Gravity's Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes Hardcover – 1 Nov 2012
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A virtuosic history of the universe... [Scharf] serves as an appealing tour guide to the eerie, infinite corridors of the cosmos in which we reside (Prospect)
In Gravity's Engines, Caleb Scharf tells the mind-blowing story of 'supermassive' black holes, the true masters of the Universe. Black holes are smaller than the Solar System yet project their power across the cosmos, sculpting entire galaxies of stars. They might appear esoteric and remote, but as Scharf explains, life on Earth may have been utterly impossible without them (Marcus Chown, author of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You)
Caleb Scharf is a lively and eloquent writer as well as a fine scientist. Gravity's Engines is particularly welcome because it presents topics at the frontiers of our understanding which have not hitherto been presented so clearly to a general readership (Sir Martin Rees)
Mr. Scharf makes vivid the mind-boggling nature of the universe . . . [there are] bright beams of knowledge coming from this excellent book (Wall Street Journal)
Using rich language and a brilliant command of metaphor, [Scharf] takes on some of the most intricate topics in theoretical and observational astronomical research. He weaves a wonderfully detailed tapestry of what modern astronomy is all about, from the complexities of cosmic microwave background studies to the X-ray mapping of galaxy clusters (Nature)
Caleb Scharf's fun book takes you behind the scenes of the universe itself to see how the celestial heavyweights we call black holes help shape the cosmos (Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here)
About the Author
Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's Astrobiology Center. He has written for New Scientist, Science, Nature, and more. He was born in England, and now lives in New York City.
Top customer reviews
This is a book that is purely conceptual in nature. I can't remember seeing an equation listed anywhere (thankfully), but the quality of the narrative prose is such that you do go on a journey backwards and forwards in time so real that you feel that you're actually there. There's a line in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhikers Guide 1) where space is described as: "... big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space, listen...", this book manages to show just how big and more importantly just how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. In this universe we're each just one person (of many) on one planet going around one of 200 Billion stars in our galaxy that in itself is just one of 100 Billion galaxys (that we can count so far) and black holes are probably the most important part of that universe. I'd definately fail the "Total Perspective Vortex" but managed to read this book and would recommend it wholeheartedly.
It does help to have an interest in how our little island Earth came into being and its place in the grander scale of existence, because the narrative can be quite wordy and some of the examples and analogies might be worth skipping if you already have a background in Astrophysics. But then he is trying to reach a wide audience, one not necessarily academic, and so needs to cover the fundamentals before laying out all the facts before us. Part of it is also acclimatising us to the gigantic scale of things, to help us to get a grip on the mind-bogglingly big numbers involved, especially when compared with our own experience.
His use of analogy is quite clever, and he has a nice turn of phrase, and he has done the work in the relevant fields of research, so he really does know what he is talking about. He is obviously a good communicator, because SWMBO (who is not a scientist, but a keen practical philosopher) also found the book well worth reading. One of her comments was revealing, 'I often wondered how that worked, now I know.' after reading Scharf on how the black holes make their presence felt, but having been frustrated by years of exposure to the popular media, and me, also trying to explain it.
It will take most readers at least a couple of days to finish it, and I think that perhaps it is helpful to allow the new ideas time to settle before moving on to the next revelation. If you really feel the urge to dig further there are nineteen pages of notes referred to from the body text, supported by a comprehensive index to find specific instances in the text.
Astrophysics and Quantum Mechanics were parts of my degree, and when it was first published I enjoyed reading the meaty part of Hawkins' A Brief History of Time (but get the updated and illustrated 2nd edition of ABHOT) which discussed the subsequent discoveries made after I left University. Scharf is much more readable and brings us bang-up-to-date with the current thinking on Black Holes in 2012, and I would not be surprised if BBC's Horizon asked him to present a program or two on the subject. Read the book now, because the pictures in the mind are just as good, and unlike with Horizon you can skip the boring bits he had to put in to bridge the gaps in the school kids' education.
Scharf points out that the complete picture has yet to be developed, and mentions areas of speculation and future work, but I think this easily read book is a very good overview of the accepted knowledge so far.
For further more general reading and to appreciate how very far the Astronomical research has progressed in the three decades since it was written may I suggest Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
And to see the most beautiful, and big, colour illustrations of the Universe, some of the originals of which Scharf might well have used, I strongly recommend Giles Sparrow's Cosmos.
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