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No. 68: Mar-Apr 1990

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Wanted: a bona fide black hole

Don't you get tired of all those science books, newspaper articles, TV documentaries, and commentators gushing at length about black holes as if they were well-verified denizens of the universe? Black holes are popularly presented as "fact"; no doubts permitted; here the Book of Science is closed! It was like a breath of fresh air to read this sentence in Sky and Telescope:

"Scientists are still unable to confirm the existence of even a single black hole, despite a widespread belief that such things should, and indeed must, exist."

This single sentence won't change anything, because everyone is comfortable with black holes. They are part of the (often false) reality that the media smothers us with.

Actually, there are two places where black holes "might" dwell, based upon the anomalous behavior of matter around these regions: (1) at the centers of some galaxies, including our own Milky Way; and (2) as unseen components of some close double stars, where the mass of the unseen companion is too great for it to be an ordinary neutron star. W. Kundt and D. Fischer, at Bonn University, have recently concluded that the second possibility is better explained without resorting to black holes. For example, a neutron star with a massive accretion disk might suffice. As for black holes at the centers of galaxies, with masses of several million suns, gravitationally sucking in surrounding matter and careless spaceships - well, they are possible. Unfortunately, galac-tic centers are too far away and obscured by dust for us to be certain what lies at their cores. Black holes are really only surmise; although they make good copy!

(Anonymous; "No Black Holes?" Sky and Telescope, 78:572, 1989.)

From Science Frontiers #68, MAR-APR 1990. 1990-2000 William R. Corliss