15 August 2011

Who Gave the Black Hole Its Name?

John Wheeler in Black Hole, Nova Scotia, 1981
Book after book attributes the phrase "black hole" to the Princeton physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who in the 1960s re-energized the field of general relativity by helping prove that if certain dying stars were massive enough they would not settle down as neutron stars but continue to collapse to a point, digging a pit into space-time. 

Wheeler liked to tell the tale that he first used the term at a 1967 conference, quickly set up at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City once pulsars were discovered. Were the pulsars' mysterious beeps coming from red giant stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars?  Wheeler told the assembled astronomers they might be the "gravitationally collapsed objects" that he studied.  “Well, after I used that phrase four or five times, somebody in the audience said, ‘Why don’t you call it a black hole.’ So I adopted that,” Wheeler told me.   He used the phrase again several weeks later during an after-dinner talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in New York City on December 29, 1967.  It made it into print when an article based on that talk, titled “Our Universe: The Known and the Unknown,” was published in American Scientist in 1968. 

But it turns out the term was already in the air.  It had been circulating among conferees four years earlier at a symposium on relativistic astrophysics held in Texas at the end of 1963. The proof?  Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld mentioned black holes in his report on the conference. And the term was used again a few weeks later at the 1964 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting held in Cleveland.  Ann Ewing of Science News Letter reported that astronomers and physicists at the conference were suggesting that “space may be peppered with ‘black holes.’” 

But it's certainly true that the phrase didn’t catch fire until 1967.  It seemed to need the imprimatur of John Wheeler, the dean of American general relativity, to give it gravitas.  Once Wheeler gave his blessing, the phrase began popping up in the official scientific literature—although over the first year it was usually denoted as “the black hole,” an expression so exotic it needed to be constrained within quotation marks. 

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