Skip to main content

A Crack in Everything - Marcus Chown *****

This is a book about black holes - and there are two ways to look at these amazing phenomena. One is to meander about in endless speculation concerning firewalls and holographic universes and the like, where there is no basis in observation, only mathematical magic. This, for me, is often closer to science fiction than science fact. The alternative, which is what Marcus Chown does so well here (apart from a single chapter), is to explore the aspects of theory that have observational evidence to back them up - and he does it wonderfully.

I'm reminded in a way of the play The Audience which was the predecessor to The Crown. In the play, we see a series of moments in history when Queen Elizabeth II is meeting with her prime ministers, giving a view of what was happening in life and politics at that point in time. Here, Chown takes us to visit various breakthroughs over the last 100 or so years when a step was made in the understanding of black holes. 

The first few are around the basic theory - for example Schwarzschild's remarkable first solution of Einstein's equations of general relativity from his First World War hospital bed, and the gradual realisation of the implications of a large star losing the energy to keep itself fluffed up. Then come the shocking discoveries - quasars which turned out to be active supermassive black holes, the detection of the real things, black hole collisions detected using gravitational waves and more. As mentioned, there is one summary chapter on the speculative stuff, for me by far the least interesting bit of the whole thing, but that didn't spoil the enjoyment of the whole.

I'm really struggling to find anything to moan about. There is the occasional touch of hyperbole - at one point Chown says of Kerr's rotating black hole solution 'Arguably it would turn out to be the most important solution to any equation in physics' - I tend to think there are plenty with more practical applications (from Newton's equations of motion to some in quantum physics) that perhaps could be considered more important. And I think he could have made more of a throwaway comment in a footnote that Kerr had written a paper questioning whether black holes have to be singularities - the biggest problem the theoretical side faces - but these are trivial points.

What was so engaging in reading this book apart from the subject matter, much of which is passed over in other books on black holes in the rush to get to the speculation, and the personal touch from the interviews and biographical detail that Chown incorporates, is his writing style. I can honest say I don't know another science writer who is as good a storyteller as Chown. His writing is not fancy and full of literary tweaks and unnecessary technical terms. Chown is to popular science writing what Isaac Asimov was to science fiction. Not necessarily the most elegant writer, but a superb craftsman who really understands how to put across a narrative. Usually this skill is focused on the science, but here Chown applies it particularly to biography and history where it works even better: I'd say it makes this his best book yet.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg - See all Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly email free here


Popular posts from this blog

The Atomic Human - Neil Lawrence ****

This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Let’s start with the title - it feels totally wrong for what the book’s about. ‘The Atomic Human’ conjures up some second rate superhero. What Neil Lawrence is getting at is the way atoms were originally conceived as what you get when you pare back more and more until what’s left is uncuttable. The idea is that this reflects the way that artificial intelligence has cut into what’s special about being human - but there is still that core left. I think a much better analogy would have been the god of the gaps - the idea that science has taken over lots of what was once attributed to deities, leaving just a collection of gaps. At the heart of the book is an excellent point: how we as humans have great processing power in our brains but very limited bandwidth with which to communicate. By comparison, AIs have a huge amount of bandwidth to absorb vast amounts of data from the internet but can’t manage our use of understanding and context. This distinct

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t