View from Mudsock Heights

Even our most threatening problems and hottest disagreements matter not a whit to the celestial expanse of which we’re a barely noticeable part.

Okay, that sounds drearier than I’d planned. Let me recast it: No matter our issues, we’re in the midst of a universe that brings mystery and wonder to us all.


Now is an especially good time to notice the goings on in the inky vastness.

There is a comet, and if we’re lucky we can see it. It’s called “NEOWISE,” and no, it’s not a retread of some pre-existing philosophy, the way many current “neo-” things tend to be. It’s not new wisdom but a new heavenly body discovered by NASA’s “Near Earth Objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer” telescope.

The comet was closest to the sun July 3 and is now on its way back into the depths of space. It has been visible (to those of us not overwhelmed by light pollution) as it heads out. Though you probably already know this, the tail of a comet follows it only as it approaches the sun; it precedes the nucleus – the “dirty snowball” – as the comet leaves.

You probably haven’t seen it, but worry not – you’ll have another chance in 6,800 years.

But even a comet visible to the naked eye is next to nothing compared to another discovery. “Potential discovery” I suppose is a better way of looking at it, though the science seems strong.

Many of us were irritated 14 years ago when the International Astronomical Union, using arbitrary criteria, announced that Pluto was no longer considered a planet. Those in the utter thrall of science would be alarmed to learn of the caprice of many scientific determinations. (For example, a few years ago, for no reason I’ve been able to find, the scientific names of numerous reptiles were changed. You might not be upset that Elaphe obsoleta is now Pantherophis obsoletus, but I am.)

Physicists have long told us that there’s good reason to believe that there is a ninth planet. They think this because other objects in the solar system, just outside the solar system, and entering the solar system behave as if they’re being acted upon by the gravity of another planet out there someplace.

Where is it, then? We’re pretty good at finding stuff on the edge of our little orbital family. You’d think that if it existed, we’d have seen it by now. We haven’t, so it mustn’t.

But what if it were the size of a softball?

I’m not kidding. As mind-boggling as it is, there’s current scientific thinking that the long-hypothesized ninth planet is a very young black hole.

Black holes, you may remember, are celestial objects so dense that gravity (a function of mass) prevents even light particles from escaping them. The notion of the big bang relies on the ultimate black hole, a “singularity” of almost infinitely small size and almost infinitely high mass. The existence of black holes is real, though much that has been hypothesized about them probably isn’t (and it’s unlikely that any of the fictional treatments of the things will pan out – whether they allow time travel is rather superceded by the likelihood that anything entering them would be crushed to subatomic particles, spoiling that visit-the-dinosaurs vacation). But they are out there, like cosmic gravity cleaners sucking up anything that gets close.

Astronomers at Harvard University hypothesize that the ninth planet is a “primordial black hole” located about 800 times the distance from the sun as Earth is. We’re 93 million miles from the sun, so the posited black-hole-ish thing would be a little under 75 trillion miles away – a long distance by terrestrial reckoning, but here to the end of the driveway by cosmic measure. (If you keep track of such things, that puts it about 111 light-hours away. Light from it would take 111 hours to get to Earth, if light could escape from it, which it can’t.)

As I mentioned, black holes are really dense. The Harvard people say that this one would have five to 10 times the mass of Earth – all in a package they describe as being the size of a grapefruit. (Presumably this means that if it’s 10 times Earth’s mass, it’s as big as those winter ruby-red grapefruit that cost $2 apiece, but if it’s a puny five times our mass it’s more the size of those little grapefruit in the netting bag in which one is always rotten. In neither case would it have one of those awful little stickers. Well, unless a sticker had gotten too close . . .)

Because gravity is a function of mass, this produce-sized heavenly body would have five to 10 times the gravity of Earth. We used to have a hard time imagining such a thing, but it’s a little easier now because of the really powerful rare-earth magnets that have hit the scene in the last few years. While they’re nowhere near as powerful as the gravitational pull of even a very small black hole, they’re stronger than you’d ever have expected. I have a few that are guaranteed to give you a blood blister if you handle two of them with your bare hands, and they’re the diameter of a half dollar.

(If you have no powerful magnets, think of Nibbler on “Futurama.”)

The idea of a nearby black hole might make you a little uncomfortable, as it does me, though I’m uncomfortable with the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way (the galaxy, not the candy bar that might produce black holes called “cavities”). If you think about black holes, you begin to wonder if maybe they’ll ultimately swallow up everything, then each other, then shrink down to a point of near-infinitely small size and near-infinitely high density, then a big bang again, and so on. Objects of tremendous density can cause discomfort – have you ever had any fruitcake?

The ninth-planet-black-hole hypothesis having been extended, now what? Well, first thing is to find out if it’s true (one of the ways science differs from political news reports). Astrophysicists at Cornell University hold the view that the new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile “will be able to either rule out or confirm Planet Nine as a black hole within a year.”

A cooler way, of course, would be if the thing slurped up the NEOWISE comet on its way out of the solar system, but that might be too much to hope for.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at; @sydneydawes_95

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