How much have technological capabilities changed for researchers since you started studying black holes?
Huge, huge advances. I often say we’re surfing on a wave of technological development. Everything that we do really can be described as technology-enabled discovery.
One of the things that I love about working in these areas where the technology is evolving really quickly is that it affords you the opportunity to see the universe in a way you haven’t been able to see before. And so often that reveals unexpected discoveries.
We’re really lucky that we’re living at this moment where technology is evolving so quickly that you can really rewrite the textbooks. The Event Horizon Telescope is a similar story.
What unanswered questions about the universe excite you most?
I have a couple favorites right now. The one that I’m super excited about is our ability to test how gravity works near the supermassive black hole using star orbits, and also as a probe of dark matter at the center of the galaxy. Both of those things should imprint on the orbits.
A simple way that I like to think about it is: The first time around, these orbits tell you the shape. And then after that you get to probe more detailed questions because you kind of know where in space the star is.
For example, S0-2 (which is my favorite star in the galaxy, and probably in the universe) goes around every 16 years. Now we are on the second passage, and that’s giving us the opportunity to test Einstein’s theories in ways that are different than what the Event Horizon Telescope is probing, as well to constrain the amount of dark matter that you might expect at the center of the galaxy. There are things that we don’t understand about the early results, and to me that’s always the most exciting part of a measurement — when things don’t make sense.
What’s your approach in those moments?
You have to have complete integrity with your process. Things may not make sense because you’re making a mistake, which is the uninteresting result, or they may not make sense because there’s something new to be discovered. That moment when you’re not sure is super interesting and exciting.