The Reluctant Father of Black Holes; Reality-Bending Black Holes; Special Editions; by Jeremy Bernstein; 8 Page(s)
Great science sometimes produces a legacy that outstrips not only the imagination of its practitioners but also their intentions. A case in point is the early development of the theory of black holes and, above all, the role played in it by Albert Einstein. In 1939 Einstein published a paper in the journal Annals of Mathematics with the daunting title "On a Stationary System with Spherical Symmetry Consisting of Many Gravitating Masses." With it, Einstein sought to prove that black holes--celestial objects so dense that their gravity prevents even light from escaping--were impossible.
The irony is that, to make his case, he used his own general theory of relativity and gravitation, published in 1916--the very theory that is now used to argue that black holes are not only possible but, for many astronomical objects, inevitable. Indeed, a few months after Einstein's rejection of black holes appeared-and with no reference to it--J. Robert Oppenheimer and his student Hartland S. Snyder published a paper entitled "On Continued Gravitational Contraction." That work used Einstein's general theory of relativity to show, for the first time in the context of modern physics, how black holes could form.