Recently a coordinated series of telescopes aimed at the heavens captured the first known image of a black hole. This is peculiar because a black hole by definition can’t be seen.
A black hole is kind of like Las Vegas. What happens there stays there.
The image shows a thick fiery ring which, depending on your imagination, looks to be either the entrance to Mordor or a Dunkin Donut. The center of the flaming mass is redacted, like a cosmic Mueller Report.
Although the image could quite easily have been manufactured in Photoshop, the idea that this massive hole in space is hoovering up entire galaxies is kind of scary. It reminds me to not stand too close to the fire.
Our ember of the Universe is slightly more believable, if still ambitious. We have a burning sun which throws off light during the day and heat during the summer. Unlike the light bulb in our refrigerators, it will not burn out in our lifetime.
Here on earth we have something similar to the sun which produces light and heat on a much smaller scale. It is called fire. Fire is one of the ancient Greek elements that make up all matter, along with Water, Air, Earth, and Yogurt.
But unlike the sun which is a nuclear furnace, fire on earth is a chemical reaction involving heat, oxygen, and fuel. Things which are really plentiful on earth. In their presence ordinary items will burst into flames which go on to produce more heat and more fuel and more flames until, say, your garage burns down.
Under the right circumstances you can roast marshmallows. Under the wrong circumstances you can destroy Rome.
Although fire occurs naturally, it is not clear how man came to harness fire as a tool. There is evidence that Homo Erectus Igneus controlled fire nearly a million years ago, perhaps igniting the modern day Burning Man festival. However it wasn’t until a few hundred thousand years ago that the first boy scouts started their own campfires by rubbing two Bic lighters together.
Regardless, there was a lot man was able to accomplish with fire. By fire light man could increase the working hours of the day, getting up before sunrise and going to bed after dark. He could move to Canada and survive. He could cook food making it easier to chew and digest thereby enabling his brain to grow bigger and his jaw to grow smaller so he didn’t have to look or act like a Neanderthal.
Life was good.
With a bigger brain he could use fire to forge tools and fabricate Weber Grills and reheat leftovers. With a bigger brain he could make elaborate structures around stone hearths with chimneys so he could bring fire inside.
And occasionally his house would burn down. And the house next to his. And the city where they resided. And the forest next to the city.
If no one died, life was still good.
Here is a partial list of things that can start fires: god, matches, Mrs. O’leary’s cow, displaced embers, electrical shorts, heating elements, lightning, flying dragons, molotov cocktails, cigarette butts, magnifying glasses, Johnny Storm the Human Torch.
Here is a partial list of things that can be set on fire: wood, paper, oil, coal, bras, witches, crosses, flags, draft cards, Nike shoes, Chicago, polyester leisure suits, disco records, books, the Cuyahoga River, napalm, circus tents, moths.
It was hard to watch Notre Dame go up in flames. Like many people, I felt helpless watching fire envelop and feed so vigorously off of something so solid and enduring. The orange and yellow heat enveloping the quivering silhouette of a skeletal spire struggling to hold itself together broke my heart.
I knew how it was going to end and could do nothing but watch it happen. Wisps of smoke and steam. Smoldering rubble. Charred artifacts. History in ashes.
And still, it could have been worse.
This fire should have happened centuries ago. In the middle ages when threats like fire and wolves and the plague were imminent. When sooty torches provided nighttime light and open hearth fires radiated heat for warmth and cured wooden roofs made excellent kindling.
A time before water pumps and hook and ladder trucks and fire hydrants and smoke alarms and sprinkler systems and fire retardant materials and fire wall construction and building codes.
A time when fires could engulf entire cities and the shock and horror they afforded could only be portrayed after the fact in vivid illustrations and recounted stories. Not shown on television in real time.
But as history shows, until our galaxy of burning stars are extinguished by a black hole, we must live with the consequence of fire every day the sun comes up.