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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

4.2 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0307958198
ISBN-10: 0307958191
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Editorial Reviews


“Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover….Levin profiles the key figures in this revolution with Dostoyevskian insight….She harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity….But as redemptive as the story of countless trials and unlikely triumph may be, what makes the book most rewarding is Levin’s exquisite prose, which bears the mark of a first-rate writer: an acute critical mind haloed with generosity of spirit.” Maria Popova, The New York Times Book Review (front page review)

“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 her superb “Black Hole Blues.” Ms. Levin is able to tell the tale so soon, and so well, because she has had privileged access to the experiment conducted with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, known as LIGO….Ms Levin’s easy style…makes readers feel as if they are sitting in on her interviews or watching over her shoulder as she describes two black holes colliding. 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.” —John Gribbin, The Wall Street Journal

"Levin's authoritative account of the brilliant physicists and engineers who envisioned such a remarkable experiment places readers right in the middle of the action, tracing LIGO's evolution from an inspired idea in the 1970s to the most expensive project in the history of the National Science Foundation. She perfectly captures the fast-paced, forward-thinking, bureaucracy-averse atmosphere of a large-scale scientific experiment, but she also lays bare the decades of interpersonal strife that, at times, threatened to undermine the experiment's success. The author's portrait of these pioneers is especially engaging for her ability to contextualize humanness not just within the scope of the physical experiment, but in the face of such dizzying stakes—surely a Nobel is on the line and has been since the beginning. Levin herself is also wondrously present in this narrative, nimbly guiding readers through scientific jargon and reminding us of the enormous profundity of modern physics. 'A vestige of the noise of the [black hole] crash,' she writes, 'has been on its way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth.' A superb alignment of author and subject: Levin is among the best contemporary science writers, and LIGO is arguably the most compelling experiment on the planet." Kirkus *starred review*

“Lively, poignant, engaging….a story worth telling.” —Science Magazine
“[Levin] explains in clear terms the scientific heart of this achievement and the deep and personal fascination that pursuing it has held for several generations of scientists. She also captures the cost of getting to this point, both financial—this is big science in its truest sense—and, in many cases, personal….Illuminating.” Nature

“Compelling…. a fascinating book about not just the science of gravitational waves but also the very human process by which that science gets done….likely to stand the test of time.” —The Space Review
“A miraculously beautiful book….I feel a kind of civic duty to get it into the hands, hearts, and minds of as many people as possible. This particular book is one of the finest I've ever read – the kind that will be read and cherished a century from now. Dr. Levin is a splendid writer of extraordinary intellectual elegance – partway between Galileo and Goethe, she fuses her scientific scrupulousness with remarkable poetic potency.” —Brain Pickings

“Science will never seem as rock ‘n’ roll to you as it does in Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, a book that tells the story of the scientists who have dedicated their careers to trying to record the music of the universe…. This book recounts the decades of passion and obsession that led to the recent scientific breakthrough. And it’s really cool.” —Bustle, “9 Nonfiction Books About Science That Anyone Can Get Into”

“A fascinatingly human narrative about the treasure hunt for evidence of gravitational waves…. Levin navigates the book’s complex science with skill, devoting sections to explaining how pulsars emit gravitational waves or why some scientists didn’t believe black holes existed until the 1990s….She writes with a smart, snappy voice that always follows one rule: she never editorializes on the facts….[which] rings true to the scientific method….Reveals the human struggle behind real world science.” —Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“Science writing at its best: a slim volume that sings that tale of discovery, charting how these scientists got to that day last autumn. Black Hole Blues is as illustrative, temperamental, and dramatic as it is poetic.” —Signature

“Following the detection of gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence, Levin, a professor 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….Levin tells the story of this grand quest with the immediacy of a thriller and makes the fixations and foibles of its participants understandable.” Publishers Weekly

“Not only is Levin a theoretical cosmologist but also an eloquent writer able to explain high science to laymen….Levin’s third book is not only an engaging story of a major scientific discovery but also of the universe’s many mysteries—and the ceaseless human quest to solve them. Even if you were bad or uninterested in science, don’t miss this one.” —I4U News
“[A] quick, engaging read….This is less a story about the science of gravitational waves than a story about the doing of science, with vividly described personalities and personality conflicts. LIGO’s development had several periods that would fairly be described as “tumultuous,” and Levin goes into these in compelling detail….Fun and insightful.” —Forbes

“What makes me excited about this is that it promises to be a practical look at how the science actually got done, which is much more accessible for the nonscientist. I’m Here For This.” —Book Riot

“This is a beautifully written account of the quest to open the ‘gravitational-wave window’ onto our universe, and use it to explore our universe’s warped side: black holes and other phenomena made from warped spacetime. As a participant in this wonderful quest, I applaud Janna Levin for capturing so well our vision, our struggles, and the ethos and spirit of our torturous route toward success." —Kip Thorne, author of The Science of Interstellar

“If Hunter Thompson had taken a break to get a PhD in physics and then become obsessed with gravitational waves, he might have written a book like this. And maybe not. Janna Levin's book is smart, hip, and resonant with the sounds of scientists at work.”Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe

“Science meets cinéma vérité in this riveting book. Janna Levin immerses us in the heady world of scientists straining to detect gravitational waves, the faintest whispers in the universe. What emerges is a story about listening… the most sensitive, determined, obsessive listening anyone has ever tried to do. Keenly observed and lyrically written, her account of this quest will move you.” —Steven Strogatz, Professor of Mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of x

“Janna Levin’s book is a delightful read. With humor as well as understanding, she tells the human stories inside the project to detect gravitational waves from astronomical sources. She describes the hopes and aspirations of the people who have been working for many years on the cutting edge technology to achieve the sensitivity to detect the elusive waves predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916. As a professional astrophysicist and an expert in the phenomenology of black holes, she explains well the remarkable discovery made by the project a century later.” —Rainer Weiss, Emeritus Professor of Physics MIT

“A first-hand account of the scientific pursuit to detect gravitational waves—sounds without material medium that are generated by the collision of black holes and other exotic astrophysical events. In 1916, Albert Einstein became the first to predict the existence of gravitational waves, which were finally detected this month. In this book, Levin recounts the dramatic search over the last 50 years for these elusive waves, which are considered to be the holy grail of modern cosmology and the soundtrack of the universe. Levin is an accomplished astrophysicist and a colleague of the four scientists at the center of this book. It is a story that, until now, has been known only to those most involved with the project.” —NPR.org

“A remarkable achievement that potentially opens up a whole new chapter in our understanding of the cosmos and, with perfect timing, Janna Levin’s elegant and lucid book is here to tell us how it was done....The human drama is compelling....The main protagonists...comprise as fascinating a triumvirate as you will find anywhere in scientific literature. Levin, a distinguished astrophysicist in her own right, writes eloquently, sometimes even poetically, about the search for what she calls gravity’s music.” —Mail on Sunday (UK)

“This is a popular science book that is very, very well written….Levin has inverted the usual formula. Your average popsci hack plods breathlessly through the technicalities, inserting little fragments of reportage for drama and to make the story more ‘human.’ This is a terrible idea. Levin starts from the humans and the story, and lets the science emerge until, finally, the science and the human become one….Brilliant.” —Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times (UK)

"It is hard to imagine that a better narrative will ever be written about the behind-the-scenes heartbreak and hardship that goes with scientific discovery. Black Hole Blues is a near-perfect balance of science, storytelling and insight. The prose is transparent and joyful….It is as inevitable as gravity that this book will win a swath of awards." —New Statesman (UK)

About the Author

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn, and has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Her previous books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and a novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. She was recently named a Guggenheim fellow.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (March 29, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958191
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958198
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,963 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ash Jogalekar TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 29, 2016
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A few weeks ago the world of science was rattled – and rattled seems like the right word – by the discovery of gravitational waves, a culmination of Einstein’s general theory of relativity which the great man predicted a hundred years ago. The waves came from the collision of two black holes, an event of woefully cataclysmic magnitude, releasing energy billions of trillions of times that produced by the sun.

And yet astonishingly, the collision registered here on earth in the form of a tremor so slight as to defy imagination, a tremor displacing a giant mirror located in desert scrubland by no more than a thousandth of the width of a proton. In this book author and physicist Janna Levin tells us the story of the history of that event, the machinery that went into its almost imperceptible detection and most importantly, the human beings who made this discovery possible.

The book shines mainly in two aspects. Firstly, being a physicist herself Levin brings an authoritative touch to explaining the science behind gravitational wave detection. Both the history of the field as well as its present incarnations get due credit. The list of topics Levin touches on encompass such astronomical anomalies as neutrons and pulsars, intense x-rays from outer space and black holes themselves as well as more earthly accomplishments such as laser interferometers, radio telescopes and advanced electronics. Brilliant scientists like John Wheeler, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer who worked on relativity and black holes make frequent appearances. Both theory and experiment get a nod, and it’s clear that the best science involves both abstract theorizing as well as expert craftsmanship and engineering.
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I enjoyed this book very much. It describes the creation of LIGO going back more than three decades. Levin focuses on the people; their interactions and the strong emotions. There are few technical details. It was reviewed [Science 352: 300, 2016] by Adrian Cho who was disappointed by the few detailed descriptions of the science and engineering problems and their solutions, e.g. there isn't even a description of what an interferometer is. The emphasis of Levin's story about LIGO is certainly not because she could not write a more technical description, she is a theoretical physicist and astronomer. The science is amazing, pure theory predicted gravity waves, and physicists were able to convince NSF to spend more than a billion dollars to make LIGO, which detected gravity waves on 14 September 2015. This is compatible to the creation of the atomic bombs, predicted by pure theory, with two technically independent devices working the first time. But LIGO took orders of magnitude longer to succeed, and there was no war to provide motivation. Thus I think Levin's emphasis makes sense; if you want technical details go to WIKIPEDIA.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a big fan of Janna Levin. I've read her previous works and enjoyed them immensely, so I was very excited to pick up her new book she spent 4-1/2 years writing. While the writing style is different than her previous books, it's still a fierce, factual, well written account about the long search for gravitational-waves: ripples in spacetime, an idea proposed by Albert Einstein a century ago. What Levin did was write a very personal story, filled with intense personalities in the field of science, and she made sure to not sugarcoating anything. I finished the book in two days and on the second night sat up for hours and fell into the gripping seduction of Levin’s words and descriptions of the Universe.
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Loved the story and the interactions of brilliant people and brilliant ideas that made the LIGO first discovery possible. Would of preferred more science and subject summary drill downs and less reviews of the human conflicts that every major effort contains. A tribute to those who persevered and opened the door to another window on the universe.
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I found this book fascinating about the 40+ year project that some had deemed a waste of money because of the possibility that it might not ever work, being that the technical challenges are huge and the number and strengths of the sources of signals were unknown. The number of people working on this through the years is legion, and the author did a great job of interviewing and then writing about the various personalities and infighting a large project like this will have. Warts and all are on display, with a balanced and rather diplomatic comparison of who said what about whom, making the brilliant people involved come alive as real humans, not just caricatures as pop culture usually portrays scientists. The egos and the different ways that people think are obviously amplified when the people are in this upper realm of intellectual endeavor interact and clash, and the contributions of all those diverse minds, the theoretical and experimental, are well laid out in this book.

The technical details are touched on without going into arcane engineering or scientific jargon, which wouldn't have bothered me, but I realize that this makes this book much more approachable for a larger audience, and Janna Levin does it with great success, I think Isaac Asimov, the great explainer to the layman, would've been hard-pressed to do better.

I was sad when I finished it.
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