Review of Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable by Seth Fletcher
Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable
by Seth Fletcher
I became hooked on astronomy in a very big way. It’s just that idea that once you’ve passed the event horizon, then there is no escape from the black hole. So a book about taking a photograph of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy using a radio telescope assembled out of telescopes from around the Earth? Yes, please. Einstein’s Shadow tries to tell the story of this project, the Event Horizon Telescope or EHT, and particularly its founder, Shep Doeleman. However, somewhere along the way, Seth Fletcher’s attempts to combine the budgetary wrangling of an astronomical project with the astrophysical ideas behind the project lose their way, and we are left with a book lacking in heart.
From the beginning, I was nervous about Fletcher’s choice to follow Doeleman and portray him as the “hero” of this book. I understand that he was one of the visionaries for this project, that he brought it to life and shepherded toward its (eventual) successful photograph. Yet Fletcher readily admits that a project like this is really the work of hundreds of minds, not one. So the focus on Doeleman is odd, because you can’t have your cake and eat it too—don’t remind me that science is a collaborative enterprise and then spend a whole chapter telling me about Doeleman’s childhood. Is this a biography or isn’t it? In the same vein, there were points in this book where Fletcher lionizes Doeleman too much for my liking. Sure, he also points out Doeleman’s recalcitrance and flaws, so maybe that’s just balance. Nevertheless, I just walked away with an uneasy impression we’re supposed to see Doeleman as a visionary and a hero, and it’s just like … dude managed a big science project.
It feels like Fletcher is casting about for a story in the middle of events that are, in their own way, quite interesting, but for which there isn’t much story to be found. I did like the details on how the project was funded. I liked hearing about the behind-the-scences, backdoor wrangling. I liked the acknowledgement of the dearth of women in this field. More of these things. I didn’t mind Fletcher’s attempts to explain the physics behind black holes, although I have heard it done better and with more … I don’t know, flair? All in all, however, these two faces of the book never unified into a whole that I could appreciate. I would be excited for a few pages before the narrative returned to less interesting things, or bogged itself down in a few pages of scientific chat, and my interest level flatlined.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that, in the end, Fletcher’s writing style just didn’t work for me. I also think it was so premature to finalize this book prior to the EHT actually releasing its data/images (I ended up looking up the EHT’s website and realizing I had seen its image of M87 in a science news article some time ago). I’m not sure if this was the publisher’s eagerness or what, but if you held off another year or so, hey, you would have a way better ending for this book. As it is, “They got data, but they need time to keep sifting through it, stay tuuuuuned” is literally a definition of anticlimax. This book is all science foreplay, no science orgasm, and I’m not here for that.