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Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded

Discussion and news about planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology

Black Holes Are Coming!

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On August 14th 2012 my new book, Gravity's Engines, will launch. I'm enormously excited about this, and over the next couple of months - increasingly so as publication date approaches, Life, Unbounded will carry some posts that talk about the science between the covers. The subject matter of Gravity's Engines may appear a little surprising given that Life, Unbounded focuses (for the most part) on planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology, but the book is in fact all about black holes. Small black holes, giant black holes, black holes in nearby galaxies and the Milky Way, and black holes at the dawn of cosmic starlight - more than 12 billion years ago. And it tells the story of how we've come to realize that black holes not only play a pivotal role in determining the characteristics of the universe we see around us, they may even play a role in our own origins and circumstances.

It's wild stuff, but recent research (including some of mine) is leading astronomers to the conclusion that the flavor of galaxies, and the number of stars (and planets) that the universe makes, is intimately tied into the way that black holes eat matter and belch energy back out into the cosmos. Hence the subtitle for the book, which rather immodestly states `How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos'. Cor blimey.

More on this tale will be revealed in the coming months. But for now consider the fact that over the next few years we expect to bear witness to the close passage, and possible destruction, of matter around the Milky Way's own supermassive black hole. A recently identified blob of what may be interstellar gases, or even a stellar system, is descending into the maw of spacetime around our four million solar mass central beast. It may be stretched, torn, shredded, and accelerated - flaring into brilliant outbursts of light and radiation and providing us with a ringside view of the process. Luckily, if anything does get torn apart, it won't threaten us, it's just too small an amount of fuel. But scale this up to what we see happening in other places throughout the universe and you have a potent force - black holes are gravity's most efficient engines, and it's time to take them very seriously.

Gravity's Engines is also but one of several titles in the new Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux imprint, which now has its own site here. There are some terrific books coming this year, covering everything from the extraordinary sensory life of plants, to the peculiarities of human physiology and psychology, and the best of online science writing. Well worth taking a look.

The center of the Milky Way seen in 6cm radio emission. Our central supermassive black hole lurks in the spiral-ring like structure to the right.(Credit: VLA, Prof. K.Y. Lo, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Dept. of Astronomy)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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