The Book of Black: Black Holes, Black Death, Black Forest Cake, and Other Dark Sides of Life

Black is such a powerful word because it conveys darkness, extremity, and the unknown. We've added the descriptive word to many subjects, sometimes to denote its color, but often to convey danger or mystery. It's time to shed some light onto those subjects.

Neatorama is proud to present excerpts from entries in The Book of Black: Black Holes, Black Death, Black Forest Cake, and Other Dark Sides of Life, the newest book by author and Renaissance man Clifford A. Pickover. Like his previous books The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book, The Book of Black has a page on each topic, with a full-page illustration to accompany each one. Unlike those previous books, this one covers a wider range of topics, from history to philosophy to science and the arts, all with one thing in common -the word black. They are presented in chronological order from the Black Diamonds that formed millions of years ago to the distant future when the universe fades to Black. Let's look at a sampling of just a few of the 100 topics in The Book of Black. The images are much higher resolution in the book, which also contains the figure descriptions and credits.

Black Widow Spider (c. 250 million B.C.)

Spiders with spinnerets (silk-spinning organs) at the end of their abdomens came into existence more than 250 million years ago. When an insect is trapped in the black widow spider’s web, the spider wraps the prey and then injects its victim with venom from its chelicerae, or fangs, to paralyze the prey. Males are less venomous than females.

The phrase black widow spider often refers to the three North American species known for their dark bodies and red hourglass patterns on the females’ abdomens.  The male spiders are sometimes less than half the size of the female and have hourglass markings with a variety of colors. The brightly colored markings may have been evolutionarily advantageous because they warn predators to avoid the spider. For example, if a bird eats a black widow, the bird usually does not die but becomes sick and may begin to associate the sickness with the spider’s coloration.

Contrary to legend, the female only rarely eats the male after mating. “Husband cannibalism” was indeed observed in studies from the 1920s when females and males were kept together in small containers. However, in more natural settings, the male is usually able to safely leave the female’s web after mating.

Black Pepper (1213 BC)

Ramesses II  (reign 1279–1213 BC)

1213 BC is a special date in the history of black pepper because we have definitive proof that black peppercorns were jammed into the nose of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, immediately after he died during this year. The peppercorns may have helped the mummified nose retain its shape and also served as a preservative.

Pepper was used in India since prehistoric time, and virtually all of the black pepper found in Europe during the Middle Ages came from India. Through history, pepper was sometimes viewed as sufficiently valuable as to serve as a form of money.  We owe the discovery of America by Europeans to the value of pepper and other spices, and the desire to find a new route to India.

Spice expert and researcher P. N. Ravidran writes, “It is difficult for us now to appreciate the extent or influence that pepper and other spices had on nations and people during the chequered history of human civilization.  Wars were fought, kingdoms were built and demolished, cities grew, flourished and declined—the density of humankind was influenced so much—all for the sake of spices.”

Black Holes (1783)

John Michell (1724–1793), Karl Schwarzschild (1873–1916), John Archibald Wheeler (1911–2008) 

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström,” a man tells of his encounter with a massive whirlpool: “I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see.” Such crepuscular whirls remind us of black holes in outer space, sucking in all things that come too close.

These black cosmological “sucking machines” exist in the centers of many galaxies. Such galactic black holes are collapsed objects having millions or even billions of times the mass of our sun crammed into a space no larger than our Solar System. According to classical black hole theory, the gravitational field around such objects is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape from their tenacious grip. Anyone who falls into a black hole will plunge into a tiny central region of extremely high density and extremely small volume, and the end of time.

Black Death (1348)

Jeuan Gethin (d. 1349), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Norman F. Cantor (1929–2004)

The fourteenth-century black plague, also often called the bubonic plague, probably began in Central Asia and entered England in 1348. Roughly 75 million people worldwide perished, and between one-third and two-thirds of Europe’s population was killed. It is likely that the same disease visited Europe numerous times, with varying mortality rates, until the 1700s. The phrase “Black Death” for this plague didn’t become commonly used until 1833.

Although scientists still debate whether all of the plagues were in fact the same disease, the cause is usually attributed to Yersinia pestis, or its variants, which are carried by rodents and fleas. People who are infected by the plague display “buboes,” or swellings of lymph nodes, and afflicted individuals die within a few days. Europeans quickly developed theories as to the cause of the disease that ranged from astrological forces or God’s wrath to the poisoning of wells by Jews. As a result, thousands of Jews were exterminated, many by burning, as were lepers and even individuals with severe acne or psoriasis.

Black Sox Scandal (1919)

Charles Arnold “Chick” Gandil (1888–1970), Abraham Washington Attell (1884–1970)   

The 1919 Black Sox Scandal is one of the greatest scandals in the history of sports. “Numerous books have been written about the Black Sox scandal,” writes author Daniel Ginsburg. “Two major motion pictures have been made… and millions of words have been written in newspapers…” that describe how this baseball scandal affected the American people.  “In spite of all this attention, the story of the Black Sox Scandal is still unclear today.  Exactly how was the baseball scandal organized? Which players truly took part in it?”

The Black Sox Scandal refers to events that led to the banning of eight members of the Chicago White Sox team for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series game. The “fix” was arranged by White Sox player Arnold “Chick” Gandil and professional gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. Abe Attell, a former featherweight boxing champion, likely supplied the money to bribe the team members. The term “Black Sox” may derive not only from the corruption involved but also because the owner of the team is alleged to have refused to pay for cleaning of the team uniforms, and the team protested by wearing dirty uniforms.

“Black Magic Woman” (1968)

Gábor Szabó (1936-1982), Peter Green (b. 1946), Carlos Augusto Alves Santana (b. 1947)

The song “Black Magic Woman” was written by British guitarist Peter Green and performed by Fleetwood Mac in 1968.  Two years later, it skyrocketed to fame when rock-guitarist Carlos Santana’s rendition climbed to number 4 on the U.S. song charts.  The song appeared on Santana’s Abraxas album, which became number 1 on the U.S. music charts and achieved quadruple platinum status in 1986, partially due to this song’s popularity.

Santana’s version differs significantly from Fleetwood Mac’s because of Santana’s use of percussion instruments, including conga and timbales, to provide complex Latin rhythms.  The song describes a woman who uses black magic in order to cast spells on a man and who is “trying to make a devil” out of him. Oddly enough, the song has special literal significance in the 21st century.  For example, in the year 2000, a court sentenced a woman from the United Arab Emirates to four months in jail for casting a spell.  The woman, angry with her ex-spouse for divorcing her, had hired a magician from a neighboring country to place a spell on her former husband.  The husband soon came to believe that he was possessed by demons, sued his ex-wife, and won.


The Book of Black: Black Holes, Black Death, Black Forest Cake, and Other Dark Sides of Life by Clifford A. Pickover is available now at Amazon or at a bookstore near you. It would make a fine Christmas gift for anyone! You can get a peek at additional images and a Table of Contents at Cliff's Book of Black web page. Author Clifford Pickover has written 45 books on a wide variety of subjects. Visit Pickover at his website and at Cliff Pickover's Reality Carnival. He also likes to Tweet.


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