“The Little Book That Could” — Explain the History and Mysteries of Black Holes

Marcia Bartusiak’s book, Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking, Became Loved, Yale University Press (2015), explores the nature of black holes, their discovery from the theoretical to the observed, and how they came into our vocabulary today.  The book is five years old, and still truly relevant today to what we know about black holes.

What I found most intriguing about the book is how nicely she presents a story of the evolution of our understanding of black holes, starting in the 18th century when English geologist and astronomer John Michell first hypothesized that an object, a dark star, could be so massive that its light would not leave its surface.

Then along came Albert Einstein, who laid the theoretical foundation that enabled others to follow in his footsteps to unravel the riddle of the Singularity — of which he was not fond, as singularities are a horror to physicists.  It was incomprehensible in 1939 to imagine a star collapsing to a point of zero volume and infinite density.    J. Robert Oppenheimer co-authored a paper discussing this phenomenon of continued gravitational contraction; it was established as the first modern description of a black hole.

But singularities and relativity were not important at this time; by the time Oppenheimer and co-author Hartland Snyder published their paper on the subject, World War II was at its beginning, so the published paper receive little notice.  Oppenheimer went back to his work on nuclear physics.  By 1942 he was involved with the Manhattan project and manufacturing the world’s first atomic bomb.

General relativity was considered nonessential to most physicists during Einstein’s time in the 1930s and ‘40s.  Totally gravitationally collapsed objects was shelved as a topic.  Einstein himself often remarked that “they regard me as an old fool.”  It was not until the mid-1950s that interest in general relativity and its applications revived after its decades-long lull.  Taking up were Oppenheimer left off, John Archibald Wheeler decided to ponder the fate of collapse stars.  Thanks to his knowledge about nuclear bomb calculations, it led him to a new understanding of how a collapsing star can become a gravitationally collapsed object.

Astronomers soon would begin to gather information on an array of celestial radiations other than visible-light wavelengths, leading to some unexpected discoveries that cried out for explanation.  One of these new discoveries was quasars, enigmatic phenomena never seen until the late 1950s.   It was eventually deduced that these were being powered by black holes.  Now there was a need to investigate further the nature of Gravitationally Collapsed Objects as a possible explanation for this new phenomenon.  It looked as though Oppenheimer’s 1939 paper would finally get its day in the sun, thanks in part to the discovery of quasars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quasar).

Why don’t you just call them Black Holes?

Gravitationally Collapsed Objects were routinely referred to as dark stars, along with frozen stars.  It was not until 1967 at a conference that we got the term we now know and love.  Wheeler repeatedly tells the tale of when he first used the term Black Hole at an AAAS conference (https://www.aaas.org/).  He used the term “gravitationally collapsed objects” so often to the assembly of astronomers that somebody finally shouted out from the audience, “Why don’t you call them a Black Hole?”  Born was a new lexicon!

The term black hole may have had earlier origins as well, a reference to the notorious reputation of the small dungeon used by indigenous rebels at Fort William in Calcutta [Kolkata], India, in June 1756.  The rebels captured a British garrison, and held the 146 men in the very cramped cell they called the Black Hole.

Around 1960, Princeton physicist Robert Dicke, experimental and theoretical physicist on gravitation, once spoke to an audience about these collapsed stars.  To his astonished audience he jokingly added it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta!  Dicke may have released the term into the scientific atmosphere.  His sons recall their father exclaiming Black Hole of Calcutta whenever a household item appeared to have been swallowed up and gone missing.  Whoever inspired the phrase, Wheeler certainly deserves much of the credit for its placement into the scientific lexicon.

This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. This thin disc of rotating material consists of the leftovers of a Sun-like star which was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. The black hole is labelled, showing the anatomy of this fascinating object. Image credit: ESO

The first Texas symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics held in Dallas in 1963 tried to figure out the source of quasars’ outstanding power.  This was the first notable attempt to link general relativity with astrophysical concerns.  In 1971, Cygnus X-1 radio source is identified as a possible black hole, the first to be discovered in space.  The Texas symposium held once again in Dallas in 2013 celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Black Holes then and now are fully accepted by the scientific community!

This is a lightweight but power-packed book with a lot more information on black holes than I can provide in this review.  There is a nice timeline in the back, and you do not have to be a Stephen Hawking to understand it all!

Black Hole Addendum:

In the late 1960s, science fiction writers were fully alert to this new celestial kid on the block, the Black Hole.  In the Star Trek episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” the starship Enterprise encounters an invisible dark star that drags this future spaceship dangerously close to it and sends its crew back in time to the 1960s.

Thanks to my renewed interest in black holes, I recently watched the 1979 film Walt Disney’s Black Hole that I had not seen in a long time.  It’s not a bad film for the time, just a little corny with that typical formula of the good guys pitted against an evil doctor.  All in all, the special effects were not so bad for that period. There is the finale inside the black hole in which the mad, evil doctor appears to be in a hellish landscape populated by dark-robed specters.  This is followed by a floating apparition passing through a cathedral-like arched crystal tunnel — perhaps [Christian] heaven and hell being exhibited in this black hole.  The escaping probe with our heroes emerges from a “white hole” and is last seen flying through space toward an eclipsing planet near an unknown star, presumably in a place far, far away.  In March 2018, it was reported that Emily Carmichael would be writing a reboot film for Disney.

Interstellar (2014 film) written by the Nolan brothers and co-produced with Christopher Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, tried its best to stick with scientific principles regarding Black Holes.  They even enlisted physicist Kip Thorne to guide them.  Thorne laid down two guidelines: first, that nothing would violate established physical laws; second, that “all the wild speculations would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter.”  I also recommend Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar, for fans of the film.





Marcia Bartusiak: Black Hole