‘Black Hole’ traces 100 years of a transformative idea

Implied by general relativity, black holes’ existence took decades for physicists to accept

supermassive black hole

SUPERMASSIVE IDEA  Black holes, such as the supermassive one illustrated here, have transformed astronomers’ understanding of the cosmos in recent decades.


Black Hole
Marcia Bartusiak
Yale Univ., $27.50

Almost a century before Einstein was born, the English polymath John Michell speculated that a star of immense mass could exert enough gravitational force to imprison light. Michell’s insight marked the origin of an idea that was demonstrated in reality only in the 20th century, in the astrophysical offspring of Einstein’s general relativity known as the black hole.

In Black Hole, Marcia Bartusiak, an acclaimed science writer, tells the story of black holes as they emerged from studies of Einstein’s equations, focusing primarily on the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Though first implied by the work of Karl Schwarzschild in 1916 — just months after Einstein had completed his theory — black holes weren’t seriously investigated until 1939, in a paper by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder. The two showed that rather than just a heavy star that held light close, a black hole represented the disappearance of the star — its mass crushed to nothingness, leaving only the mass’s gravity behind.

World War II then stalled black hole research until the 1960s. During that decade various newly discovered astrophysical phenomena, such as quasars, forced physicists to revive general relativity, a theory that had been mostly neglected for decades. Gravitational collapse of matter to form a black hole, as implied by Einstein’s theory, turned out to be essential in explaining quasars. Although John Archibald Wheeler is given credit for coining the name black hole in 1967, Bartusiak points out that the term had already been in print journalistically in 1964, in Life magazine (January 24 issue) and a week earlier in this magazine, then called Science News Letter (1/18/64, p. 39).

Black Hole is engaging and lively, weaving in personal drama (tensions between Oppenheimer and Wheeler, for instance) with a clear account of the underlying science. Bartusiak also highlights the role black holes played in capturing the public imagination and fueling interest in the mysteries of the cosmos.

She does not extend the story through the explosion of black hole research from the 1980s onward. But she does briefly discuss black holes’ importance in many fundamental aspects of physical theory today, from their role in creating gravitational waves to their connections with the mysteries of quantum physics. Perhaps that story can be treated more fully later, after those mysteries have been solved and the offspring that their solutions imply are given clever names.

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Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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