Book Review: Black Holes and Time Warps, by Kip Thorne

Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy; by Kip Thorne; Norton Press; Paperback; $19

I’ve read so many books on black holes, space-time warps, wormholes, the universe, membranes, event horizons, riders on trains looking at stationary candles, people on platforms looking at moving candles, red-shift, blue-shift, Doppler shift, and the like, I think I’ve convinced myself I’m an expert in cosmology without ever having taken a college course in astronomy or cosmology. My employer offers only one introductory course in astronomy, and no introductory courses in cosmology, therefore I’m relegated to supplementing my education by reading the books of people who study astronomy and cosmology and astrophysics.

Black Holes and Time Warps is one of a series of books considered essential reading for those interested in the science of cosmology and the origins of the universe, at least according to the reading list I downloaded from the web site, BrainPicker. Other titles in the series include “The Inflationary Universe,” by Alan Muth; “A Universe From Nothing,” by Lawrence Krauss; and “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe” by Roger Penrose. The first two I’ve read and reviewed; the last is sitting on my bookshelf. Dr. Penrose, despite his reputation of eloquence and accessible reading, has written a book slightly more daunting than the others only in that he has provided more math than the others. The Road to Reality will require more time to enjoy.

Therein lies the rub with many of these books written by physicists who studying esoteric fields, like astrophysics, cosmology, quantum physics, and quantum mechanics. In making these topics accessible to the likes of me (and you), accessible in the sense of communicating their field in a language most people can read and potentially understand to some degree, these authors write in a such a way that may fill some of us with hope of actually understanding the mathematics and theorems behind their work.

Yeah. Not really.

The Science Channel does a great job of filling our minds with sexy computer generated images of deep-space, very deep-space, and truly mind-boggling deep space. Phil Plait, Machio Kaku, Alex Filipenko, Neil de Grasse-Tyson, and Brian Greene have all done marvelous jobs at helping us believe that “yes, you, too can major in astrophysics and help expand humanities understanding of the cosmos!”

I think that is a pipe-dream for 99.99% of humanity, to be honest.

To be a competent researcher in astrophysics, or cosmology, one needs to be intimately familiar with various forms of mathematics, tensors, linear and matrix algebra, calculus, to be sure. The electromagnetic spectrum, particle physics, and thermodynamics must all be a part of any astrophysicists toolbox. Mathematics and physics are tools, a means of framing questions and discerning answers.

Many students today cringe at the thought of spending an hour working on numerous math problems. Can you imagine working on one math problem for a month? How about a year? How about 5 years?

What kind of problem requires a team of smart people working on the same math problem for 5 years? 10 years? If that sounds like something you would like, like all of your birthdays have arrived at once, then you might have an awesome career ahead of you in astrophysics. And, you’ll probably like this book. But, the career field is rife with conflict.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, for example, suffered for decades after coming into conflict with most of the astrophysics community by defying the standard notion black holes cannot exist, that “natural would not allow such a thing to exist.” Of course, being both persistent and correct would help him eventually win the Nobel Prize, but not until five decades of having to prove himself and his equations.

Black Holes and Time Warps is more a history of the discovery of black holes and a discussion of time warps. Thorne traces a chronology, more or less, beginning with a letter (1901) of Albert Einstein’s father entreating Professor Wilhelm Ostwald to read Einstein’s recently published paper, “Conclusions Drawn from the Phenomena of Capillarity.” While the hypothesis set for in this paper was eventually proven wrong, Einstein’s later papers (1905) were obviously better.

Eddington later helps prove Einstein’s space curvature as fact, and Chandrasekhar and Eddington began an argument over the interpretation of Einstein’s equations of General Relativity and the idea something can have enough mass, and thus enough gravity, to forbid even the escape of radiation.

In the 1950s, John A. Wheeler would spend begin a lifelong endeavor to study “all the objects made from cold, dead matter.” (198) At this time of astrophysics studies, the term “black hole” did not exist. Many scientists, while realizing the math allowed for the collapse of stars, believed the math was wrong due to a presumed lack of complete understanding. In other words, the only reason the math proved stars could collapse was because some unknown factor was not being considered, a factor which many believe would prove collapsed stars could, in fact, not exist. The term for black holes prior to John Wheeler was to call the final stage of a star’s collapse a “collapsed star” or a “frozen star.”

Late in the 1950s, Wheeler and Robert Oppenheimer would argue vehemently with each other over the circumstances leading to the collapse of a star of a certain mass. Wheeler, with insight from the unlikely David Finkelstein (244), provided the intuitive leap which would bring the astrophysics community kicking-and-screaming to accept the notion black holes were very real celestial objects.

Embedding diagram

Embedding diagram

New frameworks were developed for conceptualizing frozen stars. Embedding diagrams were common for visualizing events around a frozen star. It may seem odd, but these drawings assumed static conditions, meaning some frames were unmoving in relation to other frames. Finkelstein drew frames which had varied rates of motion, varied distance, and varied time. Wheeler was able to refine his vision of frozen stars using these new frames. Eventually, after months of thought and consideration, he proposed a new name to describe these objects from which nothing could escape: black holes (trou noir). (257)

From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, others would carry the torch of black hole research forward. The Russians, in spite of their primary focus of nuclear weapons research, still managed to provide important insights. Chief among the Russian scientists was Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich. Zel’dovich and friends would discover black holes were “bald.”

Chandrasekhar, in spite of his earlier set-backs and being dismissed by most of the astronomical community, would never surrender his black hole research. Using equations developed by South African Saul Teukolsky, Chandrasekhar began in 1975 what would be the culmination of his life’s work. In 1983, Chandrasekhar’s efforts would result in the creation of a black hole handbook. The handbook, “The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes,” and even today, is still one of the most important works on black holes.

Sample of black hole "math"

Sample of black hole “math”

Wheeler and Chandrasekhar were at the forefront of black hole research for the majority of their lives. Today, people might associate Stephen Hawking with black hole research, especially since black holes appear to emit what has been called “Hawking radiation.” I don’t mean to sound dismissive of Dr. Hawking’s contribution, only to help us remember his work is more recent, and more present, but is based on the work of Roger Penrose, Dennis Sciama, and a host of physicists, like Eddington, Wheeler, and Chandrasekhar.

Dr. Thorne’s book fulfills two goals in communicating black hole science. First, he provides a testament to the efforts of people who literally worked against their peers, and against odds, to move science forward. I tend to think the Dark Ages and the politics of religion have been huge obstacles to scientific progress. I forget that entrenched attitudes, presumptions, hubris of those scientists who hold sway can be just as powerful obstacles to any of those hurdles religion or politics might present. Chandrasekhar and Wheeler did not give up. They persevered, worked diligently, and shared their works. While each may have fallen victim to their own hubris, they still set aside their beliefs to listen, contemplate, and test the ideas of others. In some cases, they were wrong. But, they were humble enough to accept their errors and move forward, to incorporate new knowledge which then allowed them to engage with renewed passion their research. Both Eddington and Einstein suffered from believing too much in their own thoughts later in their lives and were dismissive of people around them.

Yes, even Einstein made errors.

The second goal of Dr. Thorne’s book was to provide a historical account of the research leading from the notion black holes were simply an aberration of mathematics which would soon be shown to be wrong, to the fact black holes are very real objects with very real properties. For the first part of the book, we are treated to a review of literature and research. Later, Dr. Thorne is a spectator, a witness to history being a student of Wheeler; and finally a contributor, sharing his own frustrations and feats in his black hole research.

Great book, available on Amazon.

Science is hard work. Hard mental work; hard in the sense a person has to expose their research, their math, the inner workings of their minds to others for criticism. Their ideas are picked apart like a cadaver during an autopsy by other scientists probing for weakness, vulnerabilities, for errors. How many of us are willing to have the fruits of our labors torn to shreds on a regular basis? Hard in the sense the details are so intricate, so slow to emerge, years or decades may pass before any details of truth or errors may manifest. In an era of immediate gratification, how many of us are willing to set aside months, years, or decades towards a project which may yield unsatisfactory results?

On the other hand, those results, those … failures, can have two positive effects. First, others may choose not to follow the same path, knowing nothing may come from the effort. Energy and time can then be spent pursuing other hypotheses. Or, and perhaps more importantly, researchers may set about to repeat the path, tweeking details, and modifying assumptions to make sure the path is really barren. Richard Feynman often had his graduate students re-work the research of other scientists (much to their dismay) to make sure previous work was correct. In a few cases, Feynman’s students did uncover problems in the details of previous experiment.

Black Holes and Time Warps does fill a space in the public discussion of science, both as history, and as a diary of personal research.

One thought on “Book Review: Black Holes and Time Warps, by Kip Thorne

  1. Pingback: My Cosmology Bookshelf | Constant Geography

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