Black holes, and paying the credit card

Last week, along with many others, I watched in amazement as the first ever image of a black hole was unveiled to the public.

As I saw excited scientists explain how a network of eight ground-based telescopes around the world had collected data to produce the image of the circle of energy I found my mind becoming a bit dazed by the sheer, unfathomable scope of what had been achieved.

But that was the problem. I don’t have even a basic grasp of science. I want to understand, but no matter how much I read or watched I found that I couldn’t wrap any tentacles of comprehension around the central concept of what I was looking at. It was too big for my brain to process and I was troubled by my ignorance.

As a writer I knew that I needed a reference point. Something which could make the scale of the idea relevant for my brain. I considered what I had read. A black hole is unseeable. It is impossible for anything to escape from. Its gravitational pull sucks in everything in its path. All matter is sucked into the depth of the hole. It grows incessantly by absorbing mass. Conceptually we know it exists even if we can never properly witness it.

I pondered all of that. Then a notion popped into my head – my credit card debt. I let the comparison settle, it seemed to fit, both theoretically and in terms of sheer dimension. Hardly scientific but it certainly allowed me to make the hypothetical idea of a black hole more real.

Of course there may be another reason why the credit card debt slipped into my consciousness at that exact moment. It may have been due to the fact that while I was watching the black hole press conference I also received an email from my credit card company telling me that it would really be in my best interests to make a payment sometime soon. 

It was clear that the black hole algorithm was a dazzling technical achievement, a team of great minds overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to produce the image and further out understanding of science. I knew that similar ingenuity, persistence and raw luck would be needed for me to make the payment.


After several days of stalling I sat down with my phone today and opened the link sent by my credit card company. The first thing presented was a message.

‘Good news! We’ve made some changes to our website to improve your experience!’

I stared hard at the message. I feared that the finance company’s definition of good news was very far from my own. Undeterred, I ploughed on. After several minutes trying to navigate the unfamiliar site I found the ‘Log in’ link and clicked it. I was immediately asked for my Username and Password. I scratched my chin. Modern life is full of passwords, PIN numbers and codes. Which one was this? Was it numbers or letters?

I noticed that at the bottom of the screen my phone was making helpful suggestions about what my password might be. Perhaps it knew something I didn’t. I typed in the suggested password and a message flashed up. ‘Password not recognised’. I cast a reproachful glance at the bottom of my phone screen. Nothing, not even a sorry.

After some minutes of deduction and blind guessing I worked out my username and password and, like a contestant on The Crystal Maze, moved on to the next challenge.

Now the screen was asking me to insert the second fourth and seventh characters from my ‘memorable phrase’.

I stared.

Now I consider that I have a reasonable memory. I can even recollect some vague fragments from being in the cot as a baby. When I was 12 I had to learn by heart ‘Jacque’s Seven Ages of Man’ from As You Like It and then recite the soliloquy in front of my bored classmates. I reckon with a few drinks in me I could still do it.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women…’ (Dramatic pause for effect. Pulls a face of grave authority)….’merely players.’

But despite it all nowhere in the dark or dusty corners of my brain can I ever remember entering a ‘memorable phrase’ into this account. Indeed I’m forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that my selection of a memorable phrase must have been the least memorable thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because I can’t bloody remember it.

I scratch my chin again. I’ve got that familiar feeling that the world is leaving me behind. I wonder if the black hole team of scientists had to overcome this sort of difficulty. Of course they did. I try to think what I’d likely select as a memorable phrase. Nothing comes to mind.

Finally I type in ‘Stick your memorable phrase up your…’ before I run out of character spaces.

Then I have to click on the button which admits I’ve forgotten my own details. The modern day equivalent of the practice of lepers having to carry bells.

The phone segues onto another screen, with larger lettering. First it asks me to enter my username and password. But, despite my breakthrough in entering them just five minutes ago, I’ve forgotten them again. I have three goes before I enter the right choices. Then I have to give my name and some other personal details before I’m asked to come up with a new memorable phrase. I do my best.

Then a new screen tells me that the company will now have to phone me to confirm it is me accessing my account. When they do I will have to repeat a four digit code which they are about to send. I click OK.

Within seconds my mobile begins to ring. I’ve just answered it when I hear the beeping sound that informs that a text has arrived. A recorded, mellifluous voice tells me to to say the code out loud when she stops talking.

But I can’t retrieve the code because it’s in the mobile. The same mobile on which I’m currently having a conversation with an automated voice. I try to hold the call while I go in search of the text. As I fumble with buttons I hear the lovely voice repeating.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that…..I’m sorry I didn’t catch that.’

I crack on the fourth or fifth occasion she says it, using the angry tone I usually reserve for my sat nav.

‘You didn’t fecking catch it because I didn’t fecking say anything because I’m still trying to get the fecking code that you sent to the same fecking phone that you’re talking to me on!’

There’s a moment of silence, then….

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’

Then, in growing anger, I hit a button which inadvertently cuts the call. Now I have to start the whole process again from the beginning. Website, user name, password, come up with a memorable phrase (I pick another new phrase because I’ve forgotten the last one), the phone call, the text, the voice.

Of course it’s not straightforward. Technological innovation isn’t supposed to be. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

I manage it this time. I’m sweating and angry but I’ve finally accessed my account.

Then I see my balance. I revise my earlier opinion. The black hole makes a lot more sense than this.

I spend another ten minutes working out how to make a payment on the new, user-friendly site. I select the options and I’m asked to insert the details of the card I’m using to make the payment.

My phone, perhaps keen to atone for its earlier incompetence, automatically suggests the digits I should put in the box. I go along with this.

But it turns out that the card my phone is trying to use to make the payment is the same card that I’m currently trying to pay off and the credit card company isn’t having it. I take over and do it manually, using my debit card.

Eventually the payment is accepted and I’m able to log out.

I’m a little disturbed by the trauma of the whole process so I decide I need a distraction. I read a little more about black holes and come across a discussion online about what would happen if a human fell into a black hole.

One scientist suggests your body would move into a state in which it resembles ‘toothpaste being extruded out of the tube’. Another says your head would feel massively more gravitational pull than your feet so you would be stretched horrifically (‘spaghettification’ this is called). It ends with you being squashed into an single point of infinite density.

Or, to put it more simply, how I feel after paying my credit card.

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