10 Engrossing Books About Black Holes That Nothing, Not Even Your Attention, Can Escape
If you want any understanding of black holes, you’re going to need to read several books about black holes. Because there’s a lot to know. Simply put, black holes are objects that are so dense, their gravitational pull means nothing can escape them, not even light. First, there’s the history of these objects. Albert Einstein posited black holes in his theory of general relativity — which explains gravity’s effects on light — in 1915. He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but he’s certainly the best known.
Then there’s what black holes actually look like. Fast forward to 1964. Astronomers observed an object within the constellation Cygnus, called Cygnus X-1, emitting X-rays. They found these X-rays originated from matter ripped from one star and pulled toward a nearby black hole. This marked the first observation of a black hole. Since then, the years have yielded many more.
But we’re still not out of the realm of theory. A still-theoretical variety of black holes are primordial black holes, dating from the time just after the Big Bang. Then there’s the micro black holes. These are another theoretical kind with a mass much less than our sun that people were briefly worried the Large Hadron Collider might create.
Do you want to know more about black holes? You should, because you will expand your knowledge of gravity, spacetime, cosmology, particle physics, and humanity, of course. Because our quest to know more about the universe always comes back to reflect on us. Read on to find the best books about black holes, and you’ll be pulled past the event horizon by the allure of these mysterious objects.
Black Holes: The Key to Understanding the Universe by Brian Cox and and Jeff Forshaw (March 28)
Brian Cox is to astronomy and physics television programming as David Attenborough is to nature documentaries. His work is approachable, for sure. But this book, which really gets into the nitty gritty about black holes, will take some dedication for the casual reader. It really takes you through the math and physics. If you don’t like science writing that is watered down but you also don’t want to read a textbook, here is your best choice.
Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin
Here’s a compact book, among the best black hole books for beginners, that conveys what it would be like to actually experience a black hole in the flesh. Short answer: you won’t survive it. The title is lying. But you should still read it! The book includes helpful illustrations and goes over all manner of phenomena that surround black holes: quantum entanglement, Hawking radiation, and the information loss paradox, for example. The author is both a professor at Columbia University and an expert science communicator, so she both knows her stuff and can convey it to mere mortals like us.
On Gravity: A Brief Tour of a Weighty Subject by A. Zee
We think of gravity as this incredibly powerful force, but think about this: a singly measly human being — heck, a grasshopper! — overcomes the gravitational pull of the entire planet Earth every time they jump. That shows you what serious business black holes are. The discovery of gravity waves happened within the last decade, and this book will lead you through that science in addition to the science of black holes.
Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics by Stephon Alexander
Something that seems so cold and objective as astrophysics never really is. I’m always interested in a science book that embraces the imagination that comes into the work. Here, physicist Stephon Alexander takes on topics like the Big Bang and dark matter (which is sometimes theorized to be made of black holes) using the deepest underlying principles he has come to understand in his work.
The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack
Up top I mentioned primordial black holes. Why do we care about those? Because their existence has implications on the ultimate trajectory of the universe. Will everything crunch back together into one black hole? Or will everything just keep spreading out and cooling off until the whole universe approaches absolute zero? In this lively, if morbid, book, Katie Mack outlines the five different ways cosmologists see things going down at the end.
We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
If you’re looking to be entertained as you learn about the universe, this is your book. Author Jorge Cham is known for his PhD comics, and he teamed up with a physicist to present this book. It pairs clear explanations with lively and funny graphics. Because there are lots of science jokes (and dad jokes) in this book, you might benefit from reading this one after you’ve read something else on this list.
Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, the Universe, and Us by Heino Falcke
Author Heino Falcke led a team of scientists who coordinated telescopes around the world (which effectively made a humongous single telescope) to take images of black holes. The result was the first photographs of the supermassive black holes at the center of our galaxy and galaxy M87. This just happened in 2019! This book outlines how we know what we know about black holes. It also investigates what they mean, in a more philosophical and spiritual sense.
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Dark matter is the stuff in the universe we can’t directly detect, but we know it must be there to make all the other math work out. There have been lots of theories of how dark matter is composed, several of which involve varieties of black holes. This bold book both outlines what we currently know about dark matter and shares a vision for a world in which everyone has the same access to the night sky, as is their right.
Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos by Priyamvada Natarajan
Here’s another of the many books about black holes written by a scientist currently working on expanding our knowledge about the universe. Her book takes you through some of the major players in astrophysics, and how they’ve contributed to the field. With a historical scope and not too much technical detail about black hole physics, you will understand what a radical idea black holes were. Albert Einstein in particular has been so important to our understanding of spacetime. This book situates him within his contemporaries in an enlightening way.
Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved by Marcia Bartusiak
If you want to read books about black holes focused on history, here’s your pick. In particular, it’s about the interplay of theoretical work involving black holes and the advent of astronomical observations that supported Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The story of black holes is the story of how ideas come to be accepted. Very human machinations that go into that process, to say the least.
If you’ve gazed into the void long enough, maybe you want to escape books about black holes. If so, you can zoom out and read some of the best science books of all time. But if that gravity it still pulling you in, check out the best astrophysics books for ordinary readers. You’ll never look at the night sky the same way again.