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

In the Time of Coronavirus: an International Poetry Circle

A cool thing has been going on on Twitter for the last month. On March 15, poet Tara Skurtu (@TaraSkurtu) tweeted:

“This unprecedented time of social distancing is a very lonely one. We need each other. People often turn to poetry in tough times, so I’m starting Poetry Circle—a growing thread of people reading their poems and their favorite poems.”

And with that she published her first video poem with the hashtag #InternationalPoetryCircle.

Happily, the idea has caught on and her initial video has now been seen 124,000 times. And, in just over a month, more than 1000 video poems have been contributed.

I have contributed a few videos so far of other poems I’ve enjoyed.

The first one I read was a favorite by Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” with the lines:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
The world offers itself to your imagination”

Someone replied to my tweet with “I don’t know how you read this without sobbing” and I replied, “I got that out of the way ahead of time.” (insert smiley 🙂

Here’s the link.

I’ve long been a fan of the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai, Tu Fu and Wang Wei, among others, and so I read four translations of Li Bai’s “Taking Leave of a Friend” (in two parts)

Part 1

Part 2

My latest contribution is the poem “Water” by the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska. I had to do two takes of the poem because the line, “How gently the world touches me,” caught me on the first take.

Here’s a the video of the poem.

Hope you enjoy them. And I hope you stay isolated, healthy and sane.