Eons ago two invisible forces circled, moving inexorably closer and closer together until …
Black holes collided.
The power of the explosion was fifty times greater than all the stars in the universe combined. It rippled space-time. It generated gravitational waves that journeyed across the galaxy for 1.4 billion years, until they reached us.
On September 15, 2015, specially constructed antennae in Washington and Louisiana picked up the signal. In case you are a doubter, it happened again on December 16, 2015.
This was the first direct evidence for Einstein’s theory that time and space “are interwoven and dynamic, able to stretch, shrink and jiggle.”
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space by cosmologist Janna Levin is the colorful tale of how the signal was detected—who made it happen, when and how. It reads like a soap opera. Geniuses are discovered then impugned, borders crossed, fights for funding rage, secrets are leaked, egos clash.
Somehow through the efforts of hundreds of people, two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities are built, instruments sensitive enough to pick up the faint stretch and squeeze echo of that ancient collision.
Levin, who had access to all of the researchers and facilities, wrote the book before the first detection, which makes the story all the more compelling.
At the center of the tale are what came to be known as the troika: Rainer Weiss, the brilliant eccentric who invented a device which led to LIGO; Kip Thorne, astrophysicist and relativist with a wild imagination and a mathematical mind, and Ron Drever, a genius from Scotland, “a childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate astonishing compositions.” These three managed decades of hurdles, personal and professional, to bring the project to fruition.
As someone who squeaked through “Physics for Poets” in college, I was entranced, not just by the story, but by Levin herself.
How can you not fall for a genius scientist who tells a love story like this?
And who marries someone like this?
A testament to human curiosity, resilience and persistence, Black Hole Blues is a layperson’s window into one of the most significant discoveries of the age, and a gift for anyone who loves a well-written book.
Featured Image: the center of the Milky Way, which contains a black hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/F.K. Baganoff et al.