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Black holes and humankind

Learn how understanding black holes can help us understand ourselves.

Anil Seth uses astronomy to write the origin story of the cosmos and, in a way, of humankind. He believes that by unraveling the evolution of black holes, galaxies and star clusters, we can better understand our place in the universe.

“When we’re wondering about where we came from, and who we are, astronomy is really one of the fundamental pieces of that. All of the elements the Earth is made out of, they were all made in stars,” says Seth in a video introduction to his Frontiers of Science lecture, hosted by the College of Science and held on March 18. “Being an astronomer makes you think about the world in different ways, right? It both kind of opens your mind to how vast it is. But for me, it’s also really made me appreciate how precious our Earth is.”

Watch the full video introduction, produced by University Marketing & Communications, below or find the video here.

Seth talks about his fascination with black holes, his main area of focus over the last decade and the topic of his Frontiers of Science lecture. In 2014, Seth discovered the first supermassive black hole that wasn’t at the center of a galaxy—it had a mass five times the mass of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Since then, he’s found and studied black holes with masses great and small. Yet we still don’t know much about these mysterious objects.

“There are lots of weird things that happen around black holes. Time slows down. If you were falling into a black hole, you would get stretched out into a little piece of spaghetti,” says Seth, associate professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the U. “We know they’re there because we can actually see stars moving around them, but we don’t have any idea where they came from in our universe.”

Astronomers have found hundreds of supermassive black holes with masses more than a million times the mass of the sun, and small black holes with masses just a few times larger than that of the sun. In his Frontiers of Science lecture, Seth asks, why aren’t there any black holes with masses in the middle? He discusses the different ways that astronomers are hunting for intermediate-mass black holes and why so many are interested in finding them.

Along with researching the centers of galaxies and the black holes and massive star clusters found there, he also studies the large surveys of our nearest spiral neighbors, Andromeda and Triangulum, and is involved with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s APOGEE project. Last year, he was named a Presidential Scholar by the U.

The Frontiers of Science lecture series was established in 1967 by U alumnus and physics professor Peter Gibbs. Today, Frontiers of Science is the longest continuously running lecture series at the University of Utah. The 2020-2021 Frontiers of Science lectures, featuring U faculty, are online only. Watch the full lecture below or online here.