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Superstars of outer space

Prisons of Light
Prisons of Light: Black Holes
By Kitty Ferguson

Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, England: 1996

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1996.

Maybe it's our constant desire to have what we can't have, to know the unknowable that makes black holes such a popular topic – the age-old lure of forbidden fruit. For, by their very nature, black holes are the most mysterious objects we've yet discovered in the known universe – trapped by a gravity so strong even light itself cannot escape.

Thus, we can only observe black holes by how the affect neighboring objects – the black holes themselves are forever invisible to us.

For the general public, black holes are further hidden by the complexity of terms and concepts scientists use to explain them. Predicted by theoritical mathematicians before any were found by astronomers, black holes are as much a symbol of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity as the atom bomb. And the laws of physics that govern black holes are counter-intuitive – our common sense looks at them and says "No way."

All of which goes a long way in explaining the popularity of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of the Universe," which laid out complicated scientific concepts in terms lay readers could understand.

Kitty Ferguson, amateur astronomer and gifted writer, has written a book that walks much the same path as the above best-sellers, leading the average reader through the phenomenon of black holes. No need for a background in calculus or quantum mechanics here; the illustrations and Ferguson's accessible writing make black holes generally understandable.

Which isn't the same as saying easy to understand. The concept of a star so large – tens to hundreds or thousands the size of our own sun – that it collapses into itself, disappearing in a physical sense from this universe is, well, tough. The concept of black holes in the center of galaxies with masses millions or billions that of the sun is even more disturbing.

Ferguson takes the readers on a patient, painstaking explanation of black holes, using plain English to explain the ideas behind black holes: how Einstein's theories led other scientists to predict that obejects larger than a certain mass would have to collapse into themselves, into a singularity -s- a single point with no dimensions but the same mass as before, the same gravitational attraction on anything around it.

And she points out that when the escape velocity – the speed needed to break an object's gravitational pull, to put the space shuttle into orbit, for instance – exceeds the speed of light, then nothing can escape. In short, for those of us outside this "event horizon," the object would simply blink out as its surface shrank past the point where the escape velocity exceeded the speed of light.

Needless to say, Ferguson does a much better job of explaining all this than any 500-word review can hope to accomplish. This book is an excellent guide for those fascinated by things astronomical but lacking the scientific background to make sense of more technical texts.