- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (April 18, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 030794848X
- ISBN-13: 978-0307948489
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 122 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #171,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space Reprint Edition
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“[A] storyteller of uncommon enchantment. . . . [Levin] harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity.” —New York Times Book Review
“[An] astonishing story. . . . 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.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Poetic. . . . The reader can’t help sharing her surprises, her concerns, and her sympathies.” —The New York Review of Books
“Fun and insightful. . . . [A] quick, engaging read . . . with vividly described personalities and personality conflicts.” —Forbes
“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.” —New Statesman (London)
“[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
“One of the most fascinating and beautifully written books I've ever read. . . . With a novelist's flair for unraveling the universal through the specific, [Levin] chronicles this particular scientific triumph in order to tell a larger story of the human spirit, its tenacious ingenuity in the face of myriad obstacles, and the somewhat mysterious, somewhat irrational animating force that compels scientists to devote their entire lives to exploits bedeviled by uncertainty, frequent failure, and meager public appreciation.” —Brain Pickings
“This is a popular science book that is very, very well written. . . . Levin has inverted the usual formula. . . . Levin starts from the humans and the story, and lets the science emerge until, finally, the science and the human become one. . . . Brilliant.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“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.” —Kirkus (Starred Review)
“As compelling as a novel. . . . It’s punchy, witty, timely and deeply insightful; I haven’t read a better book on the realities of doing science.” —Michael Brooks, New Statesman (London) Books of the Year 2016
“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.” —Mail on Sunday (London)
“Worthwhile reading for anyone considering a science career, or for those of us who love to learn how science frontiers are pushed forward.” —San Francisco Book Review
“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
“Lively, poignant, engaging. . . . A story worth telling.” —Science Magazine
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.
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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.
It helps a lot that Levin has access to both LIGO (the observatory where the waves were detected) as well as many other institutions like MIT and Caltech which spearheaded the effort, and she visits the labs in these places and gives us a glimpse of the rough hewn, often informal, often necessarily tedious work of actual science done by graduate students and postdocs. There are accounts of walking tours of the installations and stories of encounters with spiders and rats and with bass that showed up out of nowhere in one of the ditches near the equipment. There is mention of all kinds of quirky factors which can derail the extreme sensitivity of the mirrors, from earthquakes in China to the Moon's gravity. This is science at its string-and-sealing-wax best. I would note however that the scientific history and explanations of the complex machinery involved in gravitational wave detection don't constitute the strongest part of the book; the details can sometimes be spare and the history doesn't really go too deep. The writing can also sometimes get a bit stilted.
What makes the book unique in my opinion instead – and different from many other popular physics volumes - is the second aspect which gives us an excellent insider’s look at the human aspects of science. This part of the book should dispel any illusions about science being an impersonal, objective, linear and logical endeavor. Instead we meet scientists who are subject to bouts of jealousy, who accuse each other of foot-dragging and egotism, who claim that it was they rather than their colleagues who made a particular discovery or built a particular piece of equipment. And we encounter the haphazard process of scientific discovery itself, full of fits and starts, blind alleys and uncertainty, held hostage to the vagaries of government funding and public relations.
Levin especially has unique access to the three main scientists - Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ron Drever - who conceived LIGO, fought for funds and personnel, worked out the theory and experimental techniques and have really stayed with the project for their entire careers. They believed in it long before anyone did, and did not let setbacks of funding and skepticism from other scientists blunt their vision. Levin has extensively interviewed these scientists and the narrative is liberally interspersed with their own quotes and their backgrounds. The quotes are often inspiring and show scientific inquiry at its dogged best, but it also shows us how scientists are human beings; how they can occasionally be petty, impatient and insecure. Sometimes individual scientific styles merge and thrive, and sometimes they can clash and dissipate rather than channel energy. What is admirable however is that one way or another these scientists and others overcome their insecurities, worked together, fought in front of Congress to get hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to their project and saw their vision to completion. What we need to keep in mind are not their shortcomings but their success in spite of these shortcomings.
There is also a valuable lesson in the book in the form of the unfortunate story of a physicist named Joe Weber who claimed to have observed gravitational waves using a simple experiment involving aluminum bars way back in the 1960s. Other scientists could not replicate his results and he had to endure much censure and ridicule, but he stuck to his guns and kept on pushing for thirty years until the very end of his life. Although Weber was probably wrong in his science, his espousal of gravitational waves turned many heads and convinced other scientists to work in the field long before it was fashionable. His example shows us that sometimes even wrong science can lead others in the right direction.
Levin’s book is thus an admirable showcase of the human side of science, and it's as much journalism as science. It really shows us how science is really done rather than how it’s portrayed in textbooks and popular sources. And it ultimately convinces us that scientists are inspiring role models, not in spite of their flaws but because of them.