Right this minute, people are making plans, making promises and poems, while at the center of our galaxy a black hole with the mass of four billion suns
screams its open-mouth kiss of oblivion. Someday it will swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, swallow Euclid’s postulates and the Goldberg Variations, calculus and Leaves of Grass.
When black holes first emerged from the mathematics of relativity, Einstein himself wavered on whether or not they could be real — he struggled to imagine that nature could produce so menacing a thing, that spacetime could bend to such a monstrous extreme. And then it took us a mere century to hear with our immense prosthetic ear the sound of two black holes colliding to churn a gravitational wave, then to see with our telescopic eye an actual black hole in the cosmic wild. Here looms living proof of Richard Feynman’s insistence that “the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.”
With their cosmic drama and their dazzling science at the edge of the possible, black holes beckon the human imagination with myriad metaphors for our existential perplexities. One of them comes alive in Little Black Hole (public library), by
Radiolab producer Molly Webster and artist Alex Willmore — an uncommon meditation on how to live with the austere existential loneliness of knowing that everything and everyone we cherish can be taken away from us and is ultimately destined for oblivion, how to live with the looming loss that is the price of being fully alive.
The story’s central conceit draws on Stephen Hawking’s black hole information paradox — the combined intimation of relativity and quantum field theory that, even though not even light can escape from a black hole, bits of information can transcend its immense gravitational pull and break free in the form of what is known as Hawking radiation.
Tucked into the lyrical opening lines is a subtle vulpine allusion to The Little Prince, that most poetic of cosmic tales:
There once was a little black hole who loved everything in the universe.
The stars. The planets. The space rocks and the space fox. Even the flying astronauts.
The little black hole loved her friends.
One day, the little black hole befriends a star, but just as they are delighting in building a cosmic castle together, the star vanishes, her light nowhere to be seen.
Next, a comet swings by, but just as the little black hole grows giddy for a new friendship, the comet crumbles to cosmic dust and disappears.
So they come and they go, the planets and the asteroids, the fox and the astronauts, each new friend taken away as soon as they get close, leaving the little black hole baffled and bereaved.
Confused and disconsolate, the little black hole comes upon a big black hole replete with an elder’s wisdom, who illuminates the fundamental fact that to be a black hole means to swallow and annihilate anything and anyone who comes near.
And yet bits of information can escape from the belly of the black hole, bubbling back up as remnants of what was consumed. Out of Hawking’s legacy arises the story’s central metaphor for how to live with loss: Because, in poet Meghan O’Rourke’s lovely words, “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” we can always bring them back up to the surface of our consciousness with the twin levers of memory and imagination.
This might seem like cold consolation for the infernal heat of loss. And yet it is no small gift that a cold cosmos kindled the warm glow of consciousness — this radiant faculty that makes it possible to love and to suffer, to imagine and to remember; this wonder that — like music, like love — didn’t have to exist.
Couple Little Black Hole with Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss, then revisit “Singularity” — Marie Howe’s stunning ode to Stephen Hawking and our cosmic belonging.