Books on the Nightstand: Black Holes Meet Whole Life Blues

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-1.jpg
Enter a caption

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.

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One of the two 2.5 mile arms of the Hanford, WA Interferometer. Photo credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab

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.

21 comments

  • It really boggles/blows the mind to contemplate how it all came to be. And the more research is done the closer it gets to nothing, literally. I love what Einstein said about physics and metaphysics: religion (spiritual realm) begins where science ends to paraphrase.

    Liked by 2 people

    • True! Every question answered spawns a dozen new ones. This isn’t the same quote, but I love this, also attributed to Einstein: “To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I watched the music video too, Julia, though that’s not really my cup of tea, as we English say. Ironically enough, given the chap’s from Manchester in the North of England, it was too ‘American’ for my tastes. o_O

        Like

    • Serendipity. Reading “Gene: A Natural History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and—for that reason only—know, for the next 15 minutes anyway, who Jacques Monod is/was. Great quote. Did you get a chance to see the video of Levin’s husband and son, singing?

      Liked by 1 person

  • Fascinating post J.B, I so enjoy reading such pieces – so many questions, great stuff. Thank you. (By the by WP had pulled one of its tricks and unfollowed you from my list. So I am back. The same happened with a dear friend who had held back from blogging for a while so I didn’t realise it with him for a very long time, it’s happened about twenty odd times since I first started blogging and no answers have been given by the powers that be here. Tsk)

    – esme upon the Cloud dragging Hariod and Swarn off by the ears and chucking a bucket of water of the pair of ’em.

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is so interesting… Of course, I have heard about Black holes but had no idea about those black holes collisions, whatsoever.
    I will take note of Levin´s book. Sending all my best wishes. Aquileana 😉

    Like

  • Bonjour JB prends le temps
    D’aimer,de rire,de pleurer
    De lire , d’écouter l’intelligence
    De penser ,de jouer cela rappelle notre enfance
    De rêver , surtout de vivre car le temps passe vite
    Et surtout le bonheur d avoir des amis ou amies
    Je te souhaite une belle journée , une belle semaine

    Belle semaine aussi à tes amis et amies , à ta famille et tous ceux qui de l importance pour toi

    Gros bisous.

    Bernard

    Liked by 1 person

  • yeah those ecks-wraytid brits (hariod for 1) … how-so-some-ever: I axually (last century) wuzz a fyzzyx major in skool, and felt I was sort of “keeping up” with sciences … many years later I re-subscribe to SciAm(erikan) and, “hey! wha?? whoa !” –> neutrinos have mass? there are more than 4 tastes? some dinosaurs were endothermic?! etc. and etc. it’s good, as you’re doing, to occasionally pick something up and try to catch the edge, so to speak. I know I never will, but hope to get the watered-down updates …

    Liked by 1 person

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