Book Review: Black Hole Blues

I bought my copy at a public lecture by the author, Janna Levin.  She cuts a striking figure on stage,  trim and athletic looking in a black leather suit above dramatically high heels, pacing restlessly as she speaks.  Her story is dramatic: the first direct detection of gravitational waves.  Face to face, she is a tiny image of concentrated energy.  I find it easy to imagine that one career is a bit too small to contain this astrophysics professor, author and artist.

Einstein's paper predicting gravitational waves was published in 1916, but their first direct detection needed to wait almost exactly 100 years.  Black Hole Blues, and Other Songs from Outer Space, is mostly the story of the building of the giant instruments that aimed to find Einstein's gravitational waves.

Why did it take so long?  Because gravity is a very weak force - the electrical force between two protons is about a trillion-trillion-trillion times as strong as the electrical force between them.  As a result, it takes an enormously powerful gravitational event and an exquisitely sensitive detector to detect it.  The first event detected, the merger of two black holes each dozens of times as massive as our Sun, produced detectable energy for the last 200 milliseconds of their merger at a rate 100 billion-trillion (10^23) times the luminosity of the Sun (about 4 x 10^26 Watts), so 10^49 Watts.  That energy, spreading out over the 1.4 billion light year travel to Earth, was enough to produce a differential distance of one ten thousandth of  the width of a proton between the lengths of the 4 km long arms of the laser interferometers that constitute the LIGO (Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory.)

Although it contains descriptions of both, Levin's book is not a technical discussion of gravitational wave production or of the workings of the LIGO.  Instead, it is the story of the fifty year quest to build the LIGO and those who built it.

The principal actors in the story are Rainer Weiss, who built the first tabletop prototype at MIT, Ronald Drever, the Scotch experimentalist who first led the LIGO project at Caltech, and contributed many key ideas, and Kip Thorne, who led the theoretical work that justified the project and brought it to Caltech.  These three shared the Kavli and Breakthrough Prizes for the work, and likely would have shared the Nobel if Drever had lived until the Nobel committee completed their deliberations.

Of the three, only Kip Thorne was familiar to me, and I suspect to nearly all physicists.  He is the co-author two massive tomes, Gravitation, with Misner and Wheeler, and Modern Classical Physics, with Blandford, as well as the author of the best popular book on General Relativity, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy.

Much of the drama (and melodrama) of the story focuses on Ron Drever, an intuitive genius who proved to be a terrible project leader - indecisive, disorganized, impatient with details, a micromanager who couldn't delegate, and not terribly good at interfacing with the NSF, who provided the money.  He was persuaded, on the threat of project death, to accept Robbie Vogt as director, but then feuded furiously with him and was fired by him.  The details would be comic if not so tragic.  Vogt was a far better manager, but his own temperament, and consternation over the bad treatment of Drever, led to him being fired as well.

There is much more.  Levin's story was about the construction of the LIGO, but before her book was published, one of the first test runs detected an unambiguous merger, and she, for a couple of months, was privy to the big pre-publication secret.  That story is the supremely fitting epilog to her book.

I should say that at first I didn't love the first few chapters of her book, but like Saint Paul, I saw the light.  Her idiosyncratic prose style occasionally wanders into the odd, and I sometimes wanted more technical detail.  I became, as I said, a convert.  It is a great book, and it tells a great scientific and human story, and tells it well.


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