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O Magazine





I know the apprehension spiral shapes can cause. One of my childhood terrors was being swollen up by a whirlwind, and the word xuclador, which is used in Catalan to describe this kind of phenomena, still gives me the chills. Specialists might argue that I suffer from a light phobia to geometric and repetitive natural structures, a paradoxical confession in a text about GIFs displaying this motif.

But the uneasiness transmitted by the vision of a vortex turning around is usually accompanied by a morbid fascination that prevents you from stop looking at it. Nothing too exceptional: the spiral is one of the dual symbols par excellence; an ancient archetype present in many cultures that can both express elevation or sinking, growth or annihilation. It’s a recurrent image in prehistoric art and in the hermetic tradition, as Juan Eduardo Cirlot points out, representing breath and the spirit. North European sailors, however, knew it was a herald of death and called it maelstrom (‘demolishing current’ in Dutch). Then, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe efficiently translated the topic to literature. From then on, the whirlwind able to absorb us has been used in art and in popular culture with equally disturbing results, from manga series Uzumaki to the work of Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor.

As any time we are possessed by irrational fears and atavistic superstition, we can try to seek refuge in science. Fluid mechanics and applied physics describe the principles moving tornados and waterspouts, supercell thunderstorms and circular ocean currents. Their help, however, doesn’t bring much solace in this occasion. On the contrary, it confirms that these nightmarish entities, the vortex of which is impossible to escape, actually exist in the seas as loops able to trap and keep anything approaching its borders too much. And if the simple idea isn’t terrifying enough, there’s more. In the universe, we can find the math equivalent to fluid particles describing an orbit around sea maelstroms: light photons falling inside a black whole.

There are space-time regions in which both dimensions are inverted and cease to make sense at all, whirlwinds with the mass of a million suns that roam about space absorbing mass as if they were giant cosmic siphons. They’re singularities in which the impossible takes place: should we fall inside them, reality would split in two. In one we would be scorched by radiation, and in the other we would go on unscathed, falling in a spiral towards its vortex, unable to get back out.

And now, in case you still feel like it, have a laugh with the fundamental shiver I get from images such as this collision between two black wholes. No matter how hidden, it enunciates the most terrible truth we could conceive.