Skip to main content

Black Holes: a very short introduction - Katherine Blundell ***

Black holes have to be amongst the most fascinating phenomena of astronomy/cosmology and as such make a perfect topic for a new addition to OUP's vast collection of pocket guides, the 'very short introduction' books. I read my copy on a couple of 45 minute train journeys - it's long enough to give a good grounding in the basics of black holes, without being heavy or over-technical.

We are taken on a tour that includes the early black hole-like concepts, and the nature of the real thing, what would happen if you fell into one, the black hole's thermodynamics (which is more interesting than it sounds), how we discover things like their mass and spin rate, how they grow (and shrink) and plenty more. Considering this is just 93 pages, Katherine Blundell packs in the good stuff.

The writing style is generally approachable, and this is a popular topic, so I was all set to give the book four stars, but there were sufficient issues to pull it back down. The first was the errors. Almost every popular science book has at least one, but there seemed rather more than usual. The expected one, which I couldn't blame Blundell for, was in the description of Hawking radiation, which doesn't make a lot of sense. The reason I don't blame the author is that almost all popular science descriptions of Hawking radiation don't make sense, because all of us, except working physicists, assumed Hawking described it correctly in his book. Unfortunately he didn't - in attempting to simplify a messy theoretical concept, he came up with an 'explanation' that doesn't hold water, which was then, unsurprisingly, repeated elsewhere over an over. It's unfortunate timing that there has been a lot of publicity this year for this problem. 

Less forgivable were a couple of oddities. The Andromeda galaxy is described as being 6 million light years away. It is actually around 2.5 million light years. While you might argue this is order of magnitude correct, even the worst taxi driver wouldn't take you on a route that was 3.5 million light years too far. We are also told that white dwarf stars are cold. This seems to suggest a lack of understanding of stars - you can't radiate blue-white light and be cold. What might have been intended is that over time white dwarfs do cool in the way that ordinary stars don't, because there's no hydrogen fusion to heat them, but it's a very slow process and observable white dwarfs tend to be pretty toasty.

Finally, there's the matter of omissions. Most of the work on black holes is theory rather than observation, and there's a rich vein in the theory around, for instance, the concept of firewalls - whether an observer passing into a black hole would not notice the event horizon or would burn up, as some theories suggest. Other theories put the entire universe in a black hole, making the possibility of a holographic reality. It's a shame this fun speculation isn't there, both to see and be analysed, especially as so much about black holes is based on theory rather than observed data.

Not a bad book, by any means, but enough issues to raise a small flag.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…