Black holes are a strange prediction of Einstein's theory of relativity. They are supposed to be what happens to a large star when it runs out of fuel and dies. The star's corpse can't hold up its own weight and so collapses down to a tiny size determined by relativity and transforms into featureless, spherical zone of death. The surface of this zone is a "hole" in the sense that all objects falling onto it go right in, and "black" in the sense that nothing, even light, ever comes back out.
It is not clear whether black holes, in the specific form predicted by Einstein's theory, actually occur in nature. There is lots of circumstantial evidence that something like them exists, notably observations of tight stellar orbits at the center of the galaxy that could only be caused by a "small" object vastly more massive than the sun. However there is yet no direct observation of a black hole.
Nonetheless the concept of a black hole has universal appeal and is widespread in world culture, presumably because of its metaphorical value. It is, for example, how many Koreans think of China: a scary place, not regulated by the rules of conventional civilization and into which information, money and jobs and so forth go in but nothing can come out. Some of this attitude is a cold war relic. It was customary in the past to liken descent into communism to collapse of a star into a black hole---an irreversible and disastrous event which eradicated a country's personality and gave it an insatiable desire to eat things, regardless of their nature, and grow. This concept is, of course, outdated. But most of the attitude is simply sublimated rivalry. I find that Koreans are so competitive that they often dismiss things as "black holes" even when they know better.
China is, of course, not a black hole but a country with a billion citizens, some of whom are very smart. I recently traveled to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to lecture at a physics "summer camp." This was for gifted students from all over China (Nanjing, Xian, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Harbin, Taipei and so forth), about one hundred in all. The students were excellent and similar to strong young people you find in Korea---thoughtful, sophisticated, witty, terrific English ability and so forth---but with one important exception: they were noticeably more likely to openly question the professors' opinions and speak their own minds.
As a result of their independent attitude, these students responded better to my lecture than equivalent Korean students would have done. My topic was why black holes might be science fiction. I pointed out that Einstein could be perfectly right in his description of gravity completely wrong in his description of massive objects. This could occur, for example, if black hole formation were a phase transition of space. An apt analogy would be the boundary between ice and water at the north pole. Even if you had a perfectly correct mathematical description of the water, you couldn't, in general, properly describe the ice. The students rose magnificently to the occasion: they accused me of violating known principles of physics, weighed my argument that I had done no such thing, inquired about how this or that experiment was performed, questioned the soundness of my analogy between space and matter, asked how I knew quantum sound was particulate and so forth. It was awesome.
Over wine later that evening the other professors and I discussed the cultural differences we had just witnessed. We agreed that part of the sophistication of these students was the concentration of talent you often find in communist countries. In the old Soviet days, for example, the Russian physics students were always better than anyone else because academic life was the only way up for them. But we also agreed that Chinese culture was noticeably less Confucian than Korean culture, and that this was significant. All of us had observed this difference in our classrooms back in the US.
Thus I returned to Korea deeply apprehensive over the practice of thinking about China as a great black hole, or even a collection of small black holes. Almost certainly the strangeness Koreans perceive, just like the strangeness physicists perceive, is really a theory that isn't right. While the world continues to have mysteries, I am certain we are destined to discover that there aren't any real black holes in this or any other universe.
[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]