So why should a singing black hole matter to us on Earth

Recent news out of NASA’s Department of Totally Mind-Blowing Space Stuff

certainly blew mine. Turns out scientists have found a massive black hole in a galaxy far, far away, and it’s singing. In fact, the thing has been at it nonstop for more than 2 billion years.

So now we know: The key of the universe is B-flat.

Not that anyone can sing along. The intergalactic hum is lower than anything human ears could detect (a million billion times lower, to be exact).

Equally amazing, astronomers also found that waves from the cosmic song are impacting interstellar gases in a nearby galaxy, causing them to “dance excitedly.” Music? Dancing gases? What we have here is a disco inferno on the grandest of scales.

For Jews, the notion of a cosmic symphony dovetails with some of the elegant musings of Jewish mysticism.

One legend holds that God created the world by singing it into existence, and that the Hebrew alphabet was the means of bringing it about. The kabbalists taught that “he who possess the knowledge of forming the right combination of Hebrew sounds can create and destroy worlds.” The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that music is the purist wisdom of the soul.

Apparently, the sages heard a melody in the cosmos long before NASA did.

Of course, scientists tend to view these things more prosaically. Leo Blitz, professor of astronomy at U.C. Berkeley, says, “Sound waves are never transmitted through space in the way we normally think about it. In this case, a black hole interacting with matter excites a certain frequency similar to the characteristic frequency of a note.”

Aw, he’s no fun.

But why should a singing black hole matter to us here, 250 million light years away?

For one thing, this discovery proves that music really is the universal language. It’s kind of cool to think that every time I sing a Beatles tune off-key in the shower, I’m tapping into one of the basic principles of astrophysics.

And isn’t it interesting that the latest model of the universe is called “string theory”? According to this concept, the cosmos is composed of subatomic vibrating strings, with various particles serving as “musical notes.”

Actually, this lovely synthesis of science and spirit doesn’t surprise me. I already know from personal experience that music taps into something fundamental.

I know it when I listen to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” or Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue.”

I knew it when I heard a blind woman chant High Holy Day trope at Rosh Hashanah services while reading from a braille Torah.

And I knew it when I watched a father officiate at the Jewish funeral of his adult son, a friend who had committed suicide. In a big shattered voice, the old man sang the Kaddish, a quivering lamentation that reached to the upper vaults of heaven and likely disappeared into that distant black hole.

Music gives far more than transient joy. It operates as a resonant binder of the spirit, which is why Jews and all other religious traditions use music to address God. Even those who spurn religion concede music’s power.

I never met anyone who could live without music, and now I know why: The scientists who detected the dancing space gases noticed they didn’t behave as expected. In the frigid wastes of space, gas should chill out to the point where all atomic motion ceases (absolute zero).

Instead, grooving to the “Black Hole Blues,” these gas clouds remained heated and volatile. The celestial music kept things hot. And like those impossibly distant clouds, perhaps we too rely on the sound of music to keep ourselves from absolute zero.

Even Berkeley’s Professor Blitz sees some of the poetry beyond the prosaic. The discovery, he says, marks a “recognition of our place in the enormity of the universe, and also a recognition that the universe is in fact understandable.”

Not everyone likes hanging out at the intersection of cosmology and Judaism. For some, the two realms just don’t mix. But whether or not one perceives any spirituality in science, no one can deny we live in a universe of limitless spectacle and beauty.

What’s more, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.