For more than half a century, physicists and astronomers engaged in heated dispute over the possibility of black holes in the universe. The weirdly alien notion of a space-time abyss from which nothing escapes—not even light—seemed to confound all logic. This engrossing book tells the story of the fierce black hole debates and the contributions of Einstein and Hawking and other leading thinkers who completely altered our view of the universe. Renowned science writer Marcia Bartusiak shows how the black hole helped revive Einstein's greatest achievement, the general theory of relativity, after decades during which it had been pushed into the shadows. Not until astronomers discovered such surprising new phenomena as neutron stars and black holes did the once-sedate universe transform into an Einsteinian cosmos, filled with sources of titanic energy that can be understood only in the light of relativity. This book celebrates the hundredth anniversary of general relativity, uncovers how the black hole really got its name, and recounts the scientists' frustrating, exhilarating, and at times humorous battles over the acceptance of one of history's most dazzling ideas.
Bartusiak (Archives of the Universe), professor in the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, reveals the story and science of black holes in all their "stark and alien weirdness." Black holes begin, and end, with gravity. The first person to propose this idea was 18th-century English polymath John Michell, who imagined a star so massive that "all light... would be made to return towards it, by its own proper gravity." As Bartusiak relates, the idea remained a curiosity until Einstein proffered his theory of special relativity (1905) and the idea that gravity could bend light and motion. German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild envisioned an "event horizon," the point of no return beyond which nothing could escape a massive star's extreme gravity, but no one believed it could happen. Then Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar showed how a massive white dwarf star could shrivel to nothing under its own gravity. Bartusiak notes that Einstein and many others rejected the idea, but by the 1960s, observational evidence and computer advances that allowed astronomers to model stellar collapse showed that black holes were real. Bartusiak's lively, accessible writing and insight into the personalities behind the science make her book an entertaining and informative read.