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Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos

4.3 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374114121
ISBN-10: 0374114129
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Editorial Reviews


“Scharf makes vivid the mind-boggling nature of the universe . . . [there are] bright beams of knowledge coming from this excellent book.” ―Wall Street Journal

“To call this an absorbing read is an understatement. I felt dreamily transplanted . . . When I did emerge from the book to look up at the summer stars, the night seemed more brightly lit, slightly more known but also more awesome, more wonderfully strange.” ―The Barnes & Noble Review

“With Gravity's Engines, Caleb Scharf establishes himself as one of the finest space storytellers.” ―The Christian Science Monitor

“Using rich language and a brilliant command of metaphor, [Scharf] takes on some of the most intricate topics in theoretical and observational astronomical research. He weaves a wonderfully detailed tapestry of what modern astronomy is all about, from the complexities of cosmic microwave background studies to the X-ray mapping of galaxy clusters.” ―Nature

“[H]eady stuff, but luckily for readers . . . who lack a deep understanding of cosmology, Scharf populates his book with images and colorful metaphors.” ―The Chronicle of Higher Education

“[A]n excellent overview of the state of black hole research . . . to explain why black holes are so important, Scharf provides a tour of much of modern astronomy and cosmology along with some requisite history, an impressive feat for such a relatively short book.” ―Ars Technica

“The subtitle of this most readable book about supermassive black holes exemplifies Scharf's playful tone...Highly recommended. Teen and adult fans of astronomy, as well as scientists looking for ways to explain black holes to nonscientists, will all enjoy this text.” ―Library Journal (starred review)

“Scharf's explanations are vivid and accessible, evoking the awe of cosmic grandeur in a way that's as humbling as it is fascinating.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Scharf is a writer you'll gladly follow to the end of the universe.” ―Zocalo Public Square

“[S]tunning. I can't remember when I last read a popular science book where I learned as much I hadn't come across before.” ―Popular Science Book Review (five stars)

“In Gravity's Engines, Caleb Scharf deftly tells you all you wanted to know about Black Holes, as well as all you never knew you wanted to know. By the end of the book your conclusion will surely match mine: Black holes are terrifying yet awesome constituents of the cosmos.” ―Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, author of Space Chronicles and Death by Black Hole

“Superbly accessible . . . Scharf's breathtaking cosmic vision will appeal to anyone whose curiosity is aroused by gazing at a star-filled sky.” ―Booklist

“An intelligent explanation of a weird but essential feature of the universe . . . rich, satisfying.” ―Kirkus

“Scharf provides a virtuosic history of the universe . . . he also serves as an appealing tour guide to the eerie, infinite corridors of the cosmos in which we reside.” ―Prospect (UK

About the Author

Caleb Scharf is the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center. He writes the Life, Unbounded blog for Scientific American; has written for New Scientist, Science, and Nature, among other publications; and has served as a consultant for the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, The New York Times, and more. Scharf has served as a keynote speaker for the American Museum of Natural History and the Rubin Museum of Art, and is the author of Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology, winner of the 2011 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society. He lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374114129
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374114121
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #841,352 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
However I did learn a few new things. For instance, one of the reasons astronomers observe jets of x-rays and other forms of energy shooting above and below the disk of a spiral galaxy is because the super massive black hole spinning at the center warps space into an enormous eddy. The eye of the storm, so to speak, is the only channel of escape.

But I had to wade through galaxies of fluff and silly analogies to get there. The fluff most likely arises from the maxim that you lose readers when you include equations. As a result there are none in this book. Even worse, the author strives to avoid anything that sounds too sciency. Yes we get extended descriptions about matter crashing into itself to create the energy we can see, but no scientific explanation of how that energy is actually produced and why it is not sucked in by gravity. We also learn that "[s]uper computer simulations" of baby galaxy mergers "can create enormous whirlpools of turbulence." But nothing about the simulation inputs or how they work nor the nature or extent of the turbulence.

Then there is the writing. As another reviewer says, Scharf's analogies are all over the place. Many of them are at odds with the grandiose tone he sets in the first few chapters. Galaxies are eggs. Super hot gas clouds are water in a bowl then - in the same paragraph - partially successful soufflés. Meanwhile he is inconsistent in trying to express the scale of the universe. He tells us 10 million years (or light years when referring to distance) is tiny compared to the age and size of the universe.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is a fascinating view of the universe, including our part of it. The book focuses on "black holes" those parts of the universe that are the most dense and the most energy productive. Every galaxy, including the Milky Way, our galaxy, has a black hole in the middle of it. Around the black hole, there exists the most concentrated grouping of stars which in many instances are "buzzing around the black hole" at tremendous speeds and then circle around the black hole until they are swallowed by it, much like a drain does with water. When this happens, an explosion occurs and energy is released in the form of radioactive gas, protons and neutrons that spews out thousands of light years into the universe.

These are called black holes because they appear that way in the universe because they are so dense that no light escapes from them. They are billions of times more dense and powerful than our sun. Since there at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe with at least 100 billion stars in each (think about those numbers, they are mind boggling), there are least that number of black holes. These black holes perform a key role in the universe creating and re-creating the universe through the creation and destruction of stars and galaxies.

Most of the book is spent discussing the exploration of these monsters, both nearby (our galaxy and others within millions of light years from us) to billions of light years away. The author mentions one galaxy and black hole that he was involved in the discovery of that is 12 billion light years away from us. (The interesting thing is that they found this galaxy and black hole as it looked 12 billion years ago...) A picture is shown of these and other galaxies with their black holes in their middle.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a subscriber to Scientific American and have seen this book advertised there for the past few months, so since wanted to learn more about black holes, I decided to give it a try.

I found this book to be a good basic overall review of what black holes are and the part they have played and continue to play in our cosmological evolution, but now that I have finished the book, I find that did not get out of it as much as I had hoped to. True, I can explain to my co-workers what a black hole is, how they formed and where they likely are (if this topic ever comes up in our conversation), but not much else. I know that the book covers more about black holes, but none of it stuck, so I am at the point of not knowing which to blame for that, the book or myself. After I finished it, I still had to re-read the section on bubble-blowing to remember what the author wrote.

I'm a bit uneasy at the author's writing style and the overuse of colloquial references to what he was trying to get across. I felt that I was being slapped on the back and expected to smile at some of these comparisons, and that detracted from the subject material in my opinion. I know that this is not a text book, nor did I expect it to be one, but I would have rather seen a bit more Brian Greene and a little less David Sedaris.

Would I recommend this book to a friend? To my neighbor who is a retired factory manager, yes...to my neighbor who is a high school physics teacher, no. If you are reading this review to see if you should read it, well if you know little more about a black hole than its color, then yes, you should give it a try. Anything beyond that, I'd look elsewhere.
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