Skip to main content

The Little Book of Black Holes - Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius ****

I am always suspicious when a book has a comment on the back from a physics professor recommending it for the 'general reader', as in my experience, physics professors have little clue as to what works for a non-technical audience. But in the case of The Little Book of Black Holes, Roger Penrose has got it right... with one proviso. As long as the general reader has absorbed a good popular science title on special and general relativity first.

Without ever venturing into heavyweight maths, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius take us through the way that both Schwarzschild's non-rotating black hole and Kerr's rotating version were derived from Einstein's equations. And they help the reader explore many of the implications for such a body were it to exist in the real universe, from familiar aspects such as time dilation to the delightful zoom-whirl orbit. For an unfortunate individual passing towards the singularity we not only get spaghettification (though not named as such) but also consideration of what you would see when looking out of the hole and what influence matter outside a rotating black hole would have on a traveller within the event horizon.

Add in a chapter on gravitational waves, giving more detail of the mechanism that is normally provided, very timely given the recent discoveries and Nobel Prize, plus consideration of charged black holes and black hole thermodynamics, and it's clear that this is really will take the knowledge of anyone with a serious interest in black holes up to the next level. The presentation is not always 100 per cent clear - there are times when the authors think they've explained something but they haven't - yet on the whole, if you already have the basics and take it slowly, this will be a revelation. 

So, The Little Book is genuinely fascinating and insightful stuff - but it is necessary to have read the background material elsewhere first. Gubser and Pretorius do provide brief introductory chapters on special and general relativity but they assume far too much existing knowledge. So I wholeheartedly recommend this book for a popular science reader who wants to get more depth on the nature of black holes and how general relativity made it possible to conjure them up - but do make sure you've read something like The Reality Frame first. This is, indeed, for the general reader as Penrose said - but only for one who is well prepared.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…