How the Black Hole Got Its Name

Marcia Bartusiak, celebrated astronomy and physics writer and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains to DiscovHER readers how the black hole got its name.

For any astrophysicist at a cocktail party, a black hole is the cosmic object they’re most likely to be asked about. And for good reason: Its name is so alluring.

Book after book attributes the phrase black hole to the Princeton physicist John Archibald Wheeler. In the 1960s he had re-energized the field of general relativity by helping prove that if certain dying stars were massive enough they would not settle down as white dwarf or neutron stars but continue to collapse to a point, digging a veritable pit into space-time that allows no light or matter to escape.

Wheeler liked to tell the tale that he first used the term at a 1967 conference, quickly set up once pulsars were discovered. Were the pulsars' mysterious radio beeps coming from red giant stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars? According to Wheeler, he told the assembled astronomers they might be the "gravitationally collapsed objects" that he had long been studying. “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. Yet, there was no pulsar conference in 1967, but he assuredly used the phrase 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, which made it go public.

But the term, it turns out, 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 a 1964 AAAS meeting held in Cleveland, Ohio. Ann Ewing of Science News Letter reported that astronomers and physicists at the conference were suggesting that “space may be peppered with ‘black holes.’”

There was one common denominator at both these conferences: the presence of Hong-Yee Chiu, then a young astrophysicist specializing in compact stars. Chiu had originated the term quasar; was he introducing another fun term to the public at these meetings? “No,” Chiu recently told me. He had borrowed the phrase from someone else. In the early 1960s Chiu had heard a lecture by Princeton physicist Robert Dicke on the complete collapse of a massive star, creating an environment where gravity is so strong that nothing could leave its grasp. Dicke said it was like the “Black Hole of Calcutta,” the infamous prison in 18th century India where prisoners allegedly went in, but never came out. It was one of Dicke’s favorite expressions. His sons recall their father exclaiming, “Black Hole of Calcutta!” whenever a household item went missing in their home. Dicke’s talk now connected it to this mysterious, hypothetical celestial object.

But the phrase never caught fire until 1967. The unusual term seemed to need the imprimatur of Wheeler, then 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.

- Marcia Bartusiak

For Women in Science

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