Janna Levin's BLACK HOLE BLUES AND OTHER SONGS FROM OUTER SPACE
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This book provides a very human review of events leading up to and including the detection of gravity waves, a scientific feat that observationally corroborated Einstein’s theories about the relationship between gravity and the curvature of space-time.
Levin focuses on personalities, relationships, and rivalries. She provides just enough allegory-laden scientific explanations of what happens when two far off black holes collide. The resulting collision, Einstein theorized, would transmit gravitational waves across the galaxy.
The last chapter of the book recounts the first detection of such an event after many years of the efforts described earlier in this book.
One trick was to build an instrument sensitive enough to detect the infinitesimally weak gravity waves when they finally reach us after traveling vast galactic distances. Building such an instrument took many years and consumed the passions and intellect of many scientists who, at the risk of their own careers, persevered against much skepticism and occasional professional hostility.
We have the U.S. National Science Foundation to thank for pouring money into the project over many years, along with the dedication and imagination of the five key scientist that serve as the author’s focus. (Personally, I shall always have a warm spot in my own heart for the NSF as they funded my own PhD dissertation research which included astrophysicists as one of the study populations. I wonder if any of the researchers mentioned in this book were part of the population whose journal publishing preferences I studied?)
This book is heavy on personal histories and provides “just enough science” to help the reader understand what’s going on.
Some reviewers have complained about the lack of technical detail. I’m okay with that. This book succeeds in bringing “big science” down to earth by telling its story through a few key players. That Levin secured the cooperation of these key players is fortunate and she skillfully weaves the connections between theory and experiment with attention to the people involved.
I really enjoyed this book. While I’m still not really clear on what gravity is, it helps at one point that the author for comparison provides a brief overview of the different forces that bring atomic particles together.
But no matter. The story is fascinating. If you have ever read any serious histories of nuclear weapons development you understand how important it is to understand the personal, political, and intellectual challenges in managing such “moonshot scale” efforts.
Science can be a noble pursuit yet the humans who “do” science are subject to the same hopes, fears, and dreams as the rest of us. Understanding something about how this is all done is one more step in understanding what separates humans from other life forms.
Review copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald. Scroll down to see more reviews like this.