Empire Of The Stars

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2005-04-25
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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In August 1930, on a voyage from Madras to London, a young Indian looked up at the stars and contemplated their fate. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar--Chandra, as he was called--calculated that certain stars would suffer a strange and violent death, collapsing to virtually nothing. This extraordinary claim, the first mathematical description of black holes, brought Chandra into direct conflict with Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the greatest astrophysicists of the day. Eddington ridiculed the young man's idea at a meeting of the Royal Astronomy Society in 1935, sending Chandra into an intellectual and emotional tailspin--and hindering the progress of astrophysics for nearly forty years. Empire of the Stars is the dramatic story of this intellectual debate and its implications for twentieth-century science. Arthur I. Miller traces the idea of black holes from early notions of "dark stars" to the modern concepts of wormholes, quantum foam, and baby universes. In the process, he follows the rise of two great theories--relativity and quantum mechanics--that meet head on in black holes. Empire of the Stars provides a unique window into the remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, how they live, and, most portentously (for their fate is ultimately our own), how they die. It is also the moving tale of one man's struggle against the establishment--an episode that sheds light on what science is, how it works, and where it can go wrong. Miller exposes the deep-seated prejudices that plague even the most rational minds. Indeed, it took the nuclear arms race to persuade scientists to revisit Chandra's work from the 1930s, for the core of a hydrogen bomb resembles nothing so much as an exploding star. Only then did physicists realize the relevance, truth, and importance of Chandra's work, which was finally awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983. Set against the waning days of the British Empire and taking us right up to the present, this sweeping history examines the quest to understand one of the most forbidding phenomena in the universe, as well as the passions that fueled that quest over the course of a century.

Author Biography

Arthur I. Miller is a professor of the history and philosophy of science at University College London.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Prologue xv
PART I The Mystery of White Dwarfs
1 Fatal Collision
2 A Journey Between Two Worlds
3 Rival Giants of Astrophysics
4 Stellar Buffoonery
5 Into the Crucibles of Nature
6 Eddington's Discontents
7 American Adventure
8 An Era Ends
PART II Stars and Bombs
9 How Stars Shine
10 Supernovae in the Heavens and on Earth
11 How the Unthinkable Became Thinkable
PART III What Happens When Stars Die
12 The Jaws of Darkness
13 Shuddering Before the Beautiful
14 Into a Black Hole
Appendix A: The Ongoing Tale of Sirius B 265(3)
Appendix B: Updating the Supernova Story 268(7)
Notes 275(38)
Bibliography 313(14)
Biographical Sketches 327(8)
Glossary 335(10)
Index 345


Prologue Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentary as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say, "Behold!" The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion. -William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act I, Scene 1) EVER SINCE the evocative term "black hole" was coined in 1967, these mysterious voids in the universe have assumed an almost mystical appeal. The attraction of a vast emptiness that imprisons not only matter but also light is quite literally inescapable. Imagine that you are an astronaut, seduced by the grandeur of a black hole into straying too close. Trapped by its immense gravitational field and the tornado-like swirling of space around it, you sweep feet first over the horizon. As you fall, what you see is truly awesome. Just before you slip over the edge, the whole universe of stars and galaxies appears to rush together into one bright spot. The intense gravity of the black hole funnels the light from distant objects into a tighter and tighter cone, like tunnel vision. All the while you are entranced by the fireworks display of atoms snared by the black hole's immense gravity. They dance in a cosmic traffic jam, bumping into each together, becoming hotter and hotter until they blaze with the brightness of a million Suns as they stray too close and plunge with you into nowhere. Then you start to feel the irresistible attraction of the collapsed star deep inside, at once unimaginably small and infinitely dense. As the collapsed star sucks you deeper into the black hole, the gravitational pull grows stronger and stronger. You stretch like a piece of toffee, longer and longer and thinner and thinner, until you are torn apart. The potent gravitational force around the black hole means that light takes longer and longer to reach distant observers. They see you poised on the edge of the black hole, frozen in space and time forever. A black hole is a well in space, the final resting place of a collapsed star. For decades, scientists resisted the very idea as a theoretical freak that couldn't actually exist, an ugly solution to the most beautiful theory ever created, Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. But astronomers now know that the universe is littered with these monsters and that a giant black hole sits at the center of our own galaxy. What's more, we can actually observe black holes by detecting the x-rays emitted by particles as they spiral in toward the event horizon before plummeting in. Having taken their place in our picture of the fabric of nature, black holes have opened our minds to staggering and sometimes frightening speculation: are they spawning baby universes, of which ours may be but one? Might they open a shortcut to a distant part of the universe or even be portals for time travel? How might we devise an experiment to create a black hole in a laboratory here on Earth? Many scientists now believe that black holes hold the key to understanding how our universe has evolved and how nature behaves at its most extreme. At the very edge of space and time black holes are the engines that power quasars, the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than a trillion Suns. Black holes have pushed our knowledge of the cosmos to its limits. Black holes may ultimately reveal the microstructure of matter and the fate of the universe itse

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