Quick Questions for Charles D. Bailyn, author of What Does a Black Hole Look Like?

Charles BailynCharles D. Bailyn is the A. Bartlett Giamatti professor Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. He is currently serving as Dean of Faculty at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He was awarded the 2009 Bruno Rossi Prize from the American Astronomical Society for his work on measuring the masses of black holes, and the recipient of several other, equally prestigious awards.

Dr. Bailyn received his B.Sc. in Astronomy and Physics from Yale (1981) and completed his Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard (1987). His research interests are concentrated in High Energy Astrophysics and Galactic Astronomy, with a focus on observations of binary star systems containing black holes. His latest book, What Does a Black Hole Look Like? addresses lingering questions about the nature of Dark Matter and black holes, and is accessible to a variety of audiences.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Charles D. Bailyn: Like a lot of little kids in the late 1960s, I was fascinated by space travel, and I wanted to be an astronaut. But then someone told me about space sickness – I’m prone to motion sickness, and that sounded pretty awful to me. So “astronaut” morphed into “astrophysicist” – I liked the idea of exploring the universe through math and physics. In college I thought I would work on relativity theory, but I didn’t quite have the mathematical prowess for that, and around that time I found out that the X-ray astronomers were actually observing black holes and related objects. So as a graduate student and post-doc I gradually moved from being a theorist to being an observer. I’ve analyzed data from many of NASA’s orbiting observatories, so I ended up being involved with the space program after all.

What would you have been if not an astronomer?

I’ve always loved music, particularly vocal music, and I’ve spent a lot of time in and around various kinds of amateur singing groups. I could easily see myself as a choral conductor.

What is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about astronomy?

Well, I’m always a bit amused and dismayed when I tell someone that I’m an astronomer, and they ask “what’s your sign?” – as if astronomy and astrology are the same thing. I used to tell people very seriously that I’m an Orion – this is puzzling, since most people know it’s a constellation but not part of the zodiac. At one point I had an elaborate fake explanation worked out about how this could be.

Why did you write this book? Who do you see as its audience?

There seem to be two kinds of books on black holes and relativity – books addressing a popular audience that use no math at all, and textbooks that focus on developing the relevant physical theory. This book was designed to sit in the middle. It assumes a basic knowledge of college physics, but instead of deriving the theory, its primary concerns are the observations and their interpretation. I’m basically talking to myself as a sophomore or junior in college.

“The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.”

How did you come up with the title?

The Frontiers in Physics (Princeton) series like to have questions in the title, and this one is particularly provocative. Black holes by definition cannot be seen directly, so asking what they “look like” is a bit of an oxymoron. But a lot of modern astrophysics is like that – we have powerful empirical evidence for all sorts of things we can’t see, from planets around distant stars to the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that make up most of the stuff in the Universe. The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.

What are you working on now?

I’m turning the online version of my introductory astronomy course into a book – kind of a retro move, turning online content into book format! It will be for a non-scientific rather than a scientific audience. But mostly I’m doing administrative work these days – I’m currently in Singapore serving as the inaugural Dean of Faculty for Yale-NUS College, the region’s first fully residential liberal arts college. The importance of science in a liberal arts curriculum is a passion of mine – after all, astronomy was one of the original liberal arts – and I’m glad to have a chance to bring this kind of education to a new audience, even though it takes me away from my scientific work for a while.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been following the reading list for our second semester literature core class, starting from Don Quixote and Journey to the West, the first early modern novels in the European and Chinese traditions respectively, ending with Salman Rushdie, who is all about the interaction of East and West. It’s fun being a student again!


Charles D. Bailyn is the author of:

Buy the Book image What Does a Black Hole Look Like? by Charles D. Bailyn
Hardcover | August 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691148823
224 pp. | 5 x 8 | 21 line illus.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850563 | Reviews


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