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Black Holes & Time Warps
Kip Thorne
W.W. Norton & Co., 619 pages

Black Holes & Time Warps
Additional Information
If Einstein and his contributions interests you, try:
The Advancement of Science and Its Burdens by Gerald Holton, Cambridge University, 1986.
"Bose-Einstein Condensates Display Their First Tricks" by Gary Taubes, Science, 6/14/97, p. 1587-8.
"Einstein's General Relativity: It's a Drag" by R. Cowen, Science News, 11/15/97, p. 308.
Einstein, History and Other Passions by Gerald Holton, Addison-Wesley, 1995.
"First Atom Laser Shoots Pulses of Coherent Material" by Gary Taubes, Science, 1/3/97, p. 617-8.
"The Reluctant Father of Black Holes" by Jeremy Bernstein, Scientific American, 6/96, p. 80 ff.

Dr. Kip Thorne -- the Feynman Professor of Physics at Caltech
Directed Study--Black Holes University of Wisconsin catalogue, Astro/Phys 199

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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Like many, I started Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988), bogged down, and set it aside. Kip Thorne's book got equally good reviews, but my God, the thing's 600+ pages... so it sat on my "to-read" shelf for years. This tardy review is intended for others in similar circumstances -- or for anyone interested in modern physics & astronomy.

The book is written as a history of 20th century physics, from Einstein's theory of the relativity of space & time (1905), to black holes, gravity waves and wormholes in the 90s. I found this a very engaging approach. Thorne's writing is (usually) clear and direct, and he includes enough biographical tidbits and anecdotes to keep the human juice in potentially dry topics.

"This is not just a book about the most bizarre phenomena of the universe, black holes and the warpage of space and time. It is also a book about the enterprise of science: the process of scientific discovery with all its false starts, blind alleys, and breathtaking leaps of insight. It is about the wide variety of different types of human minds that contribute to scientific knowledge, and the sociology and human politics of the quest to know. It is about how we theoretical physicists came to think we know the things we think we know..."
-- author's note, Directed Study -- Black Holes 1:
A few gems: Einstein's college math professor Minkowski, who had called the young genius a "lazy dog", later worked out the mathematics combining space and time into "absolute spacetime." Einstein made cruel jokes denigrating Minkowski's work, not realizing, until after Minkowski's death, that his old teacher's math was essential to Einstein's special relativity work.

Cosmic radio waves were discovered by a Bell Telephone engineer in 1932. Despite widespread publicity, professional astronomers weren't very interested -- the first radio-telescope was built by a radio "ham", in his mother's back yard in Illinois, in 1940. The first professional radio-telescopes weren't built until after WWII, in England and Australia; Americans didn't become competitive until the late 50s.

Thorne has a fair command of Russian, which gave him an "in" when the USSR started allowing scientific contacts in the post-Stalin era. Now that Russia is such a mess, we forget that the Soviets produced a bunch of world-class scientists and engineers 2, from the 30s on -- including some of the best physicists since Einstein.

Dr. Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Physics at Caltech, is best known to the general public for his 1988 wormhole "time machine" proposal. Press coverage included a photo of the author doing physics in the nude on Mt. Palomar. "Embareassing," but didn't hurt the book sales. The wormhole work grew out of a request from Carl Sagan for a plausible FTL transport scheme for his 1985 science-fiction novel Contact (which I recommend). Sagan's request made Thorne realize the value of thought experiments that ask, "What things do the laws of physics permit an infinitely advanced civilization to do, and what do the laws forbid?" This style of speculation by world-class scientists has become popular (and somewhat respectable) in the last decade, and has resulted in some very stimulating reading, such as K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation (1986), and Hans Moravec's Mind Children (1988) and Robot (1999).

My last exposure to formal physics was two painful undergraduate courses (mumble) years ago. Since then I've kept up at roughly a Scientific American level or below (plus I read a lot of science fiction). I think I'm close to the author's aim-point for his potential audience. I found some of the physics tough going, but these sections can be safely skimmed without losing the thread of his arguments. I read most of the book in two sittings -- it's surprisingly gripping. So... don't put off reading Black Holes any longer!


1 I don't want to scare you off from Black Holes -- perhaps I shouldn't have let on it's being used as a textbook.

2 -- along with some remarkable pseudo-science. Iosif Shlovsky tells of many such projects in his very entertaining Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon (1991).

Copyright © 1999 by Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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