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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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