The authoritative story of the headline-making discovery of gravitational waves—by an eminent theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer.
From the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, the epic story of the scientific campaign to record the soundtrack of our universe.
Black holes are dark. That is their essence. When black holes collide, they will do so unilluminated. Yet the black hole collision is an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The profusion of energy will emanate as waves in the shape of spacetime: gravitational waves. No telescope will ever record the event; instead, the only evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing. In 1916, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, his top priority after he proposed his theory of curved spacetime. One century later, we are recording the first sounds from space, the soundtrack to accompany astronomy’s silent movie.
In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin recounts the fascinating story of the obsessions, the aspirations, and the trials of the scientists who embarked on an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to capture these elusive waves. An experimental ambition that began as an amusing thought experiment, a mad idea, became the object of fixation for the original architects—Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever. Striving to make the ambition a reality, the original three gradually accumulated an international team of hundreds. As this book was written, two massive instruments of remarkably delicate sensitivity were brought to advanced capability. As the book draws to a close, five decades after the experimental ambition began, the team races to intercept a wisp of a sound with two colossal machines, hoping to succeed in time for the centenary of Einstein’s most radical idea. Janna Levin’s absorbing account of the surprises, disappointments, achievements, and risks in this unfolding story offers a portrait of modern science that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Following the detection of gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence, Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, goes behind the scenes for a chatty insider's look at the brilliant, eccentric people who continued the search for the elusive phenomenon. Much of the book is told through conversations with the major players involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), particularly Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss, along with an earlier researcher's taped interview with Ron Drever. The scientists' personalities are evident in their stories, which are interlaced with clear explanations of the science of black holes. As is often the case in cutting-edge science, clashes were inevitable. There was professional jealousy; there was selfless collaboration. And all the while, there was the possibility that it was a fool's dream. Levin delves into the backgrounds of numerous researchers, painting a sad picture of Joe Weber, a pioneer in the field who erred in his calculations and was left behind. Few of the interviewees mince words, offering unvarnished perspectives on the conflicts and obstacles as well as the camaraderie of those involved. Levin tells the story of this grand quest with the immediacy of a thriller and makes the fixations and foibles of its participants understandable.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Interesting, but very focused on the personalities
Interesting history of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). But be aware that the book is mainly focused on the key personalities and their conflicts. It almost felt like an internal project history at times rather than a widely published popular science book. I could have used more science interspersed with the personal stories. Still, an interesting read, and an unusual window into the world of big science.
Black Hole Blues
The intertwining of the scientific progress with the personalities of the principals makes for a very interesting story