Half a century before black hole images based on observations were released, physicists used calculations and simulations to depict what they thought the surroundings of black holes would look like. We focus in particular on the framing and reception of a 1978 image by French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet. This handmade drawing was described as “realistic” even though black hole shadows had not yet been observed. Using his image to convince astronomers of the existence of black holes, Luminet argued for the accuracy of his image by emphasizing the physical effects taken into account in the simulation he used for his drawing and made references to photography in descriptions of it. At the same time, he presented the appearance of light near a black hole, as seen by a distant observer, as “optical distortions.” Like Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose, Luminet was a creator of images used in General Relativity who had found inspiration in Dutch artist M. C. Escher’s work. But unlike the plays on perspective that Escher was known for, black hole images were not used to confound the beholder or to make the beholder aware of their role as an interpreter of contradictory images. Luminet instead used apparent “optical distortions” to further intuition about black holes. Focusing on what light near a black hole looked like, Luminet explained why his image looked the way it did to communicate the nature of what was invisible.
A Black Hole in Ink: Jean-Pierre Luminet and “Realistic” Black Hole Imaging
Emilie Skulberg, Martin Sparre; A Black Hole in Ink: Jean-Pierre Luminet and “Realistic” Black Hole Imaging. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 September 2023; 53 (4): 389–424. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2023.53.4.389
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