Sunday, January 08, 2017

[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues, by Jenna Levin

I originally thought this book would in the pop science genre -- a layman-level description of the theory and concepts behind gravitational waves. It's not that, but a wonderfully sensitive and beautifully written piece of scientific history.

Gravitational waves are by products of the violent actions of objects of extraordinary mass; two black holes colliding and such. They are predicted by General Relativity and provide the only information we have about the universe that does not come through radiation. Levin analogizes this to sound; so far all we have had to understand the universe is sight -- radiation -- now we have sound -- gravitational waves -- which opens an entirely new possibilities for understanding.

That's about the extent of the science. The story here -- and it is a story, as compelling as a good novel -- is the five-plus decade search for these things, and more importantly, the lives devoted to that search. What follows are in-depth portraits of the scientists (many now quite renown) -- their quirks and dysfunctions, their conflicts and camaraderie, their victories and disappointments. Scientists are, perhaps, an odder group of people than most, their relationships often accurately characterized as an interaction of pathologies. Levin brings both the pain and exhilaration of their obsessions alive as this singular pursuit grows from makeshift garage-level do-it-yourself projects to a multi-million dollar, taxpayer-financed, congressionally overseen initiative.

The story is best summed up in Levin's closing passage. Sorry for the length, but if you like this quote, you'll like the book:
Initiated by a collision of black holes or neutron stars or an exploding stars, maybe more than a billion years ago, the waves in the shape of space have been on their way here ever since.

A vestige of the noise of the crash has been on the way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth. When the sound moved through our Local Supercluster of galaxies, dinosaurs roamed the planet. As it passed the nearby Andromeda galaxy, the Ice Age began. As it entered the halo of our Milky Way, we were painting caves. As the wave approached a nearby star cluster, we were in the final furlong, the rapid years of industrialization. The steam engine was invented and Albert Einstein theorized on the existence of gravitational waves. When I started to write this book, the sound reached Alpha Centauri.

In the final miniscule fraction of that billion year journey, a team of hundreds of scientists will have built an observatory to record the first notes from space. As the sound moves through the interstellar space outside the solar system, the detectors will be operational.

As the wave nears the orbit of Neptune, we only have a few more hours. Past the Sun, we have eight more minutes. Someone will be on duty in the control room...after the passage of eight unexceptional minutes, she might barely hear something that sounds different...A sophisticated computer algorithm will parse the data stream in real time and send notification to the data analysts...and one will be the first to look over the specs...and think calmly, "This might be it."

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool's ambition.
That's a better description than I could write; and prescient. It was written before the first successful observation of gravitational waves and is pretty close to what actually happened (which is covered in an epilogue). I found myself quite happy for all people who had devoted their lives to this "fool's ambition" to see their life's work finally succeed and find a major sense of closure to their lives. I can only hope have the same feeling someday.

Should you read Black Hole Blues? Even if you have the slightest interest in science you should. It is a truly great story.