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SMU prof Luigi Gallo off to Japan for launch of satellite

If forced to choose between black holes to visit, Luigi Gallo would pick Sagittarius A.
Luigi Gallo, an astronomy and physics professor at Saint Mary's University, will be in Japan next week for the launch of ASTRO-H, a space observatory. Gallo leads the Canadian science team that worked on the project. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)


If forced to choose between black holes to visit, Luigi Gallo would pick Sagittarius A.

Sure, there are black holes that are closer than the supermassive one 26,000 light-years away near the centre of our galaxy.

“Those smaller black holes would actually be more dangerous – you’d be torn apart if you fell into them,” said Gallo, a professor of astrophysics at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“A supermassive black hole,  you could actually go across the event horizon without being torn apart.”

To anyone watching him travel toward the event horizon – the point at which not even light can escape the immense gravitational pull of the collapsed star – Gallo would appear to slow down exponentially until he seemed frozen in time.

But from his perspective, time would continue at a normal pace as he sized up whether all the theories he’s spent his adult life studying and contributing to are correct.

And then he’d cross the event horizon.

And what would happen then?

“I couldn’t tell you – that gets into a realm of physics that are purely theoretical.”

On Thursday, Gallo was getting calls from reporters (a rarity for astrophysicists) because a communications officer at his university issued a news release.

The one-page release reminded everyone that the Saint Mary’s professor is the lead Canadian scientist for a satellite that Japan’s space agency plans to send hurtling into orbit in a week.

Its telescope will monitor the X-rays shot into space from black holes, supernova explosions and neutron stars.

And reporters called Gallo because, although he was born in Calgary, he lives here now – so not only is he an easy one-call story, but he’s also an example of how high-tech research can happen here too.

And you, the news consumer who read, listened to or watched pieces about Gallo, will probably, like the reporters who called him Thursday, not understand much about his research.

He knew all of this as he patiently explained to the Local Xpress why black holes are fascinating.

And the father of two sons, ages 14 and nine, had a ready answer when asked why any of us should care about black holes when no member of our species is likely to ever visit one and there’s already so much to worry about on our little rock spinning around the sun.

“We have to instil wonder in our children,” he said.

“The only way we can get a culture that’s going to think for itself is teaching them to explore, wonder, question and doubt.”

Gallo’s answer is different than the one many scientists turn to when asked why we should spend precious money peering into space when it could be spent on society’s less fortunate. A common response is that abstract science produces results that can be applied practically on Earth to better everyone’s life.

While that may sometimes be true, for Gallo, it’s about the thrill of discovery and wondering at the terrible beauty of the universe during the fleeting moments we’re granted in it.

“We didn’t come from a black hole, but we evolved from the same material that they are made of,” he said.

“Black holes were once, quite literally, stardust.”

And so, he added, are all of us.


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