A real black hole

Amidst all the terrible news of the last week, the incredible image of a black hole in space was a heart-warmer. The feat of being able to do the work required to actually produce that image represents one of the most exciting developments in human achievement. One need not be a scientist or even a stargazer to be impressed by that human endeavour that moves us farther along the road to understanding the miracle that is the universe. It does mark, however, the very edge of what may be knowable.

It took nearly 200 years for man to prove the existence of black holes. The now-deceased Steven Hawking was the genius, famous for having become paraplegic and speaking through a speech synthesizer that made him sound like a Dalek, who made black holes a household idea and the touchstone for young scientists. According to him, the idea of far-away dark stars with such strong gravitational force that anything in their orbit, including its own light, would be subsumed was first mooted in 1783. Various theories along the way added to our understanding of dark stars, but it was when Einstein came along in 1915 with his theory of relativity that things took a quantum leap, so to speak. In 1919, Einstein’s theory was proven by other scientists who observed the behaviour of light emanating from distant stars as they passed the sun during an eclipse.

Hawking later added to the theory by proposing that what had begun to be called black holes actually emitted radiation. He believed that as particles were released from the holes they would lose mass and shrink. Then what?

Hawking, like so many other scientists, speculated about how many black holes existed, how big or small they might be, what happened inside them or what would befall you fell into one, and if you did not get mashed up into non-existence and got spewed back out, in what form would you be? Could some unlucky astronaut perhaps be carried into another universe if s/he survived falling into one? No one knew what a black hole looked like or even if one would know from the outside if there were, in fact, one, but Hawking wrote, in a wonderfully amusing lecture entitled Into a Black Hole (available online), that the emissions could look like anything, but would most likely be a thermal radiation, like the glow from red-hot metal. The images last week looked like a ring of fire.

In the lecture, he references science fiction writers, describing the reality of black holes as stranger than anything they could dream up. It leaves the door wide open to all sorts of speculation by the imaginative minds of fiction writers who create utopian and dystopian alternative realities and fantastical futures. Forget the horrors of life on Earth when you could create other nightmarish and oppressive political and social orders but with different rules and good outcomes. For those afraid of reading this sort of literature, it is best to think about it as political and social commentary, as might appear in the pages of any newspaper.

Science fiction as a literary genre is hugely popular. Novels such as Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 have never been out of print and are on many a school reading list, as is Orwell’s Animal Farm. They were aimed at the adult reader, but today the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have targeted much younger people, tapping into themes of self-discovery, self-knowledge and having the power to influence and make a difference. Turning them into film series has brought in millions for the producers.

Caribbean writers are no strangers to science fiction. Tobias Buckell (Grenada) is the author of Crystal Rain; Brown Girl in the Ring and Skin Folk made Nalo Hopkinson’s name (Guyana/Jamaica); Karen Lord (Barbados) is the author of Redemption in Indigo. Belonging to a newer generation, they have all won literary awards and lead the Caribbean pack.

Now jumping into the mix is Man Booker Prize-winning Marlon James (Jamaica), whose A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted murder of Bob Marley, turned him into a literary superstar. His new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, is the first in the Dark Star trilogy, and the film rights have been sold. Following on from the super-grossing Afrofuturistic film Black Panther (it earned US$1 billion at the box office), James’s novel is set in Africa and seeks, he says, “to build a vast playground of myth and history and legend that other people can draw from, a pool that’s as rich as Viking or Celtic lore.”

Lord, Hopkinson and James will participate in the 2019 NGC Bocas Lit Fest (May 1-5). It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to find them all together.


"A real black hole"

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