50 years later, it’s hard to say who named black holes

Science News Letter was the first publication to print the term "black hole," which appeared in a story by Ann Ewing in the January 18, 1964, issue. But nobody is really sure who used the term first.

Science News Letter/SSP

DALLAS — Nobody seems to be noticing, but this month is the 50th anniversary of using the term “black hole” to describe the bottomless pits of outer space.

That’s probably because the traditional story gives the year of the term’s birth as 1967, when John Archibald Wheeler used it during a lecture in New York City in December of that year.

Wheeler, who died in 2008, said the term was suggested to him a few weeks earlier during another lecture, when a member of the audience got tired of hearing Wheeler repeatedly saying “gravitationally completely collapsed object.”

“Why not call it a black hole?” the listener urged, as Wheeler later recalled.

But in fact, the term had been used four years earlier at an astrophysics conference in Dallas, as science writer Marcia Bartusiak reported this month in a talk at the 50th anniversary of that conference, the Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics.

Bartusiak, a professor in the science writing program at MIT and author of several highly acclaimed books, has been tracking down the history of black holes for a forthcoming book. She discovered that “black hole” was spoken in Dallas in December 1963.

“It was used right here at the first Texas symposium, somewhere, by someone.”

Wheeler himself spoke at the symposium, but no one recalls him naming black holes back then. But somebody did, because the term appeared in the January 24, 1964, issue of Life magazine. Life’s science editor, Al Rosenfeld, had attended the symposium and used the term in his report. Bartusiak tracked him down, and Rosenfeld confirmed that he had heard the term at the meeting (he didn’t make it up himself), but he didn’t remember who said it, either.

Life magazine does not, however, win the distinction of being the first publication to use black hole in print. That honor goes to Science News Letter, the early long-form name of Science News. It seems that the “black hole” label was also bandied about in January 1964 in Cleveland at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science News Letter reporter Ann Ewing reported from that meeting, describing how an intense gravitational field could cause a star to collapse in on itself. “Such a star then forms a ‘black hole’ in the universe,” Ewing wrote — in the January 18, 1964 issue, beating Life magazine by a week.

Ewing’s report listed the names of several speakers at that AAAS meeting, but she did not identify who had uttered the black hole phrase. This is just the sort of thing that scientists and journalists discuss in the hotel bar during astrophysics conferences, especially when one of the scientists is Virginia Trimble, an astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. She’s more knowledgeable about the history of all things astronomical than Leonard Maltin is about Hollywood movies.

Just as Bartusiak, Trimble and I were discussing the Science News Letter story about black holes, along came Charles Misner of the University of Maryland, one of the physicists named in Ewing’s story as attending the 1964 Cleveland AAAS meeting. But he didn’t remember who used the term there, either.

Perhaps, someone suggested, it was Hong-Yee Chiu, who organized the session. Before Bartusiak’s talk, Trimble reached Chiu and asked him about the black hole mystery. And yes, Chiu said, he may have used the term at the meeting, but it didn’t originate with him. Chiu told Trimble that he recalled a seminar in Princeton, about 1960 or 1961, when the physicist Robert Dicke was talking about gravitationally collapsed objects. Dicke, according to Chiu, described the objects as “like the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

Bartusiak then related that Martin McHugh, who is working on a biography of Dicke, told her that Dicke’s children remember that “when something was lost at the Dicke household, Dicke would shout out, ‘Ah, it must have been sucked into the black hole of Calcutta.’”

So perhaps Dicke inspired the shortened version of the phrase that was used informally at the 1963 Texas symposium and the 1964 AAAS meeting. But it didn’t catch on until Wheeler began using it a few years later.

“Perhaps Wheeler still gets credit,” Bartusiak said. “He never said he originated the term…. What was important is that he had the authority to give the scientific community permission to use the term ‘black hole.’”

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

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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