Jonny McCambridge: Dealing with my bank requires the ingenuity and dazzling skill of an astrophysicist

Some of you may remember the excitement a couple of years ago when the first ever image of a black hole was unveiled.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 4:37 pm
Undated handout photo issued by Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration of the first ever image of a black hole. The EHT, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes, was designed to capture the image. It reveals the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday April 10, 2019. See PA story SCIENCE Hole. Photo credit should read: Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

It was a major news event when a network of eight ground-based telescopes collected data to produce a composite photograph of the circle of energy.

But I had a problem. I found my mind becoming a bit dazed by the sheer, unfathomable scope of what had been achieved. I don’t have even a basic grasp of science.

I wanted to understand, but no matter how much I read, I found that I couldn’t wrap any tentacles of comprehension around the central concept.

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I knew that I needed a reference point. Something which could make the scale of the idea relevant to me.

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 absorbed. It grows incessantly by devouring mass. I began to think about my credit card debt.

I let the comparison settle. It appeared to fit, both theoretically and in terms of sheer dimension.

There was another reason why the connection seemed to work.

The creation of the black hole algorithm was a dazzling technical achievement, a team of great minds overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.

Similar ingenuity, persistence and raw luck is required for me to make my monthly payment.

I sit down with my phone and open the link sent by the credit card company. The first thing it presents is a message.

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

I fear that their definition of good news is very far from my own.

I plough on. After several minutes trying to navigate the site, I find the ‘Log in’ link. I am immediately asked for my username and password.

I scratch my chin. Modern life is full of passwords, PIN numbers and codes. Which one is this?

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

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

I stare. I consider that I have a reasonable memory. 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. I reckon with a few drinks in me I could still do it.

But, 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 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 have to click on the button which admits I’ve forgotten my own details.

The phone segues onto another screen. First it asks me to enter my username and password once more. I’ve forgotten them again.I have three goes before I get it right. Then I have to give 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 indeed me accessing my account, rather than some barbarous imposter. When they do, I will have to repeat a four-digit code which they are about to send by text.

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 say the code out loud.

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 pause the call while I go in search of the text. As I fumble, I hear the voice repeating: ‘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 flipping catch it because I didn’t flipping say anything because I’m still trying to get the flipping code that you sent to the same flipping 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 frustration, I hit the wrong button and cut the call. Now, I have to start the whole process again. 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.

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 emotional, 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 ‘smart’ phone automatically suggests the digits I should put in the box. I go along with this.

But it turns out that the card I’m trying to use to make the payment is the same card that I’m currently trying to pay off and the finance 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, so I decide I need a distraction. I read a little more about astronomy 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 a single point of infinite density.

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

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