Black holes

Are we finally beginning to understand gravity?

The question of why things fall has puzzled our species since we crawled out from the darkness of our primitive ignorance. Aristotle was the first to offer a serious theory. He proposed that each of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) had a natural place to which it innately wanted to return. Fire and air rise because their place is in the heavens, whereas earth and water return to the Earth. Aristotelian philosophy had such a profound impact on human thought that this view prevailed for nearly 2,000 years. Only with the Renaissance and the ideas of Kepler and Galileo was it finally challenged; and only by standing on

Now imagine a white hole – a black hole’s time-reversed twin…

There are many ways to measure the course of human history and each will give an insight into one or more of the various qualities that have made us the most successful great ape. Every major advance, whether in war or art or literature, requires imagination, that most amazing of human capacities, and the ability to ask ‘What if?’ – to take the world from a different perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of science. While there is an inherent provincialism in revolutions in art and literature, progress in science is universal, and moves, like Dante’s Hell, in concentric circles of ever deeper understanding. It is

Like burst balloons after a party: the last paintings of John Hoyland

When the internationally acclaimed abstract painter John Hoyland died in 2011 at the age of 76, a large chunk of light, laughter and danger went out of the British art world. Hoyland, who was born in Sheffield and trained at the local art college before coming to London and the Royal Academy Schools, was a force to be reckoned with. Reaching maturity in the 1960s, his career was established by a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967, after which he divided his time for several years between London and New York. In the 1970s he settled back in London and Wiltshire, but travelled widely, often to the tropics.

Stephen Hawking: the myth and the reality

I could never muster much enthusiasm for the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. His work, on the early universe and the nature of spacetime, was Nobel-worthy, but those of us outside his narrow community were horribly short-changed. His 1988 global bestseller A Brief History of Time was incomprehensible, not because it was difficult but because it was bad. Nobody, naturally, wanted to ascribe Hawking’s popular success to his rare form of motor neurone disease, Hawking least of all. He afforded us no room for horror or, God forbid, pity. In 1990, asked a dumb question about how his condition might have shaped his work (because people who suffer ruinous, debilitating illnesses

Will the universe end with a bang or a bounce?

The cosiest way to read The End of Everything, Katie Mack’s fast-paced book about universal death, is as a murder mystery. Everything in spacetime, including the reader’s understanding of much of the story, is in the shadows. Black holes, quarks and gluons, Cepheid variables, the Concordance Model? Mere words, strewn across the floor. Believability, restraint and common sense? Left at the door. In the middle of the carpet is our butchered universe. How did it die? Squashed (‘The Big Crunch’)? Boiled (‘Heat Death’)? Eviscerated (‘The Big Rip’)? Burst apart from every pore (‘Vacuum Decay’)? To one side, almost dancing with excitement, is Inspector Mack, a theoretical astro-physicist at Carolina State