Newly Published Black Hole Research Enlightens Physics Classroom

Newly Published Black Hole Research Enlightens Physics Classroom

In recently published research, Pierre Christian, PhD, assistant professor of physics, shares his groundbreaking research on black holes, part of the Event Horizon Telescope project.

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Pierre Christian, PhD, assistant professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently published new research on observations of black holes and the theory of gravity. His studies are part of the Event Horizon Telescope project (EHT) — a worldwide effort to capture resolved images of black holes.

The EHT project is an international collaboration of scientists working to take photos of black holes using a global network of radio telescopes linked to form a virtual Earth-sized telescope. In 2019, the EHT captured the first-ever direct image of a black hole, which helped to confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity and led to other revelations. 

By linking together existing telescopes using novel systems, the EHT leverages considerable global investment and coordinates from multiple locations to create a fundamentally new instrument with angular resolving power — one that is located at the greatest possible distance from the surface of the Earth. 

Dr. Christian explained that the aim of studying black holes in astrophysics has long been to better understand their role. A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape from it. Knowledge gleaned from this project has the potential to solve other mysteries, such as the exact way stars die. 

“In physics, we know the four fundamental forces, but gravity is the last piece of the puzzle,” Dr. Christian said. “That’s why this research is important. When we try to combine our understanding of really small things, which is quantum physics, and our understanding of gravity, which we learn from really big things, they just don’t work. And, in physics, this is the holy grail. How do we get gravity and quantum physics to jive together? This is the big question.”

Dr. Christian, who earned his doctorate in astrophysics from Harvard in 2018, is a part of two efforts within the EHT organization; he works to create algorithms to analyze EHT data and uses his expertise to compare black hole theories with the EHT results to perform tests of theories of gravity. Dr. Christian was one of four lead authors on the recently published research on the theory of gravity connected with the EHT project.

As ground-breaking as his research has the potential to be, Dr. Christian is already using it in the classroom at Fairfield, bringing his students up-to-date, in real time, on his latest findings. Currently, he is working with two Fairfield undergraduate research assistants, Charlie Olson ’25 and Tim Holewienko ’24, using computer simulations to study how objects orbit black holes.

“We can then compare the computed orbits with real orbits observed around real-life black holes in space to see if our understanding of gravity is correct,” he noted.

Unlocking the most profound mysteries of the universe is part of Dr. Christian’s daily work, and he is both sanguine and enthusiastic about the collaborative process. “My students and I are in the process of creating a virtual reality environment where one can perform numerical experiments (and thus the aforementioned comparison) more efficiently.” 

Perched on the edge of even more profound discoveries, he continues to peer into the depths.

Learn more about the physics program at Fairfield University.

Posted On: March 11, 2022

Volume: 53 Number: 67

Fairfield University is the modern Jesuit University, rooted in one of the world’s oldest intellectual and spiritual traditions. More than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students from 36 states, 47 foreign countries, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are enrolled in the University’s five schools. In the spirit of rigorous and sympathetic inquiry into all dimensions of human experience, Fairfield welcomes students from diverse backgrounds to share ideas and engage in open conversations. The University is located in the heart of a region where the future takes shape, on a stunning campus on the Connecticut coast just an hour from New York City.