Entries tagged with “Non-Fiction”
I recently finished reading The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind and really enjoyed it. Billed as “the riveting inside account of the battle between Stephen Hawking, Leonard Susskind, and Gerard ‘t Hooft over the true nature of black holes,” I ended up learning a lot from the book about black holes, quantum mechanics, and gravity.
The central issue at stake in the book is the idea, proposed by Stephen Hawking in 1981, that information is lost when an object is devoured by a black hole. That is to say, if you or I happened to get sucked into a black hole, when that black hole evaporated (as all eventually do), there would be no sign that we ever existed. This may seem to make sense, but it violates a central law of physics that information cannot be destroyed. Even if you think of burning a book, you may not be able to read the pages any more, but, if you were able to catch all the light given off from the fire and collect any remaining physical pieces, you could reconstruct the book as it was, so the information contained within it still exists.
Susskind, upon hearing this pronouncement, spent the next 20 years trying to disprove Hawking. Though Susskind initially was in the minority, he eventually was able to convince physicists that information is indeed conserved when an object enters a black hole. While it’s a book about some very complicated physical interactions, Susskind presents it in a way which is very accessible to the average person.
Physics as Thought Experiments and Analogies
One of my favorite aspects of Susskind’s book was how he was able to boil down even the most complex problems to simple thought experiments or analogies. For instance, to explain how gravity can bend light’s path, he used the example of a very fast elevator, and to describe what someone would look like as he or she fell into a black hole, he used an analogy of fish in a pond getting sucked down a hole in the middle. This is one of my favorite parts about studying physics–most complicated problems can be explained through simple thought experiments, which is exactly how Albert Einstein first came up with the special theory of relativity.
As Susskind got into more advanced quantum mechanical topics, I could tell he was having trouble explaining the concepts without mathematics (there were perhaps only 2 equations in the entire book). This is not his fault, as the interactions on a quantum scale are so bizarre that there really are no analogs in the real world. Humans were not made to be able to understand these things, so it requires a lot of “rewiring,” as Susskind puts it, to really understand what is going on, more so than can be done in a 450-page book. That being said, Susskind does an admirable job of giving enough insight into what is going on without having to go into the specifics.
If you have any interest in black holes at all, I’d definitely recommend reading The Black Hole War, as it is definitely a book created so that everyone can have at least some understanding of the complexities of black holes. For me, I wish it had been a bit more on the technical side, but I can definitely understand why Susskind wrote it the way he did. If nothing else, it excited me to learn more about what are some of the strangest objects in our universe, and I’m really looking forward to go more in depth about their properties in my classes at school.