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Winter 1998
Rising Star
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The only thing more surprising than recent revelations about the existence of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way may be the scientist who discovered it

By D. Peter Yaari
Illustration by Liz Pyle

It is cold on top of the mountain.

Temperatures can plummet to -4 C. High winds -- sometimes gusting to 150 mph -- can whip snow, sleet and fog into a impenetrable mushy haze. To reach the summit requires dedication and a four-wheel-drive because the air is too thin to adequately cool a vehicle=s brakes upon descent. Most rental companies will void your contract if you take one of their cars up here.

It is a remote, demanding place.

But from here, at 14,000 feet above sea level, atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii with the whole of the Pacific Ocean spread out like an indigo carpet far below, the night sky is a jeweled, crystalline veil undisturbed by the pollution of city lights or turbulent air roiling off of nearby mountain ranges.

It is here at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, 2,500 miles from Westwood, that Andrea Ghez comes to stare into the very core of our cosmos. She is in search of the Black Hole. To say that finding it is like looking for a needle in a haystack is to understate the case. What Ghez is looking for -- and what she has in fact found! -- is evidence of a presence of unspeakable mass, yet virtually nonexistent, subatomic size. Even if it could be superhumanly magnified, it would remain virtually invisible because its gravity "strangles" light waves. And the whipped-up velocity it induces in the orbits of its nearest stars is mostly hidden from telescopes by cosmic dust along the galaxy's plane that dims the starlight of the Milky Way's 100 billion suns by a factor of one trillion.

Yet, galactically speaking, this node of turbulent chaos is right in our own backyard, a mere 24,000 light years away (that's about 6 trillion miles a year traveling at the speed of light, to you and me).

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