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Scientists are searching for the plural of ‘black hole,’ and their ideas are out of this world

Popular ideas include a ‘terror’ of black holes and a ‘silence’ of black holes.

Scientists are searching for the plural of ‘black hole,’ and their ideas are out of this world
[Photo: NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]
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Earlier this year, astronomers went hunting for a supermassive black hole somewhere by the constellation Ara, nearly 8,000 light-years from Earth. But instead of one mega black hole, they made a startling discovery: a congregation of many mini black holes—40 or 50 of them—orbiting frenetically within the dense core of a globular star cluster.

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Never mind the implications of such colossal forces found in close proximity, where they could potentially merge to create a galactic behemoth strong enough to power a distant quasar. The more immediate question is: What do you call a group of black holes?

Seriously. We have a pride of lions. A waddle of penguins. Why not . . . a scream of black holes?

According to The New York Times, that’s the latest puzzle scientists are trying to solve. Jocelyn Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, an astrophysicist at Vanderbilt University, told the publication that during a recent Zoom call to discuss an international project to detect collisions of black holes in space, “one of the members said his daughter was wondering what you call a collective of black holes—and then the meeting fell apart, with everyone trying to up one another.”

Last week, researchers from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) posed the question to Twitter as part of what NASA has dubbed an annual “Black Hole Week.” Popular answers included a “terror” of black holes, a “silence” of black holes, a “void” of black holes, and a “Hawking” of black holes. The list of possibilities is still ongoing. Physics Today magazine even made its own contribution—a “colloquium” of black holes.

It all has a tinge of oblivion to it, and that’s perhaps fitting. As the Times cites, in Black Hole Survival Guide, by Janna Levin, an astrophysicist at Barnard College of Columbia University, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy is described beautifully:

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“That is where our data, our scraps of quantum information, may end up. . . . Everything will wash down the central vortex, flashing spectacularly bright, the last desperate blasts of concentrated light in the cosmos, until all vanishes in a darkening silent storm in space-time.”

That sounds a lot like the scream of black holes to me.