Author: Leonard Susskind
Review by: Hilton Ratcliffe, Climate and Solar Science Institute
Written for the journal 21st Century Science and Technology
Perhaps I’m not the best person to review Prof Susskind’s book. I’m far too inclined, prior to reading it, to sing its praises, for this style of writing—science lite, with soul—is right up my street. It is a tale of human conflict, told from the inside out, and promises to be compelling drama. As I looked at the cover of The Black Hole War I recalled the tense human interactions of Interstellar Matters, Gerrit Verschuur’s magnificent revelation of the discovery by pioneer astro-photographer E. E. Barnard of substantial contents in the so-called dark voids in the Milky Way. Dark voids, Black Holes, what’s the difference? Immense! And Prof Susskind should be just the right person to answer my question. The subtitle, “My battle with Stephen Hawking to make the world safer for Quantum Mechanics”, was already enough to get my slavering attention. Someone publicly admits to battling with Stephen Hawking, icon of theoretical physics elite? Tell me more!
Susskind and his co-conspirators met at the lavish soirées of Werner Erhard in San Francisco in the 1970s, and it was there that Hawking dropped his bombshell: Information falling into a Black Hole would be irretrievably lost. Not only that, but emerging trickle-radiation, with simultaneous fluctuation of countless mini Black Holes saturating the cosmos, would generate rampant entropy, and along with it, unbridled heat. Space would in seconds become a trillion degree cauldron of chaos. It takes a certain type of scientist to get excited by such a claim.
No doubt Prof Hawking was excited, Gerard t’ Hooft was excited, and of course, Leonard Susskind was so excited he felt compelled to write a book about it. Let me be frank: Even if I had been privy to that meeting of minds, I doubt I would have been excited. Talk of the behaviour of Black Holes has always bored me to tears, and whether or not they regurgitate their breakfast is of no concern to me at all. It is all just imagined in brilliant minds, and is obviously not happening in reality. Who cares?
Nevertheless, Susskind’s tale is compelling, for it takes us into that esoteric, ethereal world of quantum theory and mathematical conjecture, where insulated minds are somehow convinced that their predictions have been seen and measured, and we are able to glimpse the stupefying intellectual altitude of Hawking, t’ Hooft, Gell-Mann, Finklestein, and Feynman. We get to know the human foibles of a cloistered clique, and it’s fascinating! Susskind calls Hawking the “Evel Knievel of physics”, and we learn to our horror that the tragically afflicted mathematician once emulated Steve McQueen’s crazy dash down San Francisco’s roller-coaster hillside—in his electric wheelchair! It is these sporadic emotive threads that let the book live and breathe for me, while I am left feeling thoroughly disappointed by the science.
I read on with bated breath, anxious to discover just where Susskind stood on the whole matter of Black Holes in physical reality. When it came, I felt deflated. “But whether Einstein liked them or not, black holes are real,” Susskind tells us, “Astronomers routinely study them, not only in the form of single collapsed stars, but also in the centres of galaxies.” Really? I’ve been an astronomer for over thirty years, have stared intently at many collapsed stars and galaxy nuclei through the eyes of our greatest observatories, and truly, I have never once seen a Black Hole or anything remotely like it. Nor have my colleagues, numbering hundreds, perhaps thousands, worldwide.
When I saw the cover blurb about the author’s battle with Stephen Hawking, I warmed in anticipation of a take-no-prisoners debate between intellectual giants, our heroes, which might just lead to a conclusion about the reality of Black Holes. Instead, we have the analogue of a head-to-head conflict on flying saucers that turns out to be a petty argument about whether they are better painted pink or purple. I really don’t care to contest the Black Hole hypothesis, and once I stopped trying, I honestly enjoyed this book.
One thing is clear—Leonard Susskind, on the strength of the present work, is a very good teacher. As a Relativity 101, The Black Hole War is one of the best I’ve read, better even than Einstein’s own introductory texts. For the layman wanting to get into relativistic physics and quantum science from the ground up, this is the book to get. If, however, like me (and Susskind, apparently) you are not a fan of Minkowski-Lorentz-Poincaré-Einstein relativity, and dislike irrational science (unlike Susskind, a quantum mechanician), then it will be less useful. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
So read this book on the clear understanding that in The Black Hole War, the subject is an axiom in the theoretical assumptions of the author. If you have a problem with that, as I do, you will continuously hear discords in Susskind’s symphony, false notes in the harmony of spheres. Despite that, I read the book with relish, finishing it in a couple of days, and ended up enriched by the experience. I don’t have to agree to respect a viewpoint. My point is, when you make a foundational assumption (in this case, that Black Holes do exist, in the form suggested), don’t forget that whatever you derive from that downstream, it is all based upon a prior choice between options. It seems we are attributing far too much scientific truth to our faith-based beliefs. No matter; The Black Hole War is a good popular-science read, and I recommend it.