The Holes in Black Holes

The Collapsing Universe: The Story of Black Holes

by Isaac Asimov
Walker and Co., 204 pp., $8.95

Space, Time, and Gravity: The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes

by Robert M. Wald
University of Chicago Press, 152 pp., $10.95

The Key to the Universe: A Report on the New Physics

by Nigel Calder
Viking Press, 199 pp., $14.95

Space and Time in the Modern Universe

by P.C.W. Davies
Cambridge University Press, 232 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Ten Faces of the Universe

by Fred Hoyle
W.H. Freeman and Co., 207 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe Through Black Holes

by Adrian Berry
E.P. Dutton, 176 pp., $7.95

White Holes: Cosmic Gushers in the Universe

by John Gribbin
Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede, 296 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Black holes are hot. Although this is literally true (according to the latest theories) of some black holes, I mean they are hot as a topic. The above books are only fragments of this year’s crop that deal entirely or in part with black holes. Why such obsessive interest in astronomical objects that may not even exist, and that in any case cannot be fully understood without knowing general relativity theory and quantum mechanics?

Let the first paragraph of Isaac Asimov’s book set the tone for what I believe is the answer.

Since 1960 the universe has taken on a wholly new face. It has become more exciting, more mysterious, more violent, and more extreme as our knowledge concerning it has suddenly expanded. And the most exciting, most mysterious, most violent, and most extreme phenomenon of all has the simplest, plainest, calmest, and mildest name—nothing more than a “black hole.”

Black. Black is beautiful, black is ominous, black is awesome, black is apocalyptic, black is blank. “A hole is nothing,” Asimov continues, “and if it is black, we can’t even see it. Ought we to get excited over an invisible nothing?”

Nothing. Why does anything exist? Why not just nothing? This is the super-ultimate metaphysical question. Obviously no one can answer it, yet there are times (for some people) when the question can overwhelm the soul with such power and anguish as to induce nausea. Indeed, that is what Sartre’s great novel, Nausea, is all about.

Suddenly we are being told that if a star is sufficiently massive it eventually will undergo a runaway collapse that ends with the star’s matter crushed completely out of existence. Not only that, but our entire universe may slowly stop expanding, go into a contracting phase, and finally disappear into a black hole, like an acrobatic elephant jumping into its anus. There is speculation (not taken seriously by the experts) that every black hole is joined to a “white hole”—a hole that gushes energy instead of absorbing it. The two holes are supposedly connected by an “Einstein-Rosen bridge” or “wormhole.” When a huge sun collapses into a black hole, so goes the conjecture, a companion white hole instantly appears at some other spot in spacetime. This could explain the incredible outpouring of energy from the quasars, those mysterious objects, apparently far beyond our galaxy, that nobody yet understands. Was the big bang which created our universe the white hole that exploded into existence after a previous universe collapsed into its black hole?

It is easy to understand why the religiously inclined are excited by such wild, speculative cosmology. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Nor is it hard to understand why those who are into Eastern philosophy, pseudoeastern cults, parapsychology, and unorthodox science are also fascinated. If the universe can be that crazy, so goes the argument, then why be disturbed when the Maharishi announces, as he recently did, that …

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Letters

Only Joking December 8, 1977