Further Antedating of "Black Hole"

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Thu Apr 17 08:45:17 UTC 2008

Joel S Berson asked:

> Is it not possible that the 1964 _Science News Letter_ article uses
> the term "black hole" as coined by Wheeler then, and the 1967 and
> 1968 quotations are later uses?

For what it's worth, the Guardian obituary yesterday said that "in a talk
at the Goddard Institute, New York in 1967, [he] spontaneously came up
with the name 'black hole' to describe it." If that is the received view,
then the 1967 antedating by Bill Mullins and the 1964 one by Fred Shapiro
are significant in correcting a myth about an important man of science.

However, the Scientific American obit says, "Wheeler recalls discussing
such 'completely collapsed gravitational objects' at a conference in 1967,
when someone in the audience casually dropped the phrase 'black hole.'
Wheeler immediately adopted the phrase for its brevity and 'advertising
value,' and it caught on." The Daily Telegraph has a slightly different
version: "In a conference in 1967, Dr Wheeler was searching for something
to call the phenomenon known as a 'gravitationally completely collapsed
star'. He later noted: 'After you get around to saying that about 10
times, you look desperately for something better.' A student at the
conference called out 'black hole' as a suggestion, and Dr Wheeler made
the name stick." (And this is over a subhead that says that he "coined the
term 'black hole'".)

I'm with Fred Shapiro on this: claims of first creation are important in
science, since reputations and rewards rest on them. It would be good to
know who wrote the 1964 article. It is not to decry the memory of a famous
teacher and theorist to get to the truth behind the myth.

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: wordseditor at worldwidewords.org
Web: http://www.worldwidewords.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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