Professor Mareki Honma discusses the journey behind the first-ever successful imaging of a black hole

Special Session Looking at the Future of Technology

Professor Mareki Honma discusses the journey behind the first-ever successful imaging of a black hole

Mareki Honma
Director, Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)
Professor, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
Professor, Graduate University for Advanced Studies
Professor, Graduate School, The University of Tokyo
Mie Nagata
Chief Lecturer, Cosmo Planetarium Shibuya

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Black holes are astronomical objects that are shrouded in mystery, including their identity and even whether they exist. Finally, however, mankind has succeeded in catching a glimpse of this enigma, with Japanese researchers making an important contribution to this great feat. On April 10, 2019, a team of Japanese and other international researchers announced the successful capturing of a black hole’s shadow. It was the first image to ever provide direct proof of the existence of black holes.
Telescope Magazine talked with Mareki Honma [Professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Director of the Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, and leader of the Japanese team of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration behind this achievement of the century] and Mie Nagata (Chief Lecturer at the Cosmo Planetarium Shibuya). So, what sort of astronomical objects are black holes? What exactly is the black hole that was captured in this image? What lies ahead for us as a result of this research? Come with us on a journey into a black hole to find the answers to these and other questions.

Interview and text by Shinya Torishima; photographs by Honami Kawai, amana inc.

Why astronomy?

Mareki Honma

Telescope Magazine: Professor Mareki Honma is an astronomer and Ms. Mie Nagata is a planetarium lecturer. Why did you both choose the path of astronomy as professions?

Mareki Honma: Ever since I was a child, I would look up at the night sky and watch meteor showers. I just loved the stars. I was raised in Yokohama where the stars were not very visible, but I always dreamed of the universe and what worlds lay on the other side of that night sky.

Mie Nagata: Was there any particular astronomical phenomena that drew you to astronomy?

Mareki Honma: I don’t remember the details, but everyone was talking about some huge meteor shower coming. I remember leaving home in the middle of the night and lying outside on the ground, looking up at the sky. Oh, and comets. I didn’t see Halley’s Comet very well when I was in junior high school, but I had a great view of Comet Hale–Bopp (figure 1) and Comet Hyakutake that came later. I was already a graduate school student at that stage, so I was studying all about the universe ... and felt enormous emotion when I saw them.

[Figure 1] Image of Comet Hale–Bopp taken in March 1997 at the Kiso Observatory of the Institute of Astronomy, School of Science at the University of Tokyo
Image of Comet Hale–Bopp

Telescope Magazine: What about you, Ms. Nagata? Why did you become a planetarium lecturer?

Mie Nagata: I’ve loved looking at the night sky and stars since I was a child, too. My big moment was when I watched a total eclipse of the moon. It was not just the knowledge that astronomical objects actually move. This was when I felt the emotion of actually seeing and understanding the movement of the Earth, moon and sun. When I was a student, I was also deeply impressed by the American Voyager planetary probe exploring various planets in our solar system. I particularly liked Saturn, so I loved looking at the images that Voyager took of it. From that time, I was convinced that my work in the future would involve the stars.

Mareki Honma & Mie Nagata

Mareki Honma: Jobs in astronomy are very difficult to get into, aren’t they?

Mie Nagata: I started by visiting a planetarium near my place and asking them how I could become a planetarium lecturer. I also spoke to my school teacher about my hopes of working in astronomy. My teacher then spoke to the planetarium people on my behalf and got me information about careers in astronomy.

Later, when I was at university, I had a casual job working as a lecturer at a planetarium. After I graduated, I found that the Gotoh Planetarium in Shibuya at the time was recruiting for a lecturer and I was lucky enough to get the job. That was the result of a lot of personal connections and fate.

Mareki Honma: You almost never see any jobs available for planetarium lecturers. Luck must have played a part but, above all, I think you succeeded because of your single focus on your dream.

Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan∫

Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (where the interview took place)