Heino Falcke wants to inspire people
On 10 April 2019, millions of people were watching the livestream in which Heino Falcke, professor of Physics, showed the world the first recordings of a black hole. The fiery picture made by the Event Horizon Telescope is the achievement of a quest that already started when Falcke was just a student. This is the story of a quiet boy who inspires people to work together to achieve his dream.
Heino Falcke. Foto: Boris Breuer
He is a thinker, with pauses between carefully considered phrases. An introvert that programmed his own computer games as a child and still struggles with phone calls. But he is also a social sportsman and a local vicar who shares his faith with the youth. He is the scientist that presents his research at festivals and he is the head of a worldwide research project. If need be, astrophysicist Heino Falcke overcomes his shyness to be on a stage. “I want to make a connection with people, share something with them.’
Inspiring people suits him. As a young astrophysicist, he published academic articles on the eating behaviour of black holes – essential in order to gain ground as a researcher. But he also launched a newsletter and organised a congress for his confreres. The aim was to make his colleagues just as interested in the core of the Milky Way as he is. Heino Falcke had a dream, and to make it come true he needed a community that would stay together for decennia.
Photographing the invisible
Falcke was convinced that it must be possible to depict something that is, by definition, invisible: a black hole, maybe one of the most bizarre predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The gravity of these collapsed giant stars is so intense, that even light cannot escape it. This is why researchers were never able to observe one.
But it must be possible to take such a picture, something that Falcke realised when he went over old theoretical studies. Because of their intense gravity, black holes focus the light that skims along them, like a magnifying glass. In 2000, he named this phenomenon ‘the shadow of a black hole’, and together with two colleagues in two publications, he showed that this can be done by using a worldwide network of connected radio telescopes. But, the technology that is needed did not exist yet, nor did the theoretical models that can explain the observations. Developing all of this takes years of work by an academic community that did not exist yet. It marked the start of many years of diplomacy.
The result is called Event Horizon Telescope: a worldwide collaboration, that makes pictures of the biggest black holes in the sky. Falcke manages to receive a large European ERC Synergy Grant, called BlackHoleCam, which contributes to the realisation of the collaboration. In the EHT and in his group, he has to find the balance between being an inspirator and a connector. “For me, the most important thing is that people end up in a place where they can thrive and contribute to a common goal.”
It does not always work like this. “Sometimes, a meeting turned into a political fight. You need to be able to stand up for yourself, or you will be overlooked. How do you do this without losing yourself? You do need to stay true to yourself.”
“Some colleagues think I am a bit like a missionary.” Falcke laughs, it does not surprise him: “When I am passionate about something, I want to share it with people to inspire them.” The researcher and local vicar does not think that there is a tension between science and his faith: “The church brought forth many excellent researchers in the past. Their faith was not a problem for them, but rather a motivation to conduct proper research.”
Complex questions cannot be answered with just science, according to Falcke. He takes the corona pandemic as an example: “Science can give us answers about the behaviour of the virus. But as a society, we need to gather all those facts and make a decision. How do we decide what is good for us? This ties in with your culture and world view.
“I think that the Bible is a beautiful, authentic aid to this question: the collection of more than 2000 years worth of struggling with these kinds of problems. I think it is just arrogant to throw it all away and claim that you do not need God because you can answer all questions with physics.”
Find your own path
Whether it is about faith or science: Falcke thinks that the own choice is important. “I despise manipulating or keep harping on until you get what you want. To me, the best thing is when someone makes their own choice: that can really get to me, it suits me.”
This is also how the astrophysicist searches for his colleagues and students: “I tell PhD students that they should not just copy what I did.” He would rather give them advice on academic literature and invite them to ask questions. “They come back with other ideas or they go to work with a different research group for a couple of months. I am not afraid of strongheaded or independent people: you need to find your own path as a researcher. Someone who does everyone that you say might be easy to work with… but it does not make for interesting science.”