Black Gap Survival Information | Evaluate

Janna Levin
Vintage digital
2020 | 160pp | £ 9.99
ISBN 9781847926166

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Black holes are impressive yet intimidating, ubiquitous and yet invisible, a phenomenon that is defined by contradiction. Even their niche existence in the public consciousness is contradictory and unique, so everyone knows what a black hole is but no one really knows what it is. Mathematically perfect and yet physically forbidden, a repeated refrain tells us that a black hole is not a thing, it is nothing. But in order not to deal with anything first, one has to understand a number of things – relativity, gravity, space-time, quantum mechanics, and entanglement.

Janna Levin is a professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University in the US and the perfect tour guide to lead us through these topics in the Black Hole Survival Guide. On only 160 pages – beautifully illustrated by Lia Halloran in a natural combination of art and science – it takes us on a breakneck journey through the cosmos. We travel with another astronaut named Alice, with whom we are compared and contrasted on various occasions, all in a spirit of learning and good natured competition. In fact, many of the concepts on which the black hole theory is based are inherently contradictory, which means they must be described in comparison – two objects relative to each other – and so I was consistently grateful for Alice’s company.

Many concepts are confusing, but only on Earth, Levin explains. And so we go to the stars next to Alice, where Levin explains some really mind-boggling principles with grace. Rather than reciting the metaphors chosen by the old masters – Galileo with his apples or Einstein’s features – she explains ideas in the context of the environment in which we use them – an incessant, inescapable void where the only immutable constant is the speed of Light.

Accepting the reality of the contradiction is essential to trying to understand black holes. I say try because I cannot pretend to understand everything that is described in this book. At first reading I thought this was a failure of my understanding and of a book too complex for a popular science audience, but after a second go through, I realize that this is part of its charm.

The Black Hole Survival Guide feels like an introductory physics lecture in some places – Event Horizons 101 – but in the best possible way. I doubt I would do well on the final exam, but I would be thrilled to hear Levin’s musical, melodic, and subtly melancholy words, with a morbidly curious and nihilistic undertone that seems appropriate to discuss the immense, overwhelming absence who have favourited a black hole.

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