This image released by Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, Thursday, shows...

This image released by Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, Thursday, shows a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.  Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration via AP

It's easy these days to be awed and baffled.

Consider the unveiling of the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. It was sublime, even after you discovered that its Technicolor palette was chosen by astronomers who were trying to depict the intensity of gaseous emissions surrounding it.

Those oranges and yellows were hypnotically vivid but simultaneously confusing: One of the hallmarks of black holes is that they are invisible because their enormous mass allows no light to escape from them.

This black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, is like other cosmic phenomena in its challenge to our limited brains. This one is 4 million times more massive than our sun, itself a standard for massiveness when older folks like me were growing up. And as it turns out, Sagittarius A* is but a modest supermassive black hole. The black hole in a galaxy known as Messier 87, whose image was unveiled in 2019 by the same group of astronomers, is 6.5 billion (not million) times bigger than our sun.

More size bafflement: Some astronomers have calculated the size of Sagittarius A* as being able to fit snugly within a sphere the size of Mercury’s orbit around the sun. Mercury, which is 36 million miles from the sun. That's a lot of orbit, and a lot of black hole.

We humans — most of us, anyway — have trouble grasping the meaning of really big numbers. Too many zeros causes spatial disorientation. At some point, our brains just register "big." Or just shut down.

It's been a little like that with the pandemic. We were warned that 200,000 Americans might die if we didn't do what needed to be done and many scoffed because that was just too ridiculously big. We had no frame of reference for that. And now 1,000,000 Americans have died. And we can't — or won't — wrap our minds around it. Numbness beats thinking hard about it.

Black holes challenge us in other ways. They often are called the most mysterious objects in the universe, which is true if you discount cats and some people I used to see in the East Village in the 1970s. The gravity in a black hole is so strong that it bends space and time, astronomers say. That's literally the stuff of science fiction, only it's nonfiction. When they say a black hole can shred a star, you can form an image of that. But how does its gravity bend space and time?

The difficulty of comprehending this pull being so strong and the space through which it is sucking matter being so small led one scientist interviewed by The Washington Post to offer an analogy of sucking an elephant through a straw. Comprehend that.

Some scientists registered disappointment that the image didn't help dent Einstein's theory of general relativity, which sounds like a debate of the most cosmic order. But in this age of truth alteration, it's nice to know some knowledge stands the test of … well … time, bent or otherwise.

We have plenty of mind-bending challenges here at home, of course.

Like Bitcoin: How can one "mine" new Bitcoin, which also is invisible, by solving mathematical puzzles on a computer?

And Ukraine: How can humans be this cruel?

And Democrats: Why do they never learn?

And Republicans? Why do they never learn?

Perhaps some questions have no answers. One scientist from MIT, after the unveiling of Sagittarius A*, was asked what is at the very core of a black hole. “It is unknowable,” he replied.

And so it is for black holes, in outer space and at home.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.