The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven S. Gubser & Frans Pretorius, 200pp, (HB) $19.95 (US) £14.95 (UK) ISBN 9780691163727 (E-book ISBN9781400888290), Princeton University Press.
A hundred years ago, black holes were nothing more than a mathematical curiosity. Einstein himself didn’t think they were real.
Today, we’ve proved him wrong – we’ve seen them collide multiple times over. For all that, it’s still hard to believe that something with a gravitational pull so strong that it breaks our ideas about space and time exists.
The Little Book of Black Holes is, unsurprisingly, a book about black holes that happens to be quite little – a fast reader could finish it in half a day. Where it differs from other books is in its format: rather than delving into the history of black holes, this book grounds the reader in special and general relativity before explaining how black holes arise in those theories.
As such, it focuses far more on theory and technical aspects than many other books available. There’s even a whole chapter dedicated to explaining how we detect gravitational waves, a timely addition in light of the Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded for work on observing them.
There are several large, clear diagrams which help the reader to visualise all manner of otherwise abstract concepts. However, black hole physics is strange and difficult, and as such the book could have benefited from a few more graphs and figures.
What makes this book stand out is the way the authors engage with their audience. Rather than glossing over difficult questions or concepts, they answer several questions the sceptical reader might have. They even attempt to explain the maths in detail, including some equations that are fiendishly difficult to solve – and they succeed.
Unfortunately, that success is not complete. In particular, Maxwell’s equations, which govern electromagnetism and played an important role in the development of special relativity, are never written out, yet the authors try to discuss them. The result is confusing to anyone who isn’t familiar with classical electromagnetism.
In addition, the book could have benefited from a glossary. The authors use a lot of specialist terminology which they only define once, or not at all.
This book is one of the most technical popular science books out there – and that very much works in its favour. While people who aren’t familiar with black holes might find that the details go over their head, few other pop science books cover black holes and their detection so thoroughly.
As such, The Little Book of Black Holes will more than satisfy anyone who has heard about them and wants to know more.
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