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

The Tree on My Block

For many years, a beautiful maple tree lived on my block. And like maples anywhere, fall was its time to shine. For about six weeks, it put on a show with its leaves turning red at the top, and then that red would cascade down. Then the leaves at the top would turn yellow, and the yellow would cascade down. Finally, it would lose its leaves at the top and then lose them branch by branch until it was bare.

The maple tree on my block, a few weeks into its turning, with a hickory tree in front

A few years ago I tried to capture the event in photos. Though I got a number of good pictures, I realized when I tried to put them into a sequence that I wasn’t consistent enough in how I took them – they were taken at random times from a few different places. I resolved to be more rigorous the next year and take the photos from the same place, at the same time of day.

But I never got the chance.

One day in September I turned the corner onto my block and saw all the leaves of the tree had turned yellow. The next day the leaves were on the ground. It was a sudden death if ever there was one. It was like fall itself was cancelled and there would be no colors coming to my block. I didn’t know at the time that the tree had been poisoned, and after lamenting the loss of color on my block, I waited anxiously through the winter for the tree to bud again.

I walked by the tree every day in the winter and wondered about it. And I cast those thoughts into words, and then combined them with the images I had to make a series of films. Each film is two to four minutes long and captures a different aspect of my vigil. To be honest, they are among the creations I’m most proud of – I watch them from time to time and I’m still moved by them. They remind me of how much I loved that tree.

The films are all on my Vimeo page, which for some reason has become difficult to navigate. You can find them all in one place here, or I’ve put the titles with links below in the sequence that I made the films: