If you haven’t heard the news this week, an international team of scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration photographed and confirmed the existence of Powehi: the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy Messier 87, which is over 55 million light years away, has the mass of over 6.5 billion suns, and has a radius wider than our entire solar system.
It is a very, very big black hole, and it is beautiful and utterly frightening.
It was imaged with 5 petabytes of collected data from a network of geographically dispersed radio telescopes around the world, using a computer algorithm created by a young post-doctoral student from MIT, Katie Bouman.
Of the many very important things about this discovery, this is what stands out for me: How it has put science front and center, reminding us that incredible mysteries in the universe are yet to be revealed to us, and that the end products of hard scientific research can be fun, exciting, educational and terrifying all at the same time.
And most importantly, black holes. Black freakin’ holes, people. We finally got to see one.
I have always loved black holes. The very idea — that these monsters are sitting out there in the universe, devouring stars and other stellar objects like giant vacuum cleaners — was an awesome thought to grow up with.
As a 10-year-old boy, back in 1979, I was a huge fan of the Disney film, The Black Hole, one of the last movies to be produced before the company’s old studio system was dismantled and Disney moved full-time into animated features.
It was creepy, dark, but also wacky. It had a big $20 million budget ($96 million in 2019 dollars adjusted for inflation) and had a star-studded, old Hollywood cast that included Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, and Maximillian Schell.
The acting was wooden, and sometimes the effects looked really chintzy due to the limitations of the technology in use and how they rushed it out as a response to the first Star Wars film, a property it would own and exploit decades later. But man, I loved this movie. It had probably the coolest evil robot to ever hit the silver screen — Maximillian — that looked like it came straight out of hell.
While the movie made Disney some money, compared to feature films the studio releases now, The Black Hole would be considered a flop. But with this week’s discovery, boy does it deserve to either be re-made or to have a special edition re-released with a full film remaster.
The film put black holes into my teenage zeitgeist. But in college, back in 1988, it would be supplanted by something else — a computer system.
Not just any computer system: The NeXT Computer. Arguably, this is the computer system that is 100 percent responsible for Apple becoming the company that it is today. But back then, it was Rogue Apple.
In September of 1985, Steve Jobs was kicked out of the company he founded by Apple’s board of directors, and went on to do other things. In addition to founding Pixar — a firm which pioneered computer graphics in the entertainment industry and is now known for producing such landmark animated Disney films as Toy Story, Cars, Wall-E, Up, The Incredibles, Brave and Coco — Jobs founded NeXT.
During its time as an independent company, NeXT could be best remembered for its esoteric, expensive nature and its ultra modern, minimalist industrial design — both traits that carry on in Apple products to this very day. A single NeXT Computer in 1988 cost $6,500.00 — which was hardly affordable to the higher education market it was being targeted to at the time.
The NeXT ran on a Mach-based, graphical UNIX operating system that had an object-oriented programming language, Objective C, which remains in use on Apple systems to this very day. It used a 650MB, read-write magneto-optical storage drive designed by Canon and was ahead of writeable CD-ROM products used on PCs by about a decade. It had built-in integrated Ethernet networking and a TCP/IP stack, built-in digital audio, and a high-resolution graphics display, the “Megapixel”. In every respect, the product was way ahead of its time.
It will probably also be remembered as the system that Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, used to create the first version of httpd on at CERN.
But what do I remember most about NeXT and its operating system? It didn’t have a trash can like Mac and Windows did. It had a Black Hole. So freaking cool.
In NeXTStep, the Black Hole was an icon that docked at the corner of the screen wherever you put it. You tossed stuff in there, it was toast. You purged your Workspace with it. It was a very Zen-like experience, especially for a 20-year-old college student in the late 1980s.
Eventually NeXT got rid of the Black Hole and went to a “Recycler.” How boring and corporate. As a company, NeXT was a failure. Unable to make a go of building these esoteric, expensive computers for universities and academia, they eventually fired most of their 200 or so employees and ported their software to Intel x86 systems as the OpenStep OS.
In December of 1996, the company was acquired by Apple for $450 million, which at the time was undergoing its own financial difficulties and was unable to complete its homegrown next-generation OS, Copeland. With his return to the company he founded, Steve Jobs again took the helm as CEO. What followed, of course, was history — the iPod, the iMac. And MacOS and iOS.
Today Apple is a consumer electronics powerhouse that is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. MacOS arguably is one of the coolest operating systems on the market today. But you know what it doesn’t have? An appropriately cool way of getting rid of your trash.
Let’s face it, the MacOS trash can is dated. It looks like it is made of transparent plastic, and when it gets filled up, it appears unsightly. It doesn’t represent the 21st century ideal of having a green solution to removing digital refuse. If Steve Jobs were alive today, I think he would agree that it is in need of a makeover.
The Black Hole in NeXTStep made its appearance over 30 years ago. This week, a dedicated team of scientists revealed a real one, using various leading-edge technologies which undoubtedly were assisted by Apple’s products in some way. In fact, you can very clearly see Katie Bouman using a MacBook Pro the very moment the imaging data collected by the EHT begins its integration process (on an Ubuntu Linux compute cluster) in a Smithsonian Channel special, Black Hole Hunters, which premieres today.
We have been presented with an opaque, frightening monster of singularity, extreme gravity, and improbable mass that lurks in the darkness of space, 55 million light years away. One of perhaps millions or billions that sit out there in a black void, devouring everything around it.
I believe to commemorate this scientific achievement, Apple should remove the “Trash” in MacOS — and also in iOS — and replace it with an updated version of the NeXT Black Hole. Sure, Dark Mode is great, but a Black Hole? Microsoft doesn’t have one in Windows. Neither does Google in Android or Chrome OS. It is fitting with the uniqueness of Apple.