What we've been reading: Black holes, footie, and Pynchon

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It's Friday again, folks. The Summer Solstice is behind us now and the days will now slowly start to wane.

But let's not despair: we're still set for a long, hot Summer, according to the Met Office. So get out and enjoy the weather, and if you're looking for some idle garden reading, look no further than our recommendations.

Enjoy your weekend, folks! 

Fran: Star eater

So, black holes. Nice and easy topic for a Friday afternoon, right? The existence of these mysterious beasts - remnants of a massive star’s dramatic death - is widely accepted in the scientific community. But they remain deeply enigmatic.

For one matter, we haven’t seen one. Its gravitational pull is so severe that not even light can escape it clutches. Nothing gets out and nothing, for that matter, can peer in. “A black hole is a place exiled from the rest of the universe,” as Michael Finkel writes.

How can we conceive of something that we can’t see? Well, the name ‘black hole’ is actually a latent admission of our ignorance. But it’s also our best guess: the presence of a black hole is deduced by the effect it has on its surroundings. When we look at the centre of most galaxies - including our own - there is a “teeming bulge of stars and gas and dust”.

Something, some insatiable force, at the centre of virtually every galaxy scientists have observed is pulling with a ferocious might. In other words, a black hole. Literally and theoretically. The one at the heart of the Milky Way, our home, is is named Sagittarius A*.

Many physicists outrightly reject the notion that we can ever understand what lies at the heart of a black hole. The so-named ‘singularity’.   

This is where Finkel’s narrative gets really wild. When we consider black holes in tandem with that other sexy theory in theoretical physics: the Multiverse, which suggests our universe is one of “a vast collection of universes, each a separate bubble in the Swiss cheese of reality”.

“This is all highly speculative,” writes Finkel, “but it’s possible that to give birth to a new universe you first need to take a bunch of matter from an existing universe, crunch it down, and seal it off.”

As Finkel notes, this sounds familiar.  “We do know, after all, what became of at least one singularity. Our universe began, 13.8 billion years ago, in a tremendous big bang. The moment before, everything was packed into an infinitesimally small, massively dense speck—a singularity.”

Perhaps we already know what’s going on inside a black hole. Look around you.

Kat: No Such Thing as a Fish - No Such Thing as a Fully Carpeted Country

Even if you’re not a football fan, it’s hard to not feel slightly enamoured with this year’s World Cup. The underdog triumphs (see Mexico vs Germany or Colombia vs Japan), the impromptu stadium clean-ups, Gareth Southgate’s sudden status as a minor fashion icon – there are plenty of unexpected stories emerging.

Nowhere, of course, does unexpected stories better than No Such Thing as a Fish, the weekly podcast from the QI research team. In this week’s edition, they’re joined by football fan and QI regular Alan Davies for a World Cup special.

You’ll learn plenty of weird World Cup facts (did you know that Austria qualified for the 1938 competition, but then had to withdraw because it stopped existing as a country?) and it’ll give you a chuckle on your morning commute too.

Melissa: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

Around 250 years ago, two British scientists were commissioned to draw a border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, to resolve a long-running land dispute.

The line they drew, now known as the Mason-Dixon Line, marked a great scientific achievement for its time, and became symbolic of the north/south divide during the American Civil War a century later.

This doesn’t sound like the premise of a particularly fantastical novel, but so little is known about the real-life Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon that their story is ripe for narrative invention, and Pynchon’s novel really makes the most of this opportunity.

Science and magic is combined with philosophy and slapstick as the characters embark upon a series of adventures, encountering everything from talking dogs to the Founding Fathers.

With its dense, 18th Century style, I wouldn’t exactly call this a light summer read – but once you spend some time getting used to it, the playful use of language and often captivating turns of phrase make the effort worthwhile.

About Francois Badenhorst


I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 


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21st Jun 2018 22:33

Francois, your black hole appears to have had a significant impact on spacetime, the 21st appears to have become Friday or Friday has become the 21st!!

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