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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

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$18.00 US
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On sale Apr 18, 2017 | 256 Pages | 978-0-307-94848-9
| Grades AP/IB
The authoritative story of the headline-making discovery of gravitational waves—by an eminent theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer.

From the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, the epic story of the scientific campaign to record the soundtrack of our universe. 
 
Black holes are dark. That is their essence. When black holes collide, they will do so unilluminated. Yet the black hole collision is an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The profusion of energy will emanate as waves in the shape of spacetime: gravitational waves. No telescope will ever record the event; instead, the only evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing. In 1916, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, his top priority after he proposed his theory of curved spacetime. One century later, we are recording the first sounds from space, the soundtrack to accompany astronomy’s silent movie. 

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin recounts the fascinating story of the obsessions, the aspirations, and the trials of the scientists who embarked on an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to capture these elusive waves. An experimental ambition that began as an amusing thought experiment, a mad idea, became the object of fixation for the original architects—Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever. Striving to make the ambition a reality, the original three gradually accumulated an international team of hundreds. As this book was written, two massive instruments of remarkably delicate sensitivity were brought to advanced capability. As the book draws to a close, five decades after the experimental ambition began, the team races to intercept a wisp of a sound with two colossal machines, hoping to succeed in time for the centenary of Einstein’s most radical idea. Janna Levin’s absorbing account of the surprises, disappointments, achievements, and risks in this unfolding story offers a portrait of modern science that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“Levin is herself a theoretical physicist (as well as an accomplished novelist), but inBlack Hole Blues she is more of a journalist, and a good one at that . . . Levin’s writing is casual and sometimes poetic, and the fortunate existence of an interesting and curious cast of characters makes her book a unique and convincing account of the discovery of gravitational waves. She liberally inserts her own impressions and emotions into the text, and the reader can’t help sharing her surprises, her concerns, and her sympathies. . . . She doesn’t ignore the science, which is interspersed throughout the book in short passages—not too much to overwhelm, but not too little to leave the reader puzzled…. . . . This short volume will serve as a unique literary resource for those who wish to understand the history of one of the most ambitious science projects of the twentieth century.” —The New York Review of Books
 
“In Black Hole Blues, Levin documents LIGO’s transformation from small to big, chronicling particularly well the growing pains during its development from a few ideas at individual labs to one of the largest projects ever funded by the National Science Foundation. . . . Levin is at her best when she comes closest to ethnography. The ideas and motivations of the troika and collaborators ring through distinctly, despite her mediating prose….Black Hole Blues should appeal to anyone interested in the workings of big science, whatever the field—physics, astronomy, molecular biology. . . . Levin gives her readers a satisfying look at how big science starts, develops, and—in the end—succeeds.” —Sky & Telescope
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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 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
 
“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)
 
“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 into the often irrational human psychology animating this rigorous project of reason….Levin 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)
 
“Lively, poignant, engaging . . . a story worth telling.” —Science Magazine
 
“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
 
“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 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
 
“[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
 
“Levin is adept at writing with clarity and even lyricism about conceptually difficult topics. . . . Apart from her clever descriptions, Levin excels at explaining and dramatizing the interpersonal conflict at the heart of just about any large-scale cooperative endeavor. Levin is careful to see both sides of every squabble, and judicious in giving credit to the troubled, fractious scientists who contributed to what might prove to be one of the greatest discoveries of the last century.” —Shelf Awareness, *starred 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
 
“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
 
“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)
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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*
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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
© Sonja Georgevich

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn. Her previous books include Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, 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. She lives in New York.

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Excerpt
1

When Black Holes Collide

Somewhere in the universe two black holes collide—­as heavy as stars, as small as cities, literally black (the complete absence of light) holes (empty hollows). Tethered by gravity, in their final seconds together the black holes course through thousands of revolutions about their eventual point of contact, churning up space and time until they crash and merge into one bigger black hole, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe, outputting more than a trillion times the power of a billion Suns. The black holes collide in complete darkness. None of the energy exploding from the collision comes out as light. No telescope will ever see the event.

That profusion of energy emanates from the coalescing holes in a purely gravitational form, as waves in the shape of spacetime, as gravitational waves. An astronaut floating nearby would see nothing. But the space she occupied would ring, deforming her, squeezing then stretching. If close enough, her auditory mechanism could vibrate in response. She would hear the wave. In empty darkness, she could hear spacetime ring. (Barring death by black hole.) Gravitational waves are like sounds without a material medium. When black holes collide, they make a sound.

No human has ever heard the sound of a gravitational wave. No instrument has indisputably recorded one. Traveling from the impact as fast as light to the Earth could take a billion years, and by the time the gravitational wave gets from the black hole collision to this planet, the din of the crash is imperceptibly faint. Fainter than that. Quieter than can be described with conventional superlatives. By the time the gravitational wave gets here, the ringing of space will involve relative changes in distance the width of an atomic nucleus over a stretch comparable to the span of three Earths.

A campaign to record the skies began a half century ago. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-­Wave Observatory (LIGO) is to date the most expensive undertaking ever funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports fundamental scientific research. There are two LIGO observatories, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each machine frames 4 square kilometers. With integrated costs exceeding a billion dollars and an international collaboration of hundreds of scientists and engineers, LIGO is the culmination of entire careers and decades of technological innovation.

The machines were taken offline over the past few years for an upgrade to their advanced detection capabilities. Everything was replaced but the nothing—­the vacuum—­one of the experimentalists told me. In the meantime, calculations and computations are under way in groups across the world to leverage predictions of the universe at its noisiest. Theorists take the intervening years to design data algorithms, to build data banks, to devise methods to extract the most from the instruments. Many scientists have invested their lives in the experimental goal to measure “a change in distance comparable to less than a human hair relative to 100 billion times the circumference of the world.”

In the hopefully plentiful years that follow a first detection, the aspiration is for Earth-­based observatories to record the sounds of cataclysmic astronomical events from many directions and from varied distances. Dead stars collide and old stars explode and the big bang happened. All kinds of high-­impact mayhem can ring spacetime. Over the lifetime of the observatories, scientists will reconstruct a clanging discordant score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.

I follow this monumental experimental attempt to measure subtle shifts in the shape of spacetime in part as a scientist hoping to make a contribution to a monolithic field, in part as a neophyte hoping to understand an unfamiliar machine, in part as a writer hoping to document the first human-­procured records of bare black holes. As the global network of gravity observatories nears the final stretch of this race, it gets harder to turn attention away from the promise of discovery, although there are still those who vehemently doubt the prospects for success.

Under the gloom of a controversial beginning and the opposition of powerful scientists, grievous internal battles, and arduous technological dilemmas, LIGO recovered and grew, hitting projections and escalating in capability. Five decades after the experimental ambition began, we are on the eve of the crash of a colossal machine into a wisp of a sound. An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass. Advanced LIGO began to record the skies in the fall 2015, a century after Einstein published his mathematical description of gravitational waves. The instruments should reach optimum sensitivity within a year or two, maybe three. The early generation of machines proved the concept, but still success is never guaranteed. Nature doesn’t always comply. The advanced machines will lock on and tolerate adjustments and corrections and calibrations and wait for something extraordinary to happen, while the scientists push aside their doubts and press toward the finish.

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational waves—­a sonic record of the history of the universe, a soundtrack to match the silent movie—­it is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool’s ambition.

2

High Fidelity

At 6:00 pm the building is quiet for an MIT headquarters. I have to wait outside until a graduate student rolls up and pops off a bicycle to let me in the locked doors, carrying the bike with her up the stairs. “Rai’s office is straight down.” She points to the hall behind her and wheels away, one foot jumped into the stirrup of the pedal, the other hanging on the same side. She hops off again and is inhaled by a pale office door. Rai’s door looks exactly the same and I have the sense it would be easy to mistake offices, like mistaking hotel rooms.

Rainer Weiss waves me in. We skip conventional social openers and speak with familiarity, although this is our first meeting, as though we’ve known each other for as long as imaginable, the shared experience of our scientific community outweighing a shared hometown or even generation. We lean back in mismatched chairs, our feet propped up on a single stool.

“I started life with one ambition. I wanted to make music easier to hear. As a kid I was in the revolution of high fidelity. Because, look, I was a kid in around 1947. I built hi-­fis of the first kind. The immigrants that came to New York, most of them were very eager to listen to classical music.

“See that loudspeaker there? That came from a movie theater in Brooklyn. Behind the screen you had a matrix of those things. I had twenty of them. I lugged them all on the subway. They had a huge fire at the Brooklyn Paramount, and they were getting rid of them. So I had what were movie-­studio quality loudspeakers and I had this fantastic circuit that I was building and I had FM radio. And I would invite friends over to listen to the New York Philharmonic and it was unbelievable. You felt like you were in the theater. An unbelievable sound came out of those things.”

Rai gestures to the conical metal guts of a circa 1935 speaker. The raw frame has an exaggerated heft that design advances have banished but otherwise looks surprisingly technologically recent, more 1970s indulgence than 1930s necessity. The object fits in visually with the other metal frames from various apparatuses that are stashed around the hive of scientists attending to a gravitational instrument that first imposed itself as a compelling thought experiment in the 1960s. Although he would later find out he wasn’t the first, Rai dreamed up a device to record the sound of spacetime ringing. A paragon of scientific ambition, the experiment is now too colossal for this building or even for Cambridge, Massachusetts. An R&D laboratory to develop some of the machines’ components is housed in the basement of the building next door, while the fully integrated instruments are constructed on remote sites.

In 2005, Rai molted the venerable role of professor of physics at MIT so he could walk 4 kilometer cement tunnels, affix oscilloscopes to laser beam tubes, appraise 18,000 cubic meters of hard vacuum for leaks, and measure seismic vibrations in dank wasp-­infested enclosures. Rai seceded essentially for the privilege to reemerge as a student again but with the elevation of the august title offered the most admired retired—­but active—­faculty: professor emeritus.
“[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 authoritative story of the headline-making discovery of gravitational waves—by an eminent theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer.

From the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, the epic story of the scientific campaign to record the soundtrack of our universe. 
 
Black holes are dark. That is their essence. When black holes collide, they will do so unilluminated. Yet the black hole collision is an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The profusion of energy will emanate as waves in the shape of spacetime: gravitational waves. No telescope will ever record the event; instead, the only evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing. In 1916, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, his top priority after he proposed his theory of curved spacetime. One century later, we are recording the first sounds from space, the soundtrack to accompany astronomy’s silent movie. 

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin recounts the fascinating story of the obsessions, the aspirations, and the trials of the scientists who embarked on an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to capture these elusive waves. An experimental ambition that began as an amusing thought experiment, a mad idea, became the object of fixation for the original architects—Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever. Striving to make the ambition a reality, the original three gradually accumulated an international team of hundreds. As this book was written, two massive instruments of remarkably delicate sensitivity were brought to advanced capability. As the book draws to a close, five decades after the experimental ambition began, the team races to intercept a wisp of a sound with two colossal machines, hoping to succeed in time for the centenary of Einstein’s most radical idea. Janna Levin’s absorbing account of the surprises, disappointments, achievements, and risks in this unfolding story offers a portrait of modern science that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“Levin is herself a theoretical physicist (as well as an accomplished novelist), but inBlack Hole Blues she is more of a journalist, and a good one at that . . . Levin’s writing is casual and sometimes poetic, and the fortunate existence of an interesting and curious cast of characters makes her book a unique and convincing account of the discovery of gravitational waves. She liberally inserts her own impressions and emotions into the text, and the reader can’t help sharing her surprises, her concerns, and her sympathies. . . . She doesn’t ignore the science, which is interspersed throughout the book in short passages—not too much to overwhelm, but not too little to leave the reader puzzled…. . . . This short volume will serve as a unique literary resource for those who wish to understand the history of one of the most ambitious science projects of the twentieth century.” —The New York Review of Books
 
“In Black Hole Blues, Levin documents LIGO’s transformation from small to big, chronicling particularly well the growing pains during its development from a few ideas at individual labs to one of the largest projects ever funded by the National Science Foundation. . . . Levin is at her best when she comes closest to ethnography. The ideas and motivations of the troika and collaborators ring through distinctly, despite her mediating prose….Black Hole Blues should appeal to anyone interested in the workings of big science, whatever the field—physics, astronomy, molecular biology. . . . Levin gives her readers a satisfying look at how big science starts, develops, and—in the end—succeeds.” —Sky & Telescope
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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 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
 
“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)
 
“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 into the often irrational human psychology animating this rigorous project of reason….Levin 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)
 
“Lively, poignant, engaging . . . a story worth telling.” —Science Magazine
 
“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
 
“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 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
 
“[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
 
“Levin is adept at writing with clarity and even lyricism about conceptually difficult topics. . . . Apart from her clever descriptions, Levin excels at explaining and dramatizing the interpersonal conflict at the heart of just about any large-scale cooperative endeavor. Levin is careful to see both sides of every squabble, and judicious in giving credit to the troubled, fractious scientists who contributed to what might prove to be one of the greatest discoveries of the last century.” —Shelf Awareness, *starred 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
 
“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
 
“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)
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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*
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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
 
“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

Author

© Sonja Georgevich

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn. Her previous books include Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, 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. She lives in New York.

View titles by Janna Levin

Excerpt

Excerpt
1

When Black Holes Collide

Somewhere in the universe two black holes collide—­as heavy as stars, as small as cities, literally black (the complete absence of light) holes (empty hollows). Tethered by gravity, in their final seconds together the black holes course through thousands of revolutions about their eventual point of contact, churning up space and time until they crash and merge into one bigger black hole, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe, outputting more than a trillion times the power of a billion Suns. The black holes collide in complete darkness. None of the energy exploding from the collision comes out as light. No telescope will ever see the event.

That profusion of energy emanates from the coalescing holes in a purely gravitational form, as waves in the shape of spacetime, as gravitational waves. An astronaut floating nearby would see nothing. But the space she occupied would ring, deforming her, squeezing then stretching. If close enough, her auditory mechanism could vibrate in response. She would hear the wave. In empty darkness, she could hear spacetime ring. (Barring death by black hole.) Gravitational waves are like sounds without a material medium. When black holes collide, they make a sound.

No human has ever heard the sound of a gravitational wave. No instrument has indisputably recorded one. Traveling from the impact as fast as light to the Earth could take a billion years, and by the time the gravitational wave gets from the black hole collision to this planet, the din of the crash is imperceptibly faint. Fainter than that. Quieter than can be described with conventional superlatives. By the time the gravitational wave gets here, the ringing of space will involve relative changes in distance the width of an atomic nucleus over a stretch comparable to the span of three Earths.

A campaign to record the skies began a half century ago. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-­Wave Observatory (LIGO) is to date the most expensive undertaking ever funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports fundamental scientific research. There are two LIGO observatories, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each machine frames 4 square kilometers. With integrated costs exceeding a billion dollars and an international collaboration of hundreds of scientists and engineers, LIGO is the culmination of entire careers and decades of technological innovation.

The machines were taken offline over the past few years for an upgrade to their advanced detection capabilities. Everything was replaced but the nothing—­the vacuum—­one of the experimentalists told me. In the meantime, calculations and computations are under way in groups across the world to leverage predictions of the universe at its noisiest. Theorists take the intervening years to design data algorithms, to build data banks, to devise methods to extract the most from the instruments. Many scientists have invested their lives in the experimental goal to measure “a change in distance comparable to less than a human hair relative to 100 billion times the circumference of the world.”

In the hopefully plentiful years that follow a first detection, the aspiration is for Earth-­based observatories to record the sounds of cataclysmic astronomical events from many directions and from varied distances. Dead stars collide and old stars explode and the big bang happened. All kinds of high-­impact mayhem can ring spacetime. Over the lifetime of the observatories, scientists will reconstruct a clanging discordant score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.

I follow this monumental experimental attempt to measure subtle shifts in the shape of spacetime in part as a scientist hoping to make a contribution to a monolithic field, in part as a neophyte hoping to understand an unfamiliar machine, in part as a writer hoping to document the first human-­procured records of bare black holes. As the global network of gravity observatories nears the final stretch of this race, it gets harder to turn attention away from the promise of discovery, although there are still those who vehemently doubt the prospects for success.

Under the gloom of a controversial beginning and the opposition of powerful scientists, grievous internal battles, and arduous technological dilemmas, LIGO recovered and grew, hitting projections and escalating in capability. Five decades after the experimental ambition began, we are on the eve of the crash of a colossal machine into a wisp of a sound. An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass. Advanced LIGO began to record the skies in the fall 2015, a century after Einstein published his mathematical description of gravitational waves. The instruments should reach optimum sensitivity within a year or two, maybe three. The early generation of machines proved the concept, but still success is never guaranteed. Nature doesn’t always comply. The advanced machines will lock on and tolerate adjustments and corrections and calibrations and wait for something extraordinary to happen, while the scientists push aside their doubts and press toward the finish.

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational waves—­a sonic record of the history of the universe, a soundtrack to match the silent movie—­it is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool’s ambition.

2

High Fidelity

At 6:00 pm the building is quiet for an MIT headquarters. I have to wait outside until a graduate student rolls up and pops off a bicycle to let me in the locked doors, carrying the bike with her up the stairs. “Rai’s office is straight down.” She points to the hall behind her and wheels away, one foot jumped into the stirrup of the pedal, the other hanging on the same side. She hops off again and is inhaled by a pale office door. Rai’s door looks exactly the same and I have the sense it would be easy to mistake offices, like mistaking hotel rooms.

Rainer Weiss waves me in. We skip conventional social openers and speak with familiarity, although this is our first meeting, as though we’ve known each other for as long as imaginable, the shared experience of our scientific community outweighing a shared hometown or even generation. We lean back in mismatched chairs, our feet propped up on a single stool.

“I started life with one ambition. I wanted to make music easier to hear. As a kid I was in the revolution of high fidelity. Because, look, I was a kid in around 1947. I built hi-­fis of the first kind. The immigrants that came to New York, most of them were very eager to listen to classical music.

“See that loudspeaker there? That came from a movie theater in Brooklyn. Behind the screen you had a matrix of those things. I had twenty of them. I lugged them all on the subway. They had a huge fire at the Brooklyn Paramount, and they were getting rid of them. So I had what were movie-­studio quality loudspeakers and I had this fantastic circuit that I was building and I had FM radio. And I would invite friends over to listen to the New York Philharmonic and it was unbelievable. You felt like you were in the theater. An unbelievable sound came out of those things.”

Rai gestures to the conical metal guts of a circa 1935 speaker. The raw frame has an exaggerated heft that design advances have banished but otherwise looks surprisingly technologically recent, more 1970s indulgence than 1930s necessity. The object fits in visually with the other metal frames from various apparatuses that are stashed around the hive of scientists attending to a gravitational instrument that first imposed itself as a compelling thought experiment in the 1960s. Although he would later find out he wasn’t the first, Rai dreamed up a device to record the sound of spacetime ringing. A paragon of scientific ambition, the experiment is now too colossal for this building or even for Cambridge, Massachusetts. An R&D laboratory to develop some of the machines’ components is housed in the basement of the building next door, while the fully integrated instruments are constructed on remote sites.

In 2005, Rai molted the venerable role of professor of physics at MIT so he could walk 4 kilometer cement tunnels, affix oscilloscopes to laser beam tubes, appraise 18,000 cubic meters of hard vacuum for leaks, and measure seismic vibrations in dank wasp-­infested enclosures. Rai seceded essentially for the privilege to reemerge as a student again but with the elevation of the august title offered the most admired retired—­but active—­faculty: professor emeritus.

Praise

“[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

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