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Under The Microscope

PRISONS OF LIGHT -- BLACK HOLES, by Kitty Ferguson; Cambridge University Press, 1996; 214 pp; $33.50

Reviewed by Michael Delceg

The public fascination with some of the more exotic developments in astrophysics has spawned a number of popular works which attempt to put these ideas in the context of mainstream physical theory while avoiding such rigorous niceties as equations and citations. One measure of the success of this kind of approach is the impression of appropriateness and clarity in the exposition. Kitty Ferguson's book is successful on both counts.

Armed with the science background that one might be expected to have after a few years of secondary school, the average reader will find this book fairly easy going. Even younger readers or those with dimming memories of science are given enough background to lead them from Galileo and Newton through Einstein to Hawking and Penrose. Some of the most recent observational and theoretical work is also covered, leaving the reader eager to seek additional information and reinforcing the idea of astronomical science as an ongoing process.

The reader is first given the fate of stars of various sizes, with enough background to make fusion and equilibrium processes accessible. Then the gravitational implications of reducing size and increasing mass are presented in several novel ways, including the different possible fates of an astronaut approaching or crossing the event horizon. Particularly interesting is the treatment of different black hole models and their implications.

With this theoretical roadmap in place, Ferguson then shows where current surveyors are looking for supporting evidence to complete the picture, such as binary stars and galactic radio sources. Here one gets the impression that Ferguson made a deliberate decision to eliminate the kind of preliminary discussion of electromagnetic theory that is needed to explain some of these phenomena, as it would require delving into senior secondary physics and beyond. Again, there is enough detail to pique the curiosity of a thinking reader.

Finally the more speculative extensions of current theory are examined, such as wormholes and parallel universes. Some consideration of events that might have been misinterpreted as evidence of black holes is examined critically, and further reading is suggested. In all of this, the excitement of scientific investigation at the frontiers of theory is communicated in an engaging style. This book can be recommended to public and school libraries particularly, as a good example of making modern astrophysics accessible.

Michael Delceg is a maths and science teacher from Nelson.