A veteran science journalist builds a fascinating narrative based on his exclusive access to a group of astronomers bent on photographing a black hole, a near-impossible feat of Nobel Prize proportions.
For more than five years, Scientific American features editor Fletcher (Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, 2011, etc.) followed astronomer Shep Doeleman and his team of intrepid scientists as they assembled the largest array of radio telescopes in the world, the Event Horizon Telescope, in the hope of imaging a black hole. The author excels at bringing to life not just the researchers and experimentalists, whose quirks and passions add much to the story, but the cutting-edge science driving their epic quest. Despite their ubiquity in popular culture, black holes have never been directly observed. A mountain of theoretical evidence posits that they exist in abundance in the universe. Most intriguing is that scientists are almost positive that a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* lies in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Getting a picture of Sagittarius A* is Doeleman’s white whale. Not only would it be the first direct evidence of a black hole; it also may reveal long-sought-after secrets of the universe—maybe even hint at a so-called “Theory of Everything.” With stakes this high and writing this lucid, readers will be drawn into the narrative as easily as matter being drawn toward the event horizon itself. The hypotheses, experiments, team-building, and bureaucratic wrangling that Fletcher so beautifully describes perfectly encapsulate modern science, and it’s a rare treat to have an insider’s look at an ongoing endeavor this monumental. The author also includes a helpful guide to acronyms and abbreviations and a cast of characters. Supermassive black holes, a virtual telescope the size of the Earth, trailblazing astronomers who test the boundaries of modern science—this is scientific storytelling at its best.