Black Holes in the Time of Coronavirus

My newest essay, about black holes, poetry, the pandemic and grief, was published by The Smart Set a week ago. It begins:


Black holes are prisons of light. They are both metaphor and physical entity, mute commentary on what is known, unknown and unknowable. Well-studied but poorly understood, like a virus.

What happens gravitationally if you squeeze the mass of an object to a point? This was Karl Schwarzschild’s question while stationed at the Russian front of the First World War. You get a point of no volume and infinite density – a singularity. It would be surrounded by a region where nothing, not even light, could escape. This boundary became known as the event horizon, because no event within the boundary could be observed from outside.

If there was a boundary around Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, it was porous. Before the city was locked down on January 23, near the beginning of the 16-day Chinese New Year celebrations, the mayor estimated that five million people left. By the time I start tracking it in the beginning of March, red dots appear like sparks all over the globe. One by one the sparks become fires, new hotspots. The virus was on my periphery till then – something that barely registered in my universe.

Schwarzschild sent his solution in a letter to Einstein in 1916: “As you can see, the war treated me kindly enough in spite of the heavy gunfire, to allow me to get away from it all, and take this walk in your land of ideas.”


Early in the semester, before ever hearing of Wuhan, I told my astronomy class that when Cambridge University closed due to an outbreak of the plague in 1665, Isaac Newton went home to Lincolnshire and over the next eighteen months developed his theories of calculus, optics and gravitation. Or so he recalled later in life. The Annus Mirabilis – Miracle Year – though historians argue that the work was spread over half a decade. I joked that if they invented a branch of mathematics to solve their homework, I would give them an A.

My university shifts to online classes in the middle of March, and the nebulous threat crystallizes into reality. Walking home after the announcement, I feel an unease, like waiting for an ill wind to pass through – the sort of miasma that Londoners thought was responsible for the plague of 1665 – and only when it is gone will we know who it has claimed and who it has left behind. The virus has already infected people in 122 countries.

Einstein’s first test of his theory was the precession of the orbit of Mercury, a two-hundred year old anomaly of Newton’s laws. So close to the sun, Mercury doesn’t skate over the same ellipse every orbit like the other planets, but spirals around instead because of how the sun curves spacetime. It will complete a rosette pattern, with 12 million overlapping lobes, in three million years. Einstein wrote a friend about his delight at getting the right answer: “I was beside myself with joy and happiness for days.”

Curved spacetime: was there ever a more elegant idea?

Einstein to another friend in 1915: “The theory is beautiful beyond comparison.”

Read the rest of the essay at The Smart Set