Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

The full inside story of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO, one of the most ambitious feats in scientific history.Travel around the world 100 billion times. A strong gravitational wave will briefly change that distance by less than the thickness of a human hair. We have perhaps less than a few tenths of a second to perform this measurement. And we don’t know if...

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Title:Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
Author:Janna Levin
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Edition Language:English

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space Reviews

  • Sue

    Even if you know how the story ends (and, unless you've been living under a rock, you surely do), Janna Levin keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Most of the science went over my head, but Levin's compassionate chronicle of the great minds and crazy personalities that made the recording of gravitational waves a reality, 100 years after Einstein theorized them, is intimate and thrilling. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author.

  • John Gribbin

    Here is a version of a review I wrote fir ther Wall St Journal:

    In February this year scientists announced the detection of a burst of gravitational waves from space. The waves, predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, came from a pair of colliding black holes, each with about 30 times the mass of our Sun, in a galaxy more than a billion light years away. The ripple they produced jiggled the Earth by much less than the diameter of an atom. The astonishing story of how science was abl

    Here is a version of a review I wrote fir ther Wall St Journal:

    In February this year scientists announced the detection of a burst of gravitational waves from space. The waves, predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, came from a pair of colliding black holes, each with about 30 times the mass of our Sun, in a galaxy more than a billion light years away. The ripple they produced jiggled the Earth by much less than the diameter of an atom. The astonishing story of how science was able to measure such a tiny effect, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars (which seems modest given the achievement) is told by Janna Levin in this superb new book. Levin is able to tell the tale so soon, and so well, because she has had privileged access to the experiment (known as LIGO, from Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and the experimenters for several years, and knew that the first runs were due in September 2015. Like the experimenters, and everyone in the scientific community, she was stunned by the speed with which LIGO has produced results, but was able to squeeze in a brief mention of the news in an Epilogue.

    Levin is herself a scientist, which explains her privileged access; but more than that she is a writer—a writer with a background in science, rather than a scientist who writes. Her book is less about the nuts and bolts of the science and technology, although it contains enough of that to satisfy our interest in how such measurements can be made, and more about the people, personalities and politics involved in getting such an expensive and long-gestating (four decades and counting) project to fruition. She gives due credit to Joseph Weber, a lone pioneer who built a gravitational wave detector in the sixties and thought he had found something, but was later proved wrong. In spite of this false start, Weber’s example encouraged interest in the possibility of detecting such waves, and stimulated others to take up the challenge. It was Weber who “brought Einstein into the lab.”

    The contributions and clashes of the three key players in Levin’s story who did take up that challenge are each given comfortable space, and should soon be sharing a Nobel Prize. They are Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, the “troika” who got things moving, both scientifically and politically.

    The project grew out of a course on relativity theory that Weiss was teaching at MIT, in the early 1970s. His class were intrigued by the idea of gravitational waves – ripples in space – and to entertain them he devised a purely hypothetical idea (a “thought experiment”) for detecting such waves. The idea involved bouncing beams of light of mirrors to create so-called interference patterns. The passage of a gravitational wave through the experiment would change the interference pattern. Then, Weiss decided to try to turn the thought experiment into reality. He was, he said, “going to try to do the most interesting thing I could think of” even though the project, if it succeeded at all, would take decades. It looked as if the effort would fail for lack of funds. But in 1975 Weiss met Thorne, a leading theorist in the field of relativity, and also a leading light at Caltech, who was seeking a partner to work on the search for gravitational waves. It was a marriage made in heaven. The troika was completed when they headhunted Drever from Glasgow, where he had established a formidable reputation as a hands on physicist who got things done, and was working on his own gravitational wave detector. Drever had been brought up in the sealing wax and string tradition of British scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, and was a genius at cutting corners and making things work – provided he was left to do it his way. This was an asset when the project was young and impoverished, but as Levin details his approach became a problem when the project became a large, well-funded bureaucratic organisation with no room for mavericks.

    But the Nobel Committee had better get its skates on; none of these pioneers is in the first flush of youth, and Drever, sadly, now suffers from dementia. Not that Nobel Prizes, and the lust for them, are necessarily always a good thing. In an interview with Levin, Weiss refers to them as “the sin in this field”, causing friends to fall out with each other over claims for priority.

    On the scientific side, I was pleased to see Levin giving due emphasis to the importance of the discovery of a system known as the “binary pulsar”, which was seen in the early 1990s to be losing energy in a way which could only be explained by gravitational radiation. This was itself Nobel-winning work, and gave a great boost to the attempt to detect gravitational waves directly. Indeed, it was the binary pulsar that “proved Einstein right”, in so far as that needed proving. The importance of LIGO is that it provides a way to study gravitational waves directly, opening a new window on the Universe, potentially as important as opening up radio or X-ray astronomy. So far, it has detected what people expected it to detect; the real excitement begins when it begins to detect the unexpected.

    There are some minor irritations regarding Levin’s style. She is clearly unfamiliar with English places and titles, which won’t bother many of her readers. More annoyingly, when introducing the physicist John Wheeler she cannot resist a parenthetical “difficult not to mention his most famous student, Richard Feynman”. Actually, it is easy. Just leave out that sentence. But this is a small price to pay for the pleasure of Levin’s easy style, which makes the reader feel like they are sitting in on her interviews or watching over her shoulder as she writes.

    I am much more uncomfortable about Levin’s telling, in my view too detailed, of the rivalries which led Drever to be pushed out of the project at the end of the 1990s. The other protagonists were interviewed and gave their versions of the truth in detail, but Drever is now unable to tell his side of the story. I am not sure that we need all the details anyway, but in the circumstances I definitely concur with the comment made to Levin by Weiss: “Nobody wants to resurrect this stuff. It’s unfortunately in the public record now. But it doesn’t have to be in your book.” Indeed not.

    But I don’t want to end on a sour note. This is a splendid book

    That I recommend to anyone with an interest in how science works, and in the power of human imagination and ability. What LIGO actually measured on 14 September 2015 was a change in the length of detector arms 4 kilometres long that amounted to one ten-thousandth of the width of a proton. To scale that up to “see” a change in length as great as the width of a human hair would require a detector as long as a hundred billion times the circumference of the Earth. It is worth sitting back and letting that sink in. If human beings are capable of measuring that, they are capable of almost anything, given the will to do it. And if you want to know how they did it, in spite of all the trials and tribulations, you will have to read the book.

    John Gribbin is a Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex, and author of 13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe.

  • Andrea

    The subject of gravitational waves is fascinating. Being able to hear major galactic events like collapse of stars into black hole, or a collision of two galaxies has been in the realm of theoretical physics for exactly 100 years until late last year the first event was officially recorded at LIGO. Naturally such an exciting project attracted a lot of drama. This is not the first science book that confirmed my speculations that the academic world is full of cutthroat politics and fierce competit

    The subject of gravitational waves is fascinating. Being able to hear major galactic events like collapse of stars into black hole, or a collision of two galaxies has been in the realm of theoretical physics for exactly 100 years until late last year the first event was officially recorded at LIGO. Naturally such an exciting project attracted a lot of drama. This is not the first science book that confirmed my speculations that the academic world is full of cutthroat politics and fierce competition. If you are working on something groundbreaking, you better bet your keister someone else is working on it too, and is secretly hoping for you to get struck by lightning. When there is prestige, Nobel Prize, and personal fulfillment on the line, all is fair. I bet Janna Levin got into some bad blood over publishing some of the uglier conflicts at LIGO. Other than the juicy scientific gossip, this book is full of great information on a very relevant topic, presented in an accessible language not bogged down by industry jargon. Recommended.

  • Carlos

    This book is more of a chronicle of the work that went and it's still going into developing equipment that could be able to listen to disruption on the cosmos thereby proving the presence of black holes or at least that there disturbances on the time space continuum , I loved the physics aspects of it and the epilogue finally made it all worth it when it actually proved the existence of black holes , I'm sure that as I'm speaking there people are writing books, reports and articles about the exi

    This book is more of a chronicle of the work that went and it's still going into developing equipment that could be able to listen to disruption on the cosmos thereby proving the presence of black holes or at least that there disturbances on the time space continuum , I loved the physics aspects of it and the epilogue finally made it all worth it when it actually proved the existence of black holes , I'm sure that as I'm speaking there people are writing books, reports and articles about the existence and dynamics of black holes , the understanding of it might well change everything we think we know about the Big Bang and our cosmos.... This book it's just the beginning , highly recommend it to people that want an introduction to theoretical physics and/or the history of the project that made it possible to prove a concept that at one point people only considered science fiction.

  • Holly

    Today's announcement of a second detection of gravitational waves reminded me how much I enjoyed and learned from this book. As in

    Levin intersperses her personal story with clearly-explained physics, but in a much lighter way here - this is in no way a memoir. She's an educated observer and an acquaintance if not admirer of many of physicists involved. She's writing a full account (to-October 2015) of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO)

    Today's announcement of a second detection of gravitational waves reminded me how much I enjoyed and learned from this book. As in

    Levin intersperses her personal story with clearly-explained physics, but in a much lighter way here - this is in no way a memoir. She's an educated observer and an acquaintance if not admirer of many of physicists involved. She's writing a full account (to-October 2015) of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project(s). Here's part of a passage I highlighted that shows how she guides the reader.

    I recall thinking while reading that this is sort of a nuts and bolts "process" book, i.e., about the process of big science; sort of like the documentary "Particle Fever" on Netflix about CERN and the Higgs Boson (which I've watched about six times!). There aren't that many difficult equations or graphs and images, or brain-melting theoretical problems to tackle. Instead Levin conveys the frustrations and obsessions of the eccentric researchers, as well as the excitement of having their hard work vindicated.

  • Jonathan

    Fascinating - not just the science, surprisingly, but the personal dramas and infighting of the team - Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, Ron Drever, Robbie Vogt etc - pioneers all, working away at something many considered a dead end/waste of time/fool's errand...and then, finally, that incredible, improbable detection...

    review here:

  • Brian Clegg

    I came across Black Holes Blues rather late, when Kip Thorne mentioned it as somewhere you would discover the difficulties the management of the LIGO gravitational waves detection project went through. It's slightly weird reading it now, after the first gravitational wave detections, as the book was clearly written before anything had been found (though there's a rapidly tacked-on afterword to deal with the discovery).

    Despite the author being a physics professor, this is classic US journalistic

    I came across Black Holes Blues rather late, when Kip Thorne mentioned it as somewhere you would discover the difficulties the management of the LIGO gravitational waves detection project went through. It's slightly weird reading it now, after the first gravitational wave detections, as the book was clearly written before anything had been found (though there's a rapidly tacked-on afterword to deal with the discovery).

    Despite the author being a physics professor, this is classic US journalistic popular science writing in the style that was arguably typified by James Gleick's classic Chaos - like that, Black Hole Blues is a book that is driven entirely by the people involved, based strongly around interviews, visits and fly-on-the-wall descriptions of historical interactions between the main characters. The science itself plays a distinctly supporting cast role to the detail of the people, their background and their psychology.

    I absolutely loved this approach when I first came across it. I must admit that, by now, (Gleick's book is a remarkable 30 years old) it feels a little forced and there are occasions when I'm yelling 'Tell me a less about another origin story, and more about the science.' Sometimes Janna Levin can be consciously wordy, whether over-stretching the simile when she constantly refers to gravitational waves as sound (they're not) or when she puts in folksy human observations, some of which I simply don't understand, such as 'Part of Rana's charisma is related to the social power of indifference.' What?

    Despite these concerns, though, this is an engaging story of big science - the ups and downs of a billion dollar project, showing the very human frailties of those involved in coming up with the ideas and making them real. Sensibly, Levin spends a fair amount of time on the doomed work of Joe Weber, whose bars proved controversial when no one else could duplicate his work. And we certainly get an impression of the size and complexity of the LIGO setup, even though it was sad that the science and engineering achievements were sometimes obscured by the obsession with the human stories.

    I have no doubt at all that Levin knows the science behind this stuff backwards, but occasionally the approach seems to demand such hand-waving vagueness that we veer away from accuracy. I've already mentioned the description of gravitational waves as sound, repeated over and over in different ways. There's also an example where we are told that due to the gravitational waves generated by its orbit 'the Moon will [eventually] spiral into us' - where in reality what's happening is dominated by tidal effects, which mean the Moon is moving away from us. Again Levin inevitably knows this, but seemed to prefer the dramatic notion which overwhelms a vague qualifier.

    Black Hole Blues is a great read and uncovers the human side of scientific work wonderfully. The only let down is, for me, that the art of the writing has overwhelmed the beauty of the science.

  • Bradley

    This is a rather fascinating personality-centric accounting of post-WWII science that lead to the facilities that currently detect Gravity Waves. The science is there at the core, from the postulations to the amazingly hard-fought politics and accounting that made the whole thing happen.

    And believe me, it almost didn't happen so many times. Fortunately, it did and a few years ago we had confirmation of real-life Black Holes to celebrate over.

    Truly, I couldn't be happier. Science needs these kind

    This is a rather fascinating personality-centric accounting of post-WWII science that lead to the facilities that currently detect Gravity Waves. The science is there at the core, from the postulations to the amazingly hard-fought politics and accounting that made the whole thing happen.

    And believe me, it almost didn't happen so many times. Fortunately, it did and a few years ago we had confirmation of real-life Black Holes to celebrate over.

    Truly, I couldn't be happier. Science needs these kinds of astronomical wins. It was astronomical in the way they pulled it off, too.

    But wow, the rest of the story reads like a great novel full of difficult personalities, boundless hope, disappointment, and heroism. Kinda like most science. But then, it is a calling. These men and women are truly devoted to the cause despite not always agreeing on the best direction or means to the goal.

    So did this read like a soap opera full of departmental squabbles, politics, money-wrangling, and even a little madness thrown in?

    Yep.

    But that's what makes it so interesting. They did it despite all that. And the project is very healthy now. :) :) Fun read!

  • Fiona

    I was in Glasgow a couple of months back, and a friend invited me along to a Skeptics in the Pub night - they regularly have interesting people along, at the front of a room beneath a pub, to talk about whatever sciencey or philosophical or what-have-you thing it is they work on. This time, they had a couple of people from the gravitational research group at Glasgow University - and they came along to talk about LIGO. This being about May-ish time 2016, the room was packed and consisted about 50

    I was in Glasgow a couple of months back, and a friend invited me along to a Skeptics in the Pub night - they regularly have interesting people along, at the front of a room beneath a pub, to talk about whatever sciencey or philosophical or what-have-you thing it is they work on. This time, they had a couple of people from the gravitational research group at Glasgow University - and they came along to talk about LIGO. This being about May-ish time 2016, the room was packed and consisted about 50% of physicists. (Many beards. Many pre-formulated questions.)

    LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, and I have been low-key obsessed by it since the news came out in February that in September last year, physicists discovered that

    , rather than just the realms of theoretical physics. This book is about that discovery, less from the physics end (although Janna Levin is a professor of physics in her own right) than a whole lot of interdepartmental politics. Honestly, I will never complain about trying to get funding for a project again; this stuff is incredible. By the time the story had got as far as the mid-90s, I was breaking out in a cold sweat every other paragraph. It's a fascinating story: interestingly, it looks like it was written largely

    the breakthrough in September 2015, because the actual discovery is an epilogue, and the book came out at the end of March. I'm not sure how I feel about that: sure, ride the coattails of the announcement, there's no better time to do that - but I might have preferred a bit more fleshing out of that final chapter, even if it took a few more months for the book to get printed.

    The thing that stopped it getting All The Stars (because really, if there's anything going to catch my attention, astrophysics and advanced project management are high on that list) is that it didn't really feel like a book. It's written... almost like an overgrown Vice article? which I'm sure is doing it a disservice, what I mean is that it's obviously long-form journalism. It's like an investigative article, but 180 pages of it, with chapters. So this is purely a matter of taste: that either works for you or it doesn't, and I'm afraid it doesn't really for me.

    Still, there's a shoo-in for the Nobel prize this year, and quite frankly several members of the project sound like they'd be strong contenders for the peace prize too.

  • Jamie

    Interesting (and timely) subject, intriguing history, but the chatty, almost gossipy way the book is written does it a disservice. The writing is downright peculiar, overly poetic or nonsensical at times, full of interjections from the author, less like credible journalism and more like a he-said-she-said oral history with whole paragraphs of rambling, unedited quotes and a baffling structure. There are a few reviews saying the physics are on point but the storytelling isn’t; however, I found ev

    Interesting (and timely) subject, intriguing history, but the chatty, almost gossipy way the book is written does it a disservice. The writing is downright peculiar, overly poetic or nonsensical at times, full of interjections from the author, less like credible journalism and more like a he-said-she-said oral history with whole paragraphs of rambling, unedited quotes and a baffling structure. There are a few reviews saying the physics are on point but the storytelling isn’t; however, I found even the physics were told like a pop culture piece assembled for clickbait instead of a published book on scientific discovery.

    Ah, well. I’ll still read more about LIGO, and the fool’s errand aspect of the story is an interesting one, no matter how it’s told.

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