Wednesday, 30 August 2000

Kip S. Thorne: Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (1994)

Edition: Picador, 1994
Review number: 590

Picador has the makings of a most interesting series of popular science books. The idea is to get a personal picture on topics of current interest, written by prominent characters involved in the research. However, as a series, it rather shoots itself in the foot by omitting any listing of the other books; this one merely mentions that there are four earlier volumes, information of absolutely no help in identifying them.

There are problems in this book too, particularly the dull first half. I would imagine that, given their importance in twentieth century physics, quantum mechanics and relativity will be explained in every book in this series, and the length at which these explanations are repeated is really unnecessary. I feel that more writers should follow Brian Greene's example in The Elegant Universe, and keep the explanation as brief and to the point as possible, pointing the reader who has never read a detailed account to other books. (There can be few public libraries which would not have at least one good book on this subject.) Certainly, Black Holes and Time Warps could do with a good deal of editing, if not re-writing, in its chapters on these subjects.

There is a sudden improvement as soon as the account turns to the renewed research into black holes following the end of the Second World War, particularly once Thorne himself becomes involved during the sixties. He is clearly quite a character, involved in smuggling manuscripts out of the Soviet Union to be published in the West, and in several bets made about then current questions about the detailed nature of black holes. He is also effectively responsible for the discovery of the possibility that if a stable wormhole could be created and manipulated in a specific manner without destroying it, then it would form a type of time machine. (The mass media coverage of this result included a photograph of Thorne "doing physics in the nude".) As can be expected, his account of black hole research includes much that is about the personalities of those involved; illustrations include private snap shots of dinner parties.

The second half is interesting, well explained popular science; any reader put off by the first four chapters is missing out.

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