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Lost in space in ‘Black Hole Survival Guide’

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Black Hole Survival Guide” is Janna Levin’s second book on the subject, following “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” (2016). Lately, it seems no single entity in space is more popular than the mysterious and exotic black hole, which stars in sci-fi books, movies, and television, and the word itself has become part of popular jargon. The Whatsits and Doohickey never get lost in the abyss anymore, they’re sucked into a black hole on the dining room table. What’s more, and more seriously, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared by three physicists for their work on black holes. You can credit the late Stephen Hawking for creating the popular interest in the cosmos and black holes back in the 1980s and ’90s, followed more recently by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Lightman, and Carlo Rovelli.

While those and other physicists have written numerous essays on black holes, Levin seems to specialize in writing entire books about the exotic entities. A professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College whom Wired magazine called “the chillest astrophysicist alive,” Levin has done podcasts and TED talks, narrated the Nova documentary “Black Hole Apocalypse” on PBS, and appeared on the television comedy “The Colbert Report.”


Her “Survival Guide,” illustrated by painter and photographer Lia Halloran, is an exuberant, flashcard-size book of 13 chapters with, naturally, a black cover that draws you in, as it depicts an astronaut similarly attracted toward a mirror-like sphere, perhaps exploring it. Levin takes us on a virtual adventure to black holes, a safe trip that we can actually survive as long as we stay far enough away. Her writing is clear and so colloquial that it sometimes seems as though she’s right there chatting with you, telling a story in a conversation so compelling that you hardly notice the complexity of the actual physics. That’s her trick of talking about science to a lay audience. Levin writes, “I don’t know what it was like where you were…,” before telling the story of black holes as if you were pursuing one in its own territory like you’re the astronaut — you in your space suit on the book’s cover.

Not only is Levin a brilliant physicist, she’s a gifted writer, sensitive to language and its nuances (in addition to her nonfiction work, she’s written a novel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” which won her a PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship in 2007). From her new book’s first chapter “Entrance” to its final one “Exit,” Levin’s writing is heightened by an often poetic voice. Levin shares her sense of wonderment of the cosmos: “I wonder how many of us inherited this longing, millennium after millennium, generation after generation, child after child bound to the crust, rapt at the illusion of a ceiling, compelled to crack through and defy our puniness and our limitations.” She uses poetic repetition for emphasis and for resonance, for instance, “Black holes are special because there’s nothing there. There is no thing there.” She lightheartedly plays with alliteration from time to time, “fodder for fantasy.” She enjoys wordplay and isn’t above homophonous punning as she tells us, “I probably accepted black holes whole, as complete conceptual entities, before I was able to doubt …”


Levin admits that as a child she never imagined she would become a scientist, which would’ve been a loss for the science world. For young Levin, scientists were dastardly folks who built bombs and solved equations. Although it’s a science book, this is a science book for poets, personal and cozier than “Black Hole Blues,” which was mostly reportage about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, with profiles of scientists like Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever, a discussion of the politics of science, and source notes. You won’t find even a mention of LIGO in the new book, no notes, and only a couple of references to gravitational waves, but she does talk about holography, Einstein, and quantum theory in ways you can understand.


She comforts us for our cosmic journey when she writes, “Black holes are much maligned, depicted unfairly as behemoths when they are often benign and actually by nature quite small.” As long as we are just reading about the adventure, we can survive visiting a black hole. Not so, in real life.

In the course of our adventure, Levin reminds us that for decades, the black hole was a mathematical construct, a well-founded prediction based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Today, we know a black hole as a warp in spacetime that not even light can escape. Levin goes further, writing, “a black hole is a spacetime,” and, of course, she also talks about gravitation, relativity, quantum mechanics and holograms in ways understandable to lay readers. Some ideas are harder to grasp, like the black hole and the entire universe conceived as holograms. “The black hole, ... as a consequence of the argument, is a hologram — a two-dimensional encryption that projects a three-dimensional image.” In this theory, even events are not real but the product of holography.


Getting back to our astronaut, you, on the cover — think of yourself as a hologram reading a holographic book. You’re “a projection of a two-dimensional reality,” in the hands of an extravagant storyteller with a vivid imagination and an acute intellect who is willing to take you on a safe black hole trip, an exciting travel story enjoyed from your chair’s event horizon.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog.

Black Hole Survival Guide

By Janna Levin

Knopf, 160 pages, $20.95