Black Hole Blues

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Dr. Morrison, professor of physics at MIT

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Janna Levin, at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, where she presented a fine report on the background to the discovery of gravity waves.


Her book on the topic was published just before the discovery of gravity waves, so that momentous event is relegated to a brief Epilogue. While the timing was unfortunate, since the discovery was not made the central focus of the book, my concerns with the text go far deeper.


Since the book is geared to a general science audience, I expect virtually no member of the general science-interested public will have any personal knowledge of the scientists mentioned. It was my good fortune to have met most of the great scientists Levin includes in the book.


Thus I was shocked early on (page 29) to read this sentence regarding John Wheeler and Robert Oppenheimer. “Although Wheeler did not testify in the hearing in 1954 that would strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance (the notorious Edward Teller did), Wheeler was not entirely unsympathetic to the testimony or the decision.”


What is reader supposed to take away from this description of Edward Teller as notorious? Levin does not even tell the reader who Teller was. He was certainly no criminal, which is usually the sort of person who gets 'notorious' thrown at them. Teller, who I knew, was the father of the H-bomb and one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I also knew Wheeler, who had a great influence on me.


I continued with my reading until page 64, when I read “polio-sabotaged astrophysicist, Philip Morrison.” I can only consider the one-liner descriptions of Teller and Morrison to be the crudest form of caricature I have ever read in a book of science. Morrison was a wonderful person, combining kindness and brilliance. To have his career encapsulated is such a politically incorrect way will be hurtful to his family and all who remember him. At least Teller gets a mention in the Index, Morrison does not. What does polio-sabotaged even mean? Would anyone dare say that about FDR? Their personal medical issues obviously did not prevent them from rising to the heights of eminence.


Since I could only force myself to skim read the remainder of the book, I cannot offer further comments.


Black Hole Blues (241 pages) is by Knopf.


In grateful memory:

Edward Teller (1908-2003)

Philip Morrison (1915-2005)

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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