This is a great book. It describes the history of how the idea of black holes developed. Even in the 18th century Newtonian physics was shown to predict 'dark stars', because even light could not escape from them. With the great revolution brought about by Einstein and his theory of relativity the subject came alive when people started asking what happens to a star when its fuel is all burnt up. A black hole seemed to be the inevitable result if the star had enough mass. Astronomers are now generally convinced that black holes do exist and have identified a number of them. Now what happens inside a black hole? Theory is now on very uncertain grounds. Thorne indicates it predicts travel in ways that are more familiar to science fiction fans. This is entertaining stuff, but should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. What is really great about this book is that Thorne gets the history from 47 taped interviews he did with most of those who have contributed to the development of the subject, thus providing a wonderful history of who contributed what idea and when. These tapes appear to be a treasure that belong in a public archive. I don't think there is a single equation in the book. The ideas are explained with numerous diagrams to get them across. They work well. Do not expect to understand relativity without doing some mental work of your own though; one cannot draw pictures that show four dimensions. Short biographies of the significant characters, a chronology, a glossary and 23 pages of documentary notes are welcome inclusions. I am an experimental physicist. For me, the writing is wonderful and I had a hard time putting the book down. A non-scientist should enjoy the first half, but might get bogged down well before the end. This book was finished in 1993, so for developments since then one needs to look elsewhere.
Kip Thorne is an eccentric author who reveals scientific enterprise of quantum gravity and black holes research in a simple language. This book is rich in history, and classical (Newtonian physics and theory of relativity) and modern physics (quantum mechanics) are presented in non mathematical form. We get rare first hand insights of scientific styles and temperament, and his personal involvement in various aspects of black holes research and his interaction with scientists all over the world especially those from former Soviet Union and the impact of communism on black hole research. The first part of the book describes theory of relativity, concept of spacetime fabric of the universe and curvature of spacetime in presence of matter (stars, galaxies, etc.) to generate gravity. The author gives us a good historical background to build his case for black hole concept. Theory of relativity predicts the existence of black holes but Einstein refused to accept it and so is Arthur Eddington another leading exponent of theory of relativity. The idea of black holes remained in academic obscurity among few who believed in it and it progressively became clear that dying giant stars undergo implosions in which nuclear force the strongest of all four forces of cosmos buckles under gravitational force creating a blackholes. Black holes have been discovered in the center of dying giant stars and in centers of galaxies, and efforts are underway to detect the black hole gravitational waves carried to earth from distant parts of the universe and to seek the secret of what is inside a black hole: a route to another universe? The author warps up the second part by discussing the possibility of constructing wormholes with exotic matter (tunnels in space connecting two widely separated locations in the universe) through hyperspace for interstellar travel and back to the future. He is one of the leaders in proposing interstellar travel. Physicists and academics are too conservative to get involved in space travel research as it is traditionally linked to science fiction and Star Trek junkies. The author can mesmerize the reader with his incredible knowledge and ease with which he can communicate to the reader; at the same time he is eccentric enough to work in one of his laboratory (Palomar Mountains) nude and draw criticisms from peers. He is also crazy enough to take bet with peers for things such as Penthouse magazine and annoy his wife and family with Mormon heritage. This book is free of marketing strategies of the publisher as the author shares his knowledge with the reader to his best of abilities to make everyone understands it even by offering few simple calculations and formulas. Do not be discouraged by the size of the book (619 pages). The text flows well and it is deeply engrossing. Anyone interested in black hole and space travel must have this book.
_____________________________________________ Like many, I started Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" (1988), bogged down, and set it aside. 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 90's. 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. 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 atronomers weren't very interested -- the first radiotelescope was built by a radio "ham", in his mother's back yard in Illinois, in 1940. The first professional radiotelescopes weren't built until after WW2, in England and Australia; Americans didn't become competitive until the late 50's. 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 [note 1], from the 1930's 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! __________ Note 1) --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).
Kip Thorne's excellent book should be updated every year and kept in national archives for future generations of scientists and historians. It is as much historical as popular scientific masterpiece, teaching us about life of many important mathematicians, theoretical and experimental physicists and astrophysicists, trying to solve the mystery of imploding stars and created later black holes. The author chronicles every character, their successes and failures- with precision, meticulously and painstakingly. Each and everybody is scrutinized , weaknesses and strong sides are exposed. It is a great and often humorous analysis of personalities, for example: "Zel'dovitch, who knew hardly any relativity, had demonstrated it using deep physical inside and crude calculations". I have not had any problem accepting this mixture of science and history, since I like both. Book starts with Einstein and GR (which book of this type would not?), but then continues through almost 90 years of many top relativists' work, John Wheeler's being the most important. Thorne writes with passion and honesty about his predecessors, mentors, team players, colleagues and students. I have never learned so much about scientists, exception perhaps being Guth's book "The Inflationary Universe", how they calculate, develop ideas, announce discoveries, and how they compete, confront each other and make mistakes. For example, you will find that Einstein even at age 33 did not have a clue how to express his theory mathematically and managed to do it only with the help of mathematician Marcel Grossman! Also surprisingly, famous Subrahmanyan Chadrasekhar wrote an excellent summary science book " The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes" when he was 73 years old. Especially interesting and dramatic are parts of the book where author writes about ingenious Soviet scientists developing nuclear bombs and at the same time suffering in isolation during the communism in former USSR. The author shows respect and gives them all credits they deserve. His knowledge about life behind the "iron curtain" is impressive and he presents very open minded and unbiased descriptions. When comparing both political systems where cosmology science thrived, he understands his friends in Moscow, who contemplate that (quote): "one (system) is terrorized by KGB and miserable because of the power of incompetent officials and another (in America) is barbaric because of the way they treat poor and lack of medical care for everyone". The author always tried to keep in touch with his colleagues in USSR and was able to travel there in many occasions. This benefited all of them, large group of Russian and American scientists. Book reads often like action packed sensational story where lots is at stake and tensions are high. Kip Thorne immerges as a very colorful, free spirited and amicable person. He describes personal life and achievements with modesty - top notch, "super" scientists are as much humans as we "normal guys" are - this is his message. As a scientific book, Black Holes" excels as well. Drawings and explanations in separate boxes are great and make everything easy to understand. Particle physics is hardly present (except where hole's radiation is explained) making concept of the book clear and digestible. Text leads us from classic introduction to GR (the best I have ever read) through the physics of collapsing stars and speculations about creation of giant black holes arising from binary systems. Consecutive chapters explain how scientists developed and created radio and X-ray instruments searching for radiating black holes. Eventually we arrive at gravitational waves and quantum theory. These waves generated by black holes might revolutionize our understanding of the Universe even more than did radio and X-rays. In early 80s gravitational wave physicists, including influential Kip Thorne, started to develop interferometric detectors to confirm existence of waves. Gravitational waves when detected will teach us about black holes' properties, and knowledge about black holes will help to solve singularities dilemma. Consequently we will better understand beginning and evolution of the Universe. Final chapters introduce Stephen Hawking and how he managed to partially unify GR with quantum mechanism and announce that black holes evaporate keeping entropy of the Universe in balance. We meet Roger Penrose and his concept of solving singularity by application of topology calculations. Later author introduces law of quantum gravity: "One task of the laws of quantum gravity is to govern the probabilities for the various curvatures and topologies within a black hole's singularity. We do not really understand at all well the laws of quantum gravity and their consequences," he writes. This statement reminds actual today, 10 years after. Book ends with description of quantum foam and with fascinating speculations about wormholes and traveling in time. Crazy science fiction physics about matricide paradox and time machines (close time curves) had got Kip almost insane, but he survived this "crisis". Overall: what a spectacular book and voyage through its pages !...