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By Thomas Wheeler

I haven't really made it a point to collect the villains from the PLANET HEROES line of preschool-oriented action figures. My focus on this interesting line of toys (preschool or not), was to collect the representatives of the nine different planets. Yes, they counted Pluto, thank you!

However, I decided I might as well add the major bad guy to my collection. His name is "Professor Darkness", and perhaps not inappropriately, his celestial representatives is not any of the planets in the solar system, or even the sun (for which we also have a figure now), but a black hole.

So what, you might be asking, is a black hole, in scientific terms? The toy package for the character states "A black hole happens when a giant star explodes and collapses", and then adds, "Can be found anywhere in the solar system". Well, THAT one's not exactly true. While they can likely be found almost anywhere in any galaxy, if there was one in our SOLAR SYSTEM -- I think we'd know about it.

A black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape its pull after having fallen past its event horizon. The term "Black Hole" comes from the fact that, at a certain point, even electromagnetic radiation (e.g. visible light) is unable to break away from the attraction of these massive objects. This renders the hole's interior invisible or, rather, black like the appearance of space itself.

Despite its interior being invisible, a black hole may reveal its presence through an interaction with matter that lies in orbit outside its event horizon. For example, a black hole may be perceived by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit its center. Alternatively, one may observe gas (from a nearby star, for instance) that has been drawn into the black hole. The gas spirals inward, heating up to very high temperatures and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and earth-orbiting telescopes. Such observations have resulted in the general scientific consensus that-- barring a breakdown in our understanding of nature--black holes do exist in our universe.

The idea of an object with gravity strong enough to prevent light from escaping was proposed in 1783 by the Reverend John Michell, an amateur British astronomer. In 1795, Pierre-Simon Laplace, a French physicist independently came to the same conclusion. Black holes, as currently understood, are described by Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he developed in 1916. This theory predicts that when a large enough amount of mass is present in a sufficiently small region of space, all paths through space are warped inwards towards the center of the volume, preventing all matter and radiation within it from escaping.

While general relativity describes a black hole as a region of empty space with a pointlike singularity at the center and an event horizon at the outer edge, the description changes when the effects of quantum mechanics are taken into account. Research on this subject indicates that, rather than holding captured matter forever, black holes may slowly leak a form of thermal energy called Hawking radiation, named after Professor Stephen Hawking. However, the final, correct description of black holes, requiring a theory of quantum gravity, is unknown.

The term black hole to describe this phenomenon dates from the mid-1960s, though its precise origins are unclear. Physicist John Wheeler (no relation!) is widely credited with coining it in his 1967 public lecture "Our Universe: the Known and Unknown", as an alternative to the more cumbersome "gravitationally completely collapsed star". However, Wheeler himself insisted that the term had actually been coined by someone else at the conference and adopted by him as a useful shorthand.

The defining feature of a black hole, the event horizon, is a surface in spacetime that marks a point of no return. Once an object has crossed this surface there is no way that it can return to the other side. Consequently, anything inside this surface is completely hidden from observers outside. Other than this the event horizon is a completely normal part of space, with no special features that would allow someone falling into the a black hole to know when he would cross the horizon. The event horizon is not a solid surface, and does not obstruct or slow down matter or radiation that is traveling towards the region within the event horizon.

Outside of the event horizon, the gravitational field is identical to the field produced by any other spherically symmetric object of the same mass. The popular conception of black holes as "sucking" things in is false: objects can maintain an orbit around black holes indefinitely, provided they stay outside the photon sphere (described below), and also ignoring the effects of gravitational radiation, which causes orbiting objects to lose energy, similar to the effect of electromagnetic radiation.

According to general relativity, there is a space-time singularity at a center of a spherical black hole, which means an infinite space-time curvature. It means that from a point of view of an observer which falls into a black hole, in a finite time (at the end of his fall) a black hole's mass becomes entirely compressed into a region with zero volume, so its density becomes infinite. This zero-volume, infinitely dense region at the center of a black hole is called a gravitational singularity.

From the exotic nature of black holes, it is natural to question if such bizarre objects could actually exist in nature or that they are merely pathological solutions to Einstein's equations. Nature could very well conspire against the formation of such anomalies. However in 1970, Stephen Hawking and a colleague named Penrose proved the opposite; under generic conditions black holes are expected to form in any universe. The primary formation process for black holes is expected to be the gravitational collapse of heavy objects such as stars, but there are also more exotic processes that can lead to the production of black holes.

Black holes have been strangely absent, for the most part, from the world of popular science-fiction. Star Trek Deep Space Nine made use of a wormhole, but that's not the same thing. In fact, the only major sci-fi adventure to make major use of a black hole was the 1979 Disney movie, "The Black Hole". Coming on the heels of Star Wars, this was an unfortunately ponderous and slow-paced movie that didn't seem entirely to know what to do with itself, and featured such quirks as a pair of robots voiced by the peculiar combination of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens.

So, what do we have with this figure known as Professor Darkness? For one thing, we have a figure that was not easily extracted from his package. The Prof doesn't have legs, really, since he wears a long robe that hang all the way to the ground. Unfortunately, it's rather flared at the end, and they packaged him on a form-fitting backpiece of plastic, and it took a pretty hefty pull even after I'd gotten rid of the lone plastic-coated wire twist-tie to get him out of the package.

Precisely WHAT Professor Darkness might be is anyone's guess. Heightwise, he's slightly taller than Dazzle, the relatively humanoid female representing Venus. If we use her as a gauge in the wild universe of Planet Heroes as a marker for an "average adult humanoid", then Darkness is a fair bit taller. Then, of course, there's those very bizarre arms, ridiculously long for a person of his height, otherwise, and ending with rather comical three-fingered hands.

Granted, if one wants to speculate, they could be some sort of artificial construct. Professor Darkness is something of an enigma. Visually, he looks like a cartoonish cross between Emperor Zurg from "Buzz Lightyear", and Spider-Man's arch-enemy Mysterio. He has a purple dome for a head, or a helmet, anyway, and is wearing a long purple and black robe with red trim. He has a high-collared black cape, and all of this is really sort of formless in its own odd way apart from the arms, which are mostly red with some purple, and end in those very odd hands.

Professor Darkness has a light-activation switch, an interesting counterpoint to Commander Sun, who lights up in bright reds and yellows. Professor Darkness, conversely, lights up in flashing blues, which appear in his helmet, and down the front of his tunic.

Whereas the Planet Heroes characters all have an insignia on their uniforms that represent their specific planet in the Solar System, and their numerical placement, Professor Darkness' insignia, while perhaps not exactly a black hole, is a cool image of a rather intense-looking stellar phenomenon, and is at the base of his dome-head.

Articulation is very limited on this figure. Granted, none of the Planet Heroes are all that extensively poseable. These are, after all, technically preschool toys, not really action figures. Professor Darkness can move his arms with a fair range of motion at the shoulders, and his wrists can also pivot. Personally, I would've liked to have seen at least some sort of elbow swivel. There's certainly room in the structure. But that's about the extent of his poseability.

Of course, if you're going to be some sort of evil overlord, you need minions to carry out your evil plans, and Professor Darkness comes with two of them, strange little creeps called Photon and Neutron, who technically represent Comets.

Comets are small Solar System bodies that orbit the Sun and, when close enough to the Sun, exhibit a visible coma (atmosphere) or a tail -- both primarily from the effects of solar radiation upon the comet's nucleus. Comet nuclei are themselves loose collections of ice, dust and small rocky particles, measuring a few kilometres or tens of kilometres across.

Comets have a variety of different orbital periods, ranging from a few years, to hundreds of thousands of years, while some are believed to pass through the inner Solar System only once before being thrown out into interstellar space. Short-period comets are thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt, or associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. Long-period comets are believed to originate at a very much greater distance from the Sun, in a cloud (the Oort cloud) consisting of debris left over from the condensation of the solar nebula. Comets are thrown from these outer reaches of the Solar System inwards towards the Sun by gravitational perturbations from the outer planets (in the case of Kuiper Belt objects) or nearby stars (in the case of Oort Cloud objects), or as a result of collisions.

Comets leave a trail of debris behind them. If the comet's path crosses Earth's path, then at that point may be meteor showers as the Earth passes through the trail of debris. The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year between August 9 and 13 when the Earth passes through the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Halley's comet is the source of the Orionid shower in October.

There are a reported 3,354 known comets as of November 2007, of which several hundred are short-period. This number is steadily increasing. However, this represents only a tiny fraction of the total potential comet population: the reservoir of comet-like bodies in the outer solar system may number one trillion.

Comet nuclei are known to range from about 100 meters to 40+ kilometers across and are composed of rock, dust, water ice, and frozen gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. They are often popularly described as "dirty snowballs", though recent observations have revealed dry dusty or rocky surfaces, suggesting that the ices are hidden beneath the crust (see Debate over comet composition). Comets also contain a variety of organic compounds; in addition to the gases already mentioned, these may include methanol, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, ethanol and ethane, and perhaps more complex molecules such as long-chain hydrocarbons and amino acids. Comet nuclei are irregularly shaped: they have insufficient mass (and hence gravity) to become spherical.

Although in ancient times comets were believed by some to be harbingers of doom, I've generally thought it was a bit of a stretch to regard them as evil, so claiming that Professor Darkness' two cronies represent comets isn't something I entirely agree with. On the other hand, I doubt that in ancient times comets were thought to be two short pudgy guys with three eyes and dressed in dark blue jumpsuits with jet packs on their backs, either.

Photon and Neutron are derived from the same set of molds, except one has green skin and the other has yellow shin. As to which one is which, I really don't know, and it's been a while since I've watched the DVD, assuming it even made a distinction. I'm not sure what's up with the three eyes, although they're not the only characters in the line to have this feature. So does Shiver, the representative from Pluto. In an odd way, it makes sense. If these two guys are from comets based in the Kuiper Belt, and given that Pluto is generally our most distant planet, then they come from a region where the Sun appears only somewhat larger than most of the other stars, and doesn't really afford a lot of light. A third eye might bring in just enough illumination to keep one from bumping into local objects and tripping over one's own feet.

Granted, Photon and Neutron might do that anyway. If memory serves, they come across as typical evil cronies. Totally devoted to their master and about as bright as a pair of five-watt bulbs. The package description for them -- and for Professor Darkness -- describes Darkness as "ruthless, scary, and bad to the bone. He's a hulking nightmare of twisted ambition and seething destruction". That's pretty heavy reading for a preschool toy! Photon and Neutron are described as being on hand to "race across the universe to do the devious dirty work..."

These two are shorter than even Shiver, although they're a good but bulkier, or at least pudgier, than Pluto's Planet Hero. They stand slightly under three inches in height, and there's something about them that looks vaguely frog-like. Maybe it's the huge jaw or the slightly scaly skin. But they're relatively humanoid, with short arms and legs -- although they do have little tails.

They're both dressed in blue spacesuits with light blue cuffs and blue and grey boots, and they have jet packs on their backs. Not a lot of articulation here. They can turn their heads and hands, that's about it.

There's another villain in the line, named Tiny, who represents Asteroids. I'm considering getting him, and honestly, I think he's a more effective villain than these two twerps. He looks a good bit meaner, and an asteroid colliding with the planet Earth has been established as a legitimate, if hopefully improbable, threat to our civilization.

There's a new version of Professor Darkness out there, too, part of the new "Voice-Comm" segment of Planet Heroes. So that one not only lights up -- he talks. Frankly, I prefer the quieter one. The Voice-Comm version also has a lot more red in his uniform, making him ALMOST look cheerful. That doesn't really work for a villain calling himself "Professor Darkness".

So, what's my final word here? Honestly, from an astronomical standpoint, I'd be more inclined to stick with the nine basic good guys representing the different planets, and throw in Commander Sun for good measure. Discussing black holes might be just a little over the average preschooler's head. On the other hand, if you want to enact the basic battle between good vs. evil, you sort of need a bad guy, and for Planet Heroes, that's Professor Darkness, and hey, he even comes with his own cronies. Can't really beat a deal like that!

Ultimately, one of the reasons I promote the Planet Heroes line is because I believe it's a good introduction to legitimate astronomical studies, and I think that's something that gets far too little attention these days. We need more kids that are interested in space sciences, in space exploration, that want to be astronauts when they grow up and can see a day when they or their peers will set booted human foot back on the moon and Mars.

If the Planet Heroes line can be a bit of an inspiration in that direction, so much the better. And if Professor Darkness has a part in it all, so be it. With all of that considered, the BLACK HOLE of the PLANET HEROES line, PROFESSOR DARKNESS, definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!