Black Holes at Bedtime

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “black holes.” As fellow space geeks probably know, a black hole is formed when a massive star burns out and collapses on itself. These mysterious cosmic vacuum cleaners have so much gravitational sucking power that even light can’t escape them. (To learn some cool things about black holes, and help you visualize how something very small could have gobs of gravity, I’d recommend this well-made video.)

Normally, I don’t devote much thought to “black holes,” except, of course as a useful metaphor for my career or life, when things go horribly wrong. Anyway, black holes play an important role in a bedtime story I recently read to my kids, Finian (age 7) and Olivia (age 3). This delightful blend of fact and fiction is called George’s Secret Key to the Universe, written by Lucy Hawking, and her famous physicist father, Stephen Hawking (seen here in his cameo on The Simpsons.)

The fictional part of this book is the story of a boy named George who meets his new neighbor, a girl named Annie, and discovers that her scientist father has the world’s most advanced, superintelligent computer, named Cosmos. Of course, this sci-fi thriller features a villain who wants to get his hands on this computer, and use it for his own nefarious purposes. Interspersed throughout the story, are plenty of full-color photos of planets, moons, galaxies, exploding stars and more. There are also fact-pages woven through the text, which give statistics about various planets and other astronomy topics. The writer and editors of George’s Key were wise to not cram too many facts into the dialogue. This kind of approach rarely works as the tone becomes less about characters and conflict, and more about facts that are “good for you.” My kids really were gripped by George’s adventures, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Garry Parsons. They were less enthusiastic about the factual sidebars. I’d be reading along and say, “Hey, do you want to learn more about real asteroid belts before we continue?” Invariably, they responded, “Just read the story, Daddy.”

Without giving away too much of the plot, one of the adult characters has vanished—and the heroes suspect that he is trapped in a black hole. George and Annie have to read Annie’s father’s notes about black holes in order to save the day. One chapter answers, in kid-friendly terms, questions like: What is a black hole? How is a black hole made? What happens if you fall into a black hole? Can you ever get out of a black hole? Most of the simplified explanation of black holes went over my children’s heads. My son Finian, who loves doing water experiments in the bathtub, did make an insightful comparison between his homemade whirlpools and the black holes way out in space. (Hey, did you know that there’s a massive black hole in the middle of our Milky Way galaxy?)

I’ll leave you with one of the more surprising things about black holes. Astronomers knew about black holes probably 50 years before they became known by the general public. Why? For decades, “black holes” lacked a catchy name. They were known instead as “gravitationally completely collapsed objects.” (Can you say that three times fast?)

The “black hole” got an enormous marketing boost from the distinguished American physicist John Wheeler, who frequently wrote and lectured about this phenomenon. Based on some quick research, I learned that Wheeler didn’t coin the term “black hole” himself, but was one of its champions.

Hope the rest of your summer is a “big bang”!

JDB

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