Hosted by Astrophysicist Janna Levin, "Black Hole Apocalypse" Journeys to the Frontiers of Black Hole Science

NOVA: Black Hole Apocalypse
Courtesy of WGBH

"NOVA: Black Hole Apocalypse"
Premieres Wednesday, January 10, 2018 at 9 PM ET on PBS
(Check local listings)

        They are the most enigmatic, mysterious, and exotic objects in the universe: black holes. They’re also the most powerful; their gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape their pull. And they’re the most destructive, swallowing particles, dust, gas, planets, even giant stars. Anything that falls into them vanishes ... gone forever. But now, astrophysicists are coming to realize that black holes just might be an essential key to the structure of the universe—and to our very existence. NOVA, a production of WGBH Boston, and host Janna Levin journey to the frontiers of black hole science in a new, one-night, two-hour special, Black Hole Apocalypse.

          In Black Hole Apocalypse, NOVA investigates recent surprising discoveries about black holes that have raised deep questions and advanced new technologies that are ushering in a golden era of astrophysics and astronomy. Guided by astrophysicist and author Janna Levin, viewers journey to the weirdest places in the cosmos to explore the profound mysteries of these gravitational monsters. Where do they come from? What’s inside them? What happens if you fall into one? And what can they tell us about the nature of space, time, and gravity? Through dynamic CGI animation, Janna illustrates the principles of gravity, and even takes a trip to the edge of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. What will happen if she gets too close?

          “It’s a wild ride across the cosmos to places where everything you think you know is challenged—where space and time, even reality, are stranger than fiction,” said Janna Levin.

NOVA: Black Hole Apocalypse

Courtesy of WGBH
          Also in the special, Janna shows how bigger and ever more powerful instruments are leading to extraordinary breakthroughs in black hole research, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Experiment. On September 14, 2015, after four decades of development, LIGO’s enormous twin interferometers finally detected the existence of elusive, long-sought gravitational waves, produced by the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago.
          That detection not only confirmed the existence of black holes, but is the first direct evidence that black holes can merge—a possible explanation for how supermassive black holes—millions or billions of times the mass of the sun—are able to grow so large. It is one of the most significant finds of this century. NOVA meets extensively with two of the principal scientists—experimental physicist Rainer Weiss and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne—who, along with former LIGO Director Barry Barish, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in October 2017 for their contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.

          NOVA meets several prominent astronomers and astrophysicists in the field who are contributing to the acceleration of black hole research, including UCLA’s Andrea Ghez, one of the key discoverers of a supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, and Yale’s Priyamvada Natarajan, a leading expert on the mystery of black holes and early cosmic evolution. A long trail of evidence, including observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, has pointed to the probable existence of supermassives in nearly every galaxy. NOVA follows Ghez and Natarajan as they explore questions about the role of supermassives in the early universe, and search for answers about how they got so big—answers that could provide an understanding of how all galaxies, including our own Milky Way, formed after the Big Bang.

          NOVA also interviews University of Cambridge astronomer Paul Murdin, who is the co-discoverer of the first confirmed black hole, called “Cygnus X-1,” and follows the Event Horizon Telescope, a new project led by Harvard’s Shep Doeleman, in which a group of scientists is attempting the seemingly insurmountable feat of taking a picture of a black hole. The goal is to see the unseeable and bring into focus the supermassive at the center of our Milky Way by using a global network of radio telescopes to photograph the black hole’s shadow, or silhouette—a technique that team members like University of Arizona astrophysicist Feryal Ozel are hoping will produce an image like a donut with a well-defined hole.

          Viewers also hear from renowned experts such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at American Museum of Natural History, who tells us what happens if you fall into a black hole. Black Hole Apocalypse also features Harvard’s Peter Galison; James Guillochon and Nia Imara, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; MIT’s Marcia Bartusiak; Eilat Glikman, of Middlebury College, and Tod Lauer, astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Arizona. These leading scientists, and more, provide keen insights on black holes and the formation and evolution of galaxies—and share high hopes for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope as a powerful new technology that could solve some of the mysteries around black holes and give us a much deeper understanding of the very early universe.