milkyway black hole

Our Black Hole: Part II

In the previous article we explored the anatomy of black holes, how you can build one, and what strange phenomena takes place in their immediate surroundings.

blackholeThis time, we are going to deal with how they originated in the Universe, and how they behave, in particular the Milky Way supermassive beast located in the direction of Sagittarius. Its presence betrayed long ago by peculiar radio emissions from a point source by the name Sagittarius A* (colloquially pronounced A-star).

To be fair, Sgr. A* is not the only black hole around here. There is sound theoretical foundation, and convincing observational evidence, for the existence of probably millions of smaller ones, those that are what’s left after the demise of giant, short lived stars or neutron star mergers, matters which we promise to talk about in the near future.

In the beginning

Primordial matter in the early universe was not distributed evenly. It consisted mostly of hydrogen, a little bit of helium, and copious amounts of an as yet unidentified form of matter generically known as “dark matter”. All other elements were synthesized from hydrogen and helium inside the nuclear furnaces of earlier stars. Dust of which we are all made, comes from probably 2 or 3 supernova blasts in successive generations of giant stars, the ones which live short, seed surroundings with fresh new material, and leave behind neutron stars or small black holes. Primordial unprocessed hydrogen though, is still by far the most abundant element in the Universe.

We learned matter (normal and dark) was not distributed uniformly, by scrutiny of echoes from the Big Bang. The analysis of this echoes (yet another future story) has been refined for the last 10 – 15 years, culminating with early results from the Wilkinson Anisotropy Probe spacecraft. It happens all too frequently with a major new experiment to yield unexpected results that send theoreticians scrambling back to their equations trying to figure out what they messed up with. Remarkably though, this time the biggest news was there was no news. The distribution and size range of primordial matter clumpiness – as inferred from background microwave radiation analysis – did fit nicely with standard cosmological models.

Being uneven in the first place, and being subject as usual to mutual gravitational forces, the clumpiness tended to aggravate instead of to even out. Since matter attracts matter, denser regions exerted more attraction on their surroundings pulling in more matter and so on, giving rise to the first generations of stars and galaxies .

Matter (stars, gas, dust) tends, because of gravitation, to spiral inward, so most older stars are to be found in a more or less rounded galactic central bulge. Though the issue of origin for galactic black holes is not settled, as long as we have been able to measure giant black ones at the core of other galaxies, a very linear relation among their weight and the size of the old star’s central bulge has been detected. This relation hints that the crowded inner regions of the galactic core probably invite successive mergers among stars, crossing the black hole threshold which then grows as much as available material there is. Other hypothesis proposes black holes form first from gas and dust, and provides a nucleating environment for the central bulge.

Things heat up

Notwithstanding how giant galactic core black holes come to be, their extreme influence on surrounding objects give rise to the most powerful phenomena in the Universe. When matter in sizable amounts is trapped within their area of influence, it spirals in at ever increasing speeds crashing into itself before being swallowed. In the last stretch before crossing the Event Horizon, gravitational energy released accelerates its movement at close to the speed of light, temperatures rise to multimillion degrees Kelvin igniting thermonuclear flares, ionized gas moving at relativistic speeds generate gigantic magnetic fields that shape mammoth jets of energetic particles squirting along the rotation axis.

Active galactic cores (powered by multimillion sun’s weight black holes)were common in the Universe’s early stages. We know this for we are seeing it as it happened, since this chaos emits powerful electromagnetic radiation across the whole spectrum, from radio waves to X rays. How can we probe so far into the past? The farther we look from home, the earlier we see in time. Now just arriving photons, were emitted from the most distant objects we can observe when the Universe was a tenth or less than its current age. It took that much time for them to travel, and the information they carry is appropriately outdated. Quasars, the extremely far, extremely brilliant light sources known for long, are now generally acknowledged as being primeval galaxies harboring supermassive black holes, feeding greedily on gas, dust and stars unlucky enough to have drifted hopelessly near their reach.

Behind the curtain

Yepun telescopeIf the central beast has no food to ingest, it stays low profile, like our own black hole. That it is big we know, for we have been able just recently to see in infrared light and with adaptive optics, stars orbiting very close despite the fact the beast hides itself inside a cocoon of gas and dust along the galactic plane blocking direct visible light observation. From their movements we can infer how large is the invisible mass to which they are tethered, and it weights in at about 2,600,000 times the Sun’s mass. The Chandra X ray telescope on the other hand, afforded for the first time observation at high resolution of this energetic radiation able to penetrate the dust curtain, unveiling brilliant point sources and extremely hot gas in the Galactic Core.

Chandra X-ray Observatory

Chandra X-ray Observatory

Once in a while, some matter happens to dare too close, and gets trapped and swallowed. May be an unlucky star, a clump of dust or gas. Whatever falls prey, we hear briefly its agony wails in the radio, infrared and X ray bands.

How dangerous is to be sharing a galaxy with an almost 3 million suns heavy black hole? It sits at about 25,000 light years away, which said that way means next to nothing. Now, the snack ingested as Chandra recently reported, took place more or less when the first humans crossed the Bering Isthmus and begun to disperse in America, for it took that much for light to travel the span.

Put it another way, if you could board a conventional jetliner and cruise at normal speed nonstop to the galaxy core, you should be living on airline fare for about 30,000 million years. If somebody can endure that. (The Universe is about 13,000 million years old, Earth about 4,500 million years old). This was to put into perspective how far we are located from it. Yet, in the end it is not distance alone what keeps us out of harm’s way, but the fact that the Milky Way is a relatively mature galaxy with not much fuel left to feed an active quasar kind core.

SagittariusNext Northern Hemisphere Summer, Southern Hemisphere Winter, when Sagittarius rises at dusk in the East, look at the sprout of the teapot asterism. Imagine a brief puff of steam rising, and inside the dusty darkness, at its end, there is A*.

Fasting for eons, feasting once in a while. Our black hole.

milkyway black hole

Milky Way: Our Black Hole

milkyway black holeThey are so strange because physical conditions inside, and in their immediate surroundings, depart drastically from the serene majesty of Newtonian laws and invade the realm of Einstein’s General Relativity (or succeeding deeper theories in the making). Surprisingly, what is inside a black hole is anybodies guess. And it looks it will keep that way, for as far as our current understanding of physics goes, there is no way to probe into their innards.

I planned this article as a normal single piece. As work progressed, it became evident we should be wading into deep waters, and choose to split it. If you are troubled with the weird physics of part I, feel free to skip and go directly to part II, our galactic black hole. But make a try with part I, it helps better understand the whole thing. (And I hope it makes for interesting reading).

Brace tight, the ride may be rough.

Anatomy of a black hole

You know matter attracts matter. This is gravity, and to a very good approximation it may be modeled with an equation that takes into account masses and distances separating objects, to compute its mutual attraction. This is what Newton did, establishing the foundations of Classic Gravity.

what is a black holeProblem is this equation has distance between massive objects as a divisor, which means that if it approaches 0, their mutual attraction should escalate to infinite.

You cannot divide something by 0, it falls apart, and you have what in math jargon is called a singularity.

But 0 is a mathematical abstraction, you cannot imagine two material objects, be they even smallish nuclear particles, merging to the same spatial position so as to make its mutual distance 0. Better leave things at this for now, otherwise we should be foraying into the sub nuclear quantum world with different laws altogether, laws that trick reason.

The point is, let matter aggregate densely, and the nearby gravity field (the force felt by other material object nearby because of attraction) will grow out of proportions. Pour more matter and at some point, this gravitational field grows so intense that classic Newtonian laws do not hold very well, General Relativity steps in, and it says the very fabric of space and time begin to feel the stress. This is weird, but it has been measured once and again for almost 100 years and theory agrees with observation to several decimal places.

Keep pouring in matter, and surrounding space and time warp ever more tightly. If you could by some means be there, you should not notice anything special except for the suffocating gravitational tug. The space time distortion is not perceived by you, because you are within it, forming part of that distortion. You have no reference to check whether you are distorted, because all rulers you may grab are as much distorted as you.

Yet, this distortion as seen from outside is quite notorious. Things close by look like going into slow motion; time looks like going ever so slower. Light speed in particular, slows to a crawl. Throw in more matter, and at over 3 times the Sun’s mass a threshold is crossed. Light slows so much it stops moving at all (as seen from outside, if it were possible). You have a fully fledged black hole, named so in 1969 by John Wheeler. Not for its color, which it does not possibly have, but after the fact light cannot escape from within (hence no color).

milky wayFrom an external point of view, light has stopped moving inside, so you see nothing past the distance where the gravity field exceeds the threshold, in its ever increasing trend as you approach the center (remember, attraction goes up as distance goes down).

Again, seeing inside is not possible, for seeing implies light photons reaching your retina, and coming from inside. Since from your external vantage point these photons do not move, there is no way they can reach you. In a more general sense, information cannot escape from within a black hole (well, do not bet your life on this, weird things are happening in the quantum theories arena), for information needs a physical means to be ferried on, and not even the swiftest weightless photons can escape carrying it.

Now, placing yourself virtually inside again (not practical, you should be smashed by gravitation), since you are part of this space time distortion, you do not notice something special is going on. You measure light going fast as usual, but due to Relativity what you see inside as going fast, is seen as standing still from outside. You simply cannot reach the threshold frontier. From within, it lies at infinite for all practical purposes. You see space from inside the black hole as an infinite unbounded universe.

Well, at least according to current Classic Relativity, things may change.

Get the idea? Go inside the black hole and you have a certain perception of “reality” which does not differ too much from ordinary. Go outside and your perception of the inside reality is quite different. Same situation, different laws depending on where you are situated. This is what “relativity” stands for in Einstein’s brainchild.

The process outlined above is admittedly a highly simplified one, for matter does not yield to overcrowding without a fight. When matter accumulates, it must get rid of the energy which was keeping it apart in the first place, overcoming gravitational attraction which was ever present.

This gravitational energy as it is called, is released as heat, which given appropriate conditions of temperature, pressure and composition (ie. chemical elements present), give rise in turn to varied forms of nuclear interactions and decay complicating the process.

Nonetheless this perturbations do not change the overall situation, they simply power a host of spectacular phenomena as novas, supernovas, hypernovas, etc.

Black holes come in sizes. How can you measure a black hole? Remember you need to accumulate a minimum amount of matter to cross the black hole threshold. Nothing prevents you from pouring more matter inside (it happens in nature) and let it grow.

nasa black hole artYou can measure the mass of a black hole – you measure its gravitational tug on neighbor stars for example, by measuring their orbital motions – and you may measure its spatial extent. You may wonder how comes measuring extent of such strange thing. It is basically a matter of convention. The conventional size of a black hole is that of a sphere whose radius is the threshold distance where light stops moving.

This distance is the Scwarzchild radius and defines a surface known as the Event Horizon. So called because no event beyond this horizon, towards the black hole’s interior, can be seen from outside. No information can be retrieved from within the Event Horizon boundary.

You may wonder how comes stars up to 56 solar masses strong (more than an order of magnitude heavier than the threshold mass) do not become black holes in a blink. They do not readily collapse because of the aforementioned real world complications. Nuclear burning exerts an enormous radiation pressure counteracting gravity. In fact this pressure is so high stars cannot grow larger than that without coming apart.

When they exhaust their fuel supply and there is nothing left to counteract gravity, they do collapse and, if the leftover mass is higher than 1.4 solar masses, they become neutron stars (more on this in a later article) or black holes if heavier than about 3 solar masses.

One more quirk. Stephen Hawking, the famous paraplegic British physic, proposes black holes do not last forever. Due to quantum effects in the Event Horizon boundary, black holes should emit radiation, and doing so, loss mass thus evaporating in the long run. Be aware this does not mean radiation is escaping from within the black hole – this cannot happen – but it is materializing on the boundary, and to do so it must take credit from energy within.

What should be left behind is essentially a knot in space time, a so called naked singularity. Hawking is betting a Nobel Prize for him on experimental observation of the so called Hawking radiation.

Supermassive Black Hole in the Milky Way

Our Black Hole: Part II

It seems that every galaxy harbors a black hole in its core. The larger the central bulge of older stars, the bigger the hole. Our Milky Way is no exception, but only recently have we developed techniques suitable for peering into the cocoon and measuring the massive, quiet beast lurking inside.

White-faced Ibis Texas

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis TexasThe ibis family also includes spoonbills. There are about thirty- three species of ibises and spoonbills in the world. Five of these ibises live in North America. They are a medium sized wading birds with short tails. The legs are long with partial webs between the toes. The middle toe shows as slightly scalloped.

Ibis are in an order of birds with about 112 other like species. These include storks, herons, and flamingos. All are long legged, and long billed waders with short tails. The wings are long, broad, and rounded. The area between the eye and the base of the bill is bare of feathers in most species. All White-faced Ibises look dark when sighted from a distance.

Most of the adult White-faced Ibises stand about 2 feet tall. In flight they often fly in long lines with neck and legs outstretched. The White-faced Ibis is a dusky, brownish-red colored-bird with green or purples on its head and upper parts, with long legs. One of the outstanding physical appearances of the ibis is its long, curved down bill. In fact, the genus name (Plegadis) comes from a Greek word meaning scythe or sickle, and it describes this bird’s bill well.

WhiteFacedThe White-faced Ibis appears similar to the Glossy Ibis except during the mating season. At this time the White-faced Ibis has a narrow border of white feathers all around its bare facial skin at the base of the bill. Also this ibis has reddish legs and feet and red bare skin on the face near the eyes.

They roost on low landings of dead fibrous stems or on mud banks. This order of bird was formerly more wide spread. Previously it ranged from Oregon to Minnesota and south into Mexico and east to Louisiana. It also lived in Florida and parts of South America. These birds emigrate to the southern part of their range and in Mexico in winter. The White-faced Ibis frequents marshes, swamps, ponds and rivers. The elimination of swamps, prolonged lack of moisture, and chemical poisonings have reduced the birds to separate colonies. They hardly meander, and may turn up anywhere in the Pacific Northwest particularly in spring.One of the preferred marsh birds discovered in the Great Basin area of the Pacific Northwest is the unusually colored White-faced Ibis.

They form generally small flocks eating in tall grass in wet meadows. It nests in isolated colonies from Oregon to Kansas, but its center of greatest abundance seems to be in Utah, Texas and Louisiana. In Texas, they breed and winter along the Gulf Coast and may live as migrants in the Panhandle and West Texas. These birds are extremely rare in the eastern United States except Florida and Louisiana.

Nesting in colonies surrounded by bulrushes these birds build large cup-shaped nests near the water or floating on mats of dead plants. During the nesting season, they are in a colonial state and will erect a deep cup of dead reeds among beds of bulrushes, on floating mats of dead plants. Also they may nest in trees. The areas where they build their nests are usually where water is less than three feet deep. The birds line the nests with grasses in arranging for the ibis’ nestlings. They are sociable birds always and after the nesting season roam about from one feeding ground to another.

White-Faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi)There they lay 3-4 blue-green eggs. In Texas the female lays her three to four greenish-blue eggs between April and June. Incubation duration is about 21 to 22 days. The male and female both share in the parenting. Both the male and the female take responsibility of incubation and brooding of the nestlings. The rather homely, dull nestlings covered with blackish down become peculiarly shy as youngsters.

The ibis’ diet consists of insects, newts, leeches, earthworms, snails and especially crayfish, frogs and fish. Often eating grounds are a long range from the nests. The ibis is able of a ten to twenty mile flight to feed.

Wild life managers describe the ibis’ voice as a pig-like oink oink. The federal government awaits extra data on the ibis before deciding if they should receive federal status as an endangered or threatened species.

feeding heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

feeding heronThe Black-crowned Night-Heron is a chunky heron with its stocky, short-legs and short-neck. Both sexes have similar plumage. It appears hunched over with its head usually tucked down into its shoulders in flight and at rest, rarely extending it. Its feathers are gray and white with a specific black cap and a pair of white plumes that extend from the back of the head. Both sexes have matching plumage. During mating season, the black feathers from the head and back radiate a bluish-green gloss and the legs become red.

The adult Black Crowned Heron has red eyes with yellow legs, a black bill and black crown. Its back is black with a white on its face, throat, part of its neck, chest and belly. The herons blue-gray wings adorn this fine bird during reproduction.

Juvenile black crowned

The juvenile black crowned heron has eyes, colored yellow to amber and their legs appear a dull gray in color. The youngster displays a yellow base to its bill and the brown head, neck, chest and belly are streaked with buff and white. The wings and back are darker brown with large white spots at the tips of the feathers.

The young herons attain full adult plumage in its third year. First-year birds are similar to juveniles, but have less extensive spotting on upper wings and a dark cap. Second-year birds resemble the adult, but have a brown neck and wings with darker brown cap and back.

People spot the Black-Crowned Night-Heron mostly near the Great Lakes. It flies over head at dusk in an elegant manner. You can identify this species as a night-heron by the chunky body and broad, rounded wings. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a close relative.

The black-crowned night heron has a low guttural call and mostly hear them at night.

This bird is a nocturnal and a noisy heron. While “day” herons and egrets are roosting during the night, the Black-crowned Night-Heron is up feeding on fish, frogs, crustaceans and small mammals. Their digestive acids are so strong that bones consumed simply soften in their stomachs. The large eyes allow it to do most of its feeding at night. During the nesting season, night-herons being opportunists feed on the eggs and young in nearby colonies of birds like gulls and terns.

They usually nest in colonies among reeds in marshes, or up to 160 feet above the ground in trees. Their nests are apparently casual piles of reeds, sticks or twigs that may, over the years, become very awkward. North American birds nest over most of the United States north to southern Alberta and Manitoba.

black heron eggThe Black-crowned Night-Heron lays three to four bluish-green eggs between February and March and again between June and July. Both parents sit on the eggs and after a period of about 25 days per egg, the downy young will hatch. Both parents feed the nestlings by regurgitation and about seven weeks later the young will leave the nest.

Black-crowns occur on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. It inhabits most of the United States and as far north as Canada during summer breeding seasons. In winter it flies as far south as the tropics. The winter range is along the East, West, and Gulf coast south to Central America and the West Indies. The wide distribution of the Black-crowned Night-Heron occurs throughout North America, South America, Eurasia and Africa. They are common winter and breeding residents of much of the Texas Gulf Coast. People may spot them occasionally along the Rio Grande and over northern and interior eastern portions of the state.

It typically roosts in trees. Although they frequent wooded swamps, ponds, lakes and tropical mangroves, they also take advantage of rice fields and other different habitats. They keep close to water and vegetation like reeds, trees and mangroves where they roost and take cover.

This heron migrates in large flocks almost entirely at night, resting during the daylight hours. Their spring migration occurs from mid-February through mid-May. Fall migration occurs from mid-July through October.

Ontario Loon

Loon Watching: Beautiful Water Birds

Throughout the world there are five species of loons: the Red Throated Loon, The Pacific Loon, The Arctic Loon, The Yellow Billed and The Common Loons. Let’s take a minute and speak about the common loon.

Common Loons Gavia immer:

Ontario LoonMany a family sat out on the porch of a cabin around a northern lake and listened to the mysterious sounds of the Loons. Many people know the Loon’s call well because of its appearance in many movies and leisure tapes. Besides having a fascinating song, it is a handsome water bird.

Loons require at least 50 acres of lake area to supply enough fish to sustain a non-breeding pair of common loons. For common loons to produce successfully they need 100 acres or more and 200 acres or more to support two or more breeding pairs of this species. Loons do not show partiality for clear or colored lakes and raise broods on both types of lakes.

The loon breeds in the northern part of northern hemisphere. The bird breeds from Alaska to Greenland and from Northern California to Nova Scotia. The loon winters from British Columbia south to Southern California and the Gulf coast and from the Great Lakes region south to Florida.


In the summer months the loon’s plumage on its upper parts is glossy purplish black with greenish reflections. The loon has white spots and white on its under parts. There is a sharp white streak on its lower throat and other white streaks on each side of its neck.


Lake Webb loonsIn the wintertime the upper parts are grayish brown with no spots. Loons have thick necks, knife-like bills and small pointed wings. Being a water bird, they naturally have webbed feet. Their feathers are hard and dense, except on their neck where the feathers are soft and fine. Found in both salt and fresh water, loons are the only birds having some solid bones. The average adult loon measures from 28-36 inches long.

During the mating season the Loons carry out a circle dance and bill-dipping practice where the two birds circles around each other occasionally dipping their bills into the water as if peering down. Sometimes they will build special copulation platforms.

Loons usually lay two dark freckled eggs that they do not cover up when leaving the nest. In some locals they assemble a nest of rough sticks and reeds. The usual loon nest consists of a hole in the sand without any nesting materials.

Both parents share incubation of the eggs and raise the chicks together. When the eggs hatch, the older sibling gets the most favored treatment, getting the best food. If the younger sibling survives, it is undersized and weaker.

Archibald Thorburn Loons

1918 illustration of a variety of divers by Archibald Thorburn. Top: Great Northern Loon, Mid-left: Red-throated Diver, Mid-right: White-billed Diver, Bottom: Black-throated Diver

After hatching, the baby loons get their first look of the water from the back of their parent. The parent Loon sinks slowly into the water and the baby Loons crawl up onto its back. This is a necessary means of chick transport for the first two weeks because the soft down of the chick will quickly get soaked that could cause death from exposure. This piggy-back approach is a means of preservation from predators who think baby Loons make delicious snacks. Loons themselves are fish-eating birds.

A feature of the loon, plus its striking plumage, is its voice and eerie wail. Despite the effect the calls may have on human listeners, the calls function in proclaiming the loon’s region, reinforcing pair bonds, communicating with chicks, and establishing contact between neighboring pairs and intruders. Loons wail in an attempt to establish contact over long distances. Loons also croak, either singly or in duet; this call is probably synonymous with the tremolo of the Common Loon in its role as a signal of commotion or in reinforcing pair bonds. Male Common Loons have individually distinctive yodels.

Pacific Loons use low-intensity calls to one another at close range, and will join in Common Loon choruses in areas where the two species breed near each other. The Loon song is one that has inspired cultures for centuries. On northern lakes where they nest in the summer, Loons utter long, drawn-out, wailing cries and screams at night. Some people called this a wild fiendish laughter that inspired the phrase “crazy as a Loon.”

Loons can dive 240 feet below the surface of the water and seldom stay under the water for more than a minute or so. The loon’s own body cells adjust for these dives. The loon stores large amounts of oxygen. When they are below the surface, their heart rate drops to use less oxygen, and many of their vital organs adapt to perform with low levels of oxygen.

Loons are very shy and wary birds that put on bizarre displays if a human or another animal gets close to the nest. They call this distress signals “penguin dancing.” In this display the Loon rushes forward across the water toward the intruder and rises with head drawn back and bill almost touching breast while feet beat the water and create spray around the breast of the bird. Humans triggering this defense often don’t understand that they have come too close to a nest and continue to come back and watch the display until the birds finally leave the area.

Loons have an awkward way of walking on land. Their hind legs are set so far back on their body that it makes walking difficult and less than a graceful task. Most Loons cannot fly from land and need a long running start to get into the air — sometimes up to half a mile! Once in the air they are swift powerful flyers going 60 mph or more. In flight they thrust their necks forward and down that gives them a hump backed presentation. All Loons migrate.


Early Inuit cultures buried Loon skulls in graves. Because of their sorrowful song, the Loon was thought to act as a guide into the nether world. Into this century, people from the Faroe Islands thought that the call of the Red-Throated Loon flying overhead meant it was following a soul to heaven. The Ojibwa thought that the call was an omen of death. Thompson Indians thought the Loon call could predict rain.

wildebeest migration

Great Migration: The Greatest Show on Earth

wildebeest migrationEvery year, two million wild animals make a great trek through one of the most spectacular landscapes in Africa. It’s not too late to reserve your front-row seat for the greatest wildlife spectacle on the planet. Every year, around the end of the wet season in April, two million wild animals make a great trek through one of the most spectacular landscapes in Africa.

Breeding Season

The breeding season – a spectacle in itself – coincides with the transition from rainy to dry season, and by its end in July, the herds will have moved even further north and reached their greatest challenge: crossing the swollen Mara river in order to reach the green grass of the Masai Mara. The herds start arriving in the Masai Mara in early July, and by August the northward part of the trek is over. During October or November, the herds start moving again, retracing their tracks over 3000 km and through crocodile-infested rivers back to the Ngorongoro.

The Stars

wildebeest crossing river

About 1.5 million wildebeest, accompanied by 200,000 zebra, 20,000 eland and over 500,000 gazelle, will embark on this journey of thousands of kilometers.

The wildebeest (or white-bearded gnu) is the dominant herbivore in the Serengeti ecosystem, and lead player in the spectacle. During the annual breeding season, over a period of 3 to 6 weeks just before the start of the final northward cycle of the migration, the plains are filled with the sounds of rutting and fighting. Thousands of territorial bull wildebeest fight off bachelor bulls and mount as many females as they can. They put on a great half-time diversion, and ensure their species’ survival by impregnating as many as half a million females. The females will provide an exciting finale when they calve eight and a half months later, as the migration completes the circular route and returns to the Ngorongoro.

The Bit-Players

Wildebeest, zebra, eland and gazelle are not the only animals which make an appearance in this wildlife spectacle. While they aren’t present in such huge numbers, the open, grassy, almost treeless plains of the Serengeti ecosystem are also home to giraffe, elephant, ratels, zorilla, kori bustards and ostriches.

The Villains

LionsThree thousand lion and numerous cheetah and leopard, supported by packs of African hunting dogs and hyena, prey on the great herds. Crocodiles lie in wait in muddy river waters. Subplots of lion hunts and leopard stalkings, hunting dog ambushes and hyenas brawling with scavenging vultures, add dramatic interludes to the great migration.

The Locations

Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Masai Mara: the names are synonymous with the greatest wildlife experiences Africa has to offer. The Serengeti ecosystem spans the international boundary between Tanzania and Kenya in east Africa and covers an area of approximately 27000 square kilometers, 15,000 of which are within the boundaries of national parks, conservation areas, game reserves and hunting preserves.

Dorothy L. Sayers books

The Evolution of the British Crime Novel

The Secret AdversaryCrime fiction, or mystery fiction, or detective fiction or whatever you choose to call it, is without a doubt one of the single most popular forms of fiction of this century, and Britain holds a unique position in influencing its development. There can be few people who haven’t heard of Agatha Christie, whose novels, numbering over sixty, have been translated into over one hundred languages, and whose characters such as Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are known to millions through novels, films and television. However, the view of crime fiction remains one of eccentric detectives in elegant country houses, while the reality is that crime fiction has changed and evolved out of recognition, and deserves a little more consideration. Although the contribution of American writers to the genre is immense and undoubted, I’d like to explore how things have changed in British crime fiction since the Golden Age of Christie and her contemporaries.

A little historical background is definitely in order, so that we can try to follow how crime fiction has changed over the years, and just why it remains so phenomenally popular. There is much debate as to when British crime fiction was really born, and although Wilkie Collins can perhaps lay claim to the first detective novel, in the shape of ‘The Moonstone’, one writer in particular stands as a pioneer. Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, to the world in 1887, with the publication of ‘A Study In Scarlet’, but it wasn’t until his stories were serialized in the Strand magazine that the public’s imagination was seized by his stories of the eccentric and supremely intelligent Holmes and his novel methods of scientific deduction. One could devote hours to discussing Holmes and his creator, but suffice it to say that popular crime fiction in Britain was born in No. 221B Baker Street.

Dorothy L. Sayers booksThis passion for crime didn’t abate, and by the 1920s, crime fiction had really caught on as a popular genre, and the novels of the twenties and thirties are often referred to as belonging to ‘The Golden Age’. By now, the bulk of crime novels tended to adhere rather strictly to a prescribed template, which is what remains as the popular image of the ‘whodunnit’, embodied by those writers whose work still remains immensely popular to this day. Of these, the most enduring are the Holy Trinity of Dorothy L. Sayers, with her aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham and her mysterious Mr. Albert Campion and his manservant, Magersfontein Lugg, and of course, Agatha Christie, with her enduring protagonists, Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian policeman, and Miss Jane Marple, resident of the quiet country village of St. Mary Mead and thorn in the side of the local constabulary.

Agatha Christie is a good example of the Golden Age writers, who infrequently strayed from a tried and tested template of an eccentric or unusual, but undoubtedly brilliant, detective, who merely happened to be on the scene of a dreadful (though usually remarkably gore-free) murder and then proceeded to pry into the investigation until a sequence of neatly laid clues led to the culprit. With a few exceptions, this was the age of the gifted amateur, who either happened to be on the scene at the time – this tendency for an otherwise blame-free person to attract corpses is sometimes referred to as the St. Mary Mead Syndrome – or was invited in by an acquaintance who happened to be involved, in order to try to clear up the mess and undo the bumbling work of the plodding local constabulary. The essence of this type of writing was that something had occurred to perturb an otherwise civilized section of society, and the job of the detective is restore order in as discreet a way as possible.

Agatha ChristieThis is reflected in the traditional settings of the Golden Age whodunnit – elegant country houses, gentlemen’s clubs and of course, the Orient Express. However, this really doesn’t explain half the attraction of the genre – the driving force behind their mass following was the idea of the novel as a literary crossword puzzle, culminating in the concept of the ‘Locked Room’, popular to this day, where a detective is presented with a seemingly impossible puzzle, such as a corpse found dead in a locked room with no means of entry or escape. Writers became obsessed with placing subtle yet perfectly logical clues within the novel so that the reader might be able to join the detective in chasing the criminal and have the occasional smug satisfaction of beating the detective to the answer. Of course, fair play was paramount, as the following rules, laid down as Father Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story. To understand why, one should refer to the following section of the Detection Club’s Oath: “Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and for ever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?”
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Police at the FuneralIn a way, its rather heartening to note that many more recent luminaries of the crime fiction scene have spent a great deal of effort trying to break these rules, but although its easy to laugh at such the obsession of many such writers with fair play, and minutae such as railway timetables, mysterious footprints and obscure riddles, but the fact remains that in the hands of a writer like Christie or the equally talented John Dickson Carr (an American, responsible for possibly the finest ‘locked room’ mysteries), this type of puzzle novel can be extremely diverting.

However, a Golden Age never lasts forever, and although society in Britain began to change radically post-war, culminating in the social upheaval of the sixties, crime fiction really never left the thirties. Eccentric detectives and aristocratic police inspectors still investigated murders with silver letter openers in the drawing rooms of country houses, and writers like Agatha Christie still kept putting out more of the same, as readers deserted for the excitement of thrillers and spy novels. It took a long time for the genre to adapt and embrace the modern world, but the influence of America was needed to inspire a new generation of crime writers.

With the exception of talented writers like John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout, the US had never really taken to crime fiction in the British mould, but within the covers of ‘pulp’ magazines like the legendary Black Mask, a new type of fiction was being born – the hard-boiled novel. Thanks to innovative writers like Dashiell Hammett, who in the words of his contemporary Raymond Chandler ‘took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley’, crime writing became invested with a much greater degree of realism and less of an obsession with ‘clues’ and more with the moral and psychological aspects of a criminal act.

With this writing a new type of detective was born, and Raymond Chandler in his terrific essay on the detective novel, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, describes such a man:

“Yet down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man, and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

ed mcbain novelSignificantly, Chandler and his contemporaries began subtly changing the emphasis of the crime novel from the crime itself, to the character of the detective. Another ground-breaking novelist, Ed McBain, had a dramatic effect on the British crime novel. McBain was a pioneer in the type of novel that has become known as the police procedural, which follows the efforts of a group of police officers to deal with the crimes committed in their area, and in doing so tries to describe accurately the methods used by a modern police force to solve a crime. Lastly, and perhaps most disturbingly, the advent of the modern serial murderer in the United States gave rise to a whole new genre dealing with the hunt for a brutal, intelligent serial killer by police officers and psychologists, perhaps most famously described by Thomas Harris in his novels ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. The influential of these sub-genres is unmistakable, but its strength was when combined with homegrown attitudes and settings. Although amusing, the specter of Philip Marlowe stalking the mean streets of South London isn’t ultimately any more real than a balding Belgian strolling the grounds of a country house, but modern British crime has taken the best elements of both genres and fitted them into the setting of our changed and changing society to create something new.

Mark Timlin's Nick SharmanIf you go into the crime section of a bookshop, I think you’ll be struck by the immense diversity and quality of the writing available. Besides classics by Christie, Sayers et al., which rightly remain classic examples of crime writing, you’ll find just about every type of novel and setting available. From modern ‘cosy’ country village whodunnits by writers like Caroline Graham’s Midsomer Murder series, to the Glaswegian police procedurals of Peter Turnbull, to the violent, gun-infested underworld of Mark Timlin’s Nick Sharman. The character of the detective has become equally diverse, now encompassing the new wave of female private eyes and police detectives, the frustrated, complex detective inspector, the private eyes who operate barely on the side of law and order.

Murder has even become amusing, with novels by Mike Ripley and Peter Guttridge, and a new form of crime writing, pioneered by Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael novels has been born – the historical crime novel, with settings as diverse as ancient Rome, 14th century Cambridge and Second World War London London. I’d just like to finish by saying that with writers like Ian Rankin, John Harvey and Reginald Hill, the best of modern British crime novels are finally beginning to be recognized as genuinely fine works of literature.


Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense

alfred hitchcock“I don’t attach any importance to logic. None of my films is based on logic. My films… are based on suspense, not on logic.”

Alfred Hitchcock made that comment in an interview in 1967. Hitch was one of two filmmakers-along with Walt Disney- to see his name become synonymous with a certain type of screen entertainment. Hitchcock’s films were stylish, sophisticated suspense, laced with humor and romance. Moreover, his bald pate, pear shaped body, dapper attire and cheerless drawl made him as recognizable as any star he ever directed.

Renowned for his storytelling mastery and his flamboyant technique, Hitchcock had a way of drawing the viewer into his stories and making each of us a participant. In the climax of Rear Window, we identify completely with the main actor, James Stewart, and his wheelchair-bound character’s feeling of helplessness when the antagonist, Raymond Burr, comes after him. In Psycho, when the deceased heroine’s sister, Vera Miles, starts to head down the eerie staircase of the Bates mansion, one’s tempted to call out, “Don’t go down there!” Very few directors in recent memory have the gift of insinuating audiences into his narratives so meticulously and insidiously.

hitchcockThe London-bred Hitchcock himself pointed out that his films have their roots in traditional melodrama, a very English form. Britain’s most famous story teller, the 19th century novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70), was a master of melodrama. It’s a fact that Hitchcock studied four Dickens novels at school, and seems to have enjoyed them. If you were to take a Dickens novel like ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838), then you’d notice that it’s ‘larger than life’ because it magnifies- and in a sense simplifies – life to typically show both the everyday world in some detail and it’s darker, hidden underside where crime and bizarre events occur. That magnifying/ simplifying-as well as that opposing of dark to light- virtually define melodrama. Two more ingredients are added to the recipe of the Hitchcock/Dickens macabre: comedy and a sense of life as somehow like a dream.

In the opinion of many film aficionados, Hitchcock’s best films were made in the 1950s. Three of his most popular of that decade were Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), and the jangling, cross-country comedy-thriller North by Northwest (1959). All of these three films have one or both of the melodramatic ingredients.

vertigo alfred hitchcockOf the three, Vertigo feels the most ‘serious’, yet there’s still something both comic and, at the same time, tragic about the way in which the stubborn, practical San Francisco detective Scottie (James Stewart) falls madly in love with the voluptuous blonde Madeleine (Kim Novak) – whom he half suspects to be a reincarnation. Moreover, though the film insists on telling us that ‘this is crazy’, as when Scottie’s usual companion Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to destroy his obsession with Madeleine by mocking it, she fails entirely. Both Scottie and the audience are by now wholly caught up in the strange dream-world that he has made for himself (though it constantly threatens to become a nightmare), much as the reader of ‘Oliver Twist’ becomes captivated with the strange counter-London (the side of London that was hidden from the ordinary, respectable citizen) inhabited by the mastermind criminal Fagin, into whose clutches Oliver falls…

The Secret Adversary

Agatha Christie’s Dynamic Duo

The Secret AdversaryTommy and Tuppence Beresford made their first appearance in The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie’s second book (1922). At this point in time, Christie regarded her writing as a hobby and according to her autobiography was surprised when her husband suggested that she write a second book to assist with the growing cost of running Ashfield, her family home.

The Secret Adversary is a light hearted adventure featuring two “Bright Young Things” in the same predicament as the majority of their peers at the end of World War I: no money, no job, no prospects. So when Prudence “TuppenceCowleyey and TommBeresfordrd renew their acquaintance, they form “Young Adventurers, Ltd.” and advertise that they are willing to do anything and go anywhere.

In true Christie fashion, mystery and murder lead to romance with Tommy and Tuppence marrying at the end of The Secret Adversary. They are later featured in a series of short stories in Partners in Crime and subsequent books N or M?, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and Postern of Fate.

Partners in CrimePartners in Crime (1929) follows the same lighthearted vein as The Secret Adversary. When reading, one gets the sense that Christie enjoys her sleuthing young couple. They tease each other and enjoy each other while encountering crooks and mysteries galore. Christie chose to use the Partners in Crime stories to parody other notable sleuths of fic Poirot included). The stories from Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary were recreated in television adaptations in the early 1980’s star Francesca Annis and Warwickarwick. These highly popular adaptations were shown on London Weekend Television in the United Kingdom and on the popular Public Broadcasting System program Mystery!.

While The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime held a lighthearted appeal, N or M? is where Tommy and Tuppence shine. Although they are undoubtedly the same fun loving couple, they have matured over the years.Tommy and Tuppence were allowed to age normally through the progression of five novels.

My most recent articles that you might also find interesting:

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: Shrewd Observer of Human Nature
Hercule Poirot: Christie’s Dapper Detective
Agatha Christie’s Missing Days: What her writing tells us

Agatha Christie's Marple

Miss Marple: Shrewd Observer of Human Nature

Miss Marple“Miss Marple insinuated herself so quietly into my life that I hardly noticed her arrival. I wrote a series of six stories for a magazine and chose six people whom I thought might meet once a week in a small village and describe some unsolved crime. I started with Miss Jane Marple, the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies – old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl.” Thus Agatha Christie describes how she came to create Jane Marple, who we first meet in book form in Murder at the Vicarage (1930) although she appeared earlier in a series of short stories which would later be republished as The Tuesday Club Murders, also known as The Thirteen Problems.

Our first description of “Aunt Jane” is a charming picture of demure, Victorian respectability in“a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlinin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair”

How does Miss Marple differ from Hercule Poirot?

The majority of the time, the other characters involved are fully aware of Poirot’s status as the self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world”, so they are not a bit surprised when he cracks the case and announces the murderer. But Miss Marple belongs on the other end of the spectrum. She is usually dismissed as a sweet little old lady, possibly a busybody. This is one aspect that we can all relate to on some level. There are so many of us who, at one time or another, have been overlooked because of the assumptions of others. But Miss Marple always has her moment when she can shame the detectives and professionals with the observations and solutions that seem to her so simple.

Agatha Christie's MarpleWhere Poirot is conceited and egotistical, Miss Marple is reticent and demure. She never calls herself a detective or sleuth. She dismisses her unique detecting abilities as the mere observance of human nature. When Miss Marple is around, you can bet there’s a crime brewing in the vicinity. Christie is adept at making it seem purely natural for Miss Marple to be on the spot to guide the authorities in the right direction when their investigations come to a halt. A hint or two here and there and Miss Marple dazzles them with her knowledge of human nature, using her “village parallels” and the wisdom of past experience.

Sir Henry Clithering describes Miss Marple brilliantly when he says “There she sits, an elderly spinster. Sweet, placid, – so you’d think – yet her mind has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it all in the day’s work. She knows the world only through the prism of that village and its daily life. By knowing the village so thoroughly, she seems to know the world.”

Books featuring Miss Marple in alphabetical order

  • At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)
  • Body in the Library (1942)
  • Caribbean Mystery (1964)
  • 4.50 from Paddington (1957)
  • Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)
  • Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories (1979, short story collection)
  • Moving Finger (1942)
  • Murder Is Announced (1950)
  • Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
  • Nemesis (1971)
  • Pocket Full of Rye (1953)
  • Sleeping Murder (1976)
  • They Do It With Mirrors (1952)
  • Thirteen Problems (1932, short story collection)