Book: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

Summary: As an undergraduate physics major at Caltech one of the constant backgrounds of the physics department was its involvement in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Many of my friends did undergraduate research (SURFs) with LIGO, others went on to become professors who were part of LIGOs scientific collaboration. I took a single quarter of General Relativity from Kip Thorne, my god those homework sets were challenging, and remember learning the basics of how gravitational waves work along with the challenge of convincing ourselves that the waves were an actual prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (even Einstein oscillated on this point.) I also remember quite distinctly hearing about chaos in the project itself, mumblings about its large size, and criticisms in the larger physics (and astronomy) community about whether LIGO would succeed. In 2016 the LIGO collaboration reported the first direct detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes.

Janna Levin has written a wonderfully human story about the challenges behind conceiving, funding, and then eventually building LIGO. This is a story less about the science itself (though the descriptions of this are excellent) but more about the journey and the people. With access to many of the main players the book is made up of a a series of chapters focusing on different key players and events. Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Ron Drever are the three physicists at the heart of the story, but there are other equally important characters like Robert Vogt (early director) and Joseph Webber (early controversial pioneer of gravitational wave detection). Dr. Levin does a wonderful job weaving together this history with her own personal interviews of these larger than life characters.

Rating: (taken from my amazon review). I adored this book, mostly because it gives you a different perspective into the world of big physics experiments and how they are originally conceived and then carried to completion. This book isn’t the kind of pop science whose main goal is trying to convey the challenging science of theoretical physics (not saying that these bad, just that this is no that book!), instead this the story of the personal journeys that occur along the way to an amazing achievement like LIGO. With direct access to many of the main players in the collaboration, the book spends different chapters on their different perspectives of the history and controversies (and oh there were a lot) behind LIGO. The closest comparison for the style of this book is “The Soul of a New Machine”, Tracy Kidder’s description of the race to build a new microcomputer. Similar to that book by the time you finish this one you come away even more amazed at the successes of large engineering and science projects, and also see them as the result of an at times messy and chaotic process, not just the result of a “we had an idea” and “then we built it” process. If you dig getting perspective on scientists and their journeys to discovery, this book is perfect for you

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