Black holes are not merely maelstroms of destruction but may also be creative agents that helped bring order to the cosmos, astronomers have reported in the past year. One clue comes from the discovery of quasars shining just a billion years after the Big Bang. These brilliant objects are believed to be powered by supermassive black holes, which must have begun forming very early in the life of the universe. Stuart Shapiro, an astrophysicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speculates that a first generation of stars developed directly from primordial clouds of hydrogen and helium. Some of these stars then collapsed into black holes that grew rapidly by swallowing gas and colliding with one another. “If so, the formation of supermassive black holes may be part of the initial birth of structure in the universe,” he says.
Other evidence comes from the analysis of modern galaxies, most of which have central black holes whose masses seem to correlate closely with the properties of their host galaxies. The implication is that the black holes may have dictated how the galaxies took shape, the opposite of what scientists had assumed. “People always thought of the galaxy as the parent and the black hole as the child born in the galaxy,” says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University. He and a number of colleagues theorize that energy streaming from hot gas around a supermassive black hole could compress, stir, and irradiate the surrounding environment in a way that helps regulate the growth of the galaxy and the production of stars.