Gebhardt said the Big Bang happened approximately 13.7 billion years ago and the Universe continues to expand out from that. Dark Energy makes up 74 percent of the Universe, but he jokingly adds, “It may not be dark and it may not be energy, that is really just a term to describe what we don’t know.”
Gebhardt is particularly proud of Texas’ lead in the continued discovery of space, telling students that the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, currently the third largest in the world, was conceived in Texas and built in Texas. These projects are also led by Texas scientist using the Texas telescopes.
The next big project led by Texans is the building of the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. “It will allow us to look back to the birth of those first stars, galaxies, and black holes,” said Gebhardt.
Another driving force in this revolution is the discovery of approximately 1,000 planets, of which a handful may be capable of supporting life. “We think they are habitable, that there is liquid water,” he said. But he stressed that he is not predicting life, only saying that they could support life.
HSU professors and students attending the event represented most parts of the university; from the College of Fine Arts, Logsdon School of Theology, Cynthia Ann Parker College of Liberal Arts, Irvin School of Education, and the Holland School of Sciences and Mathematics.
HSU professor of mathematics and founder of the International Asteroid Search Collaboration, Dr. Patrick Miller, described the event as “a rare opportunity for HSU students and faculty.”