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 Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…