Saturday, September 10, 2016

Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin

The interest of Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin (Bodley Head, 2016),  comes not from the discussion of gravitational waves and colliding black holes but from the drama of colliding human egos.  I’ve sat on academic committees for forty years, in one role or another, and have always been disturbed by how inefficiently they function, or dysfunction.  Intelligent people with good ideas don’t always work well together.  The problem is not characteristic of the academic world alone—based on what I’ve read about research and management and problem solving in other walks of life, it is endemic and probably an inherent aspect of the human condition.  Black Hole Blues chronicles the history of the scientists who came together in uneasy collaboration to conceptualize and develop the technology that made possible the detection of gravitational waves for the first time in September of 2015.  Levin examines each of the major scientists in turn, especially Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, Ron Devers.

The history of the development of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a fifty-year history of dysfunction, ambition, vision, and hard work--of gradual and stuttering progress towards developing a concept, building the first devices, convincing others (university administrators, the National Science Foundation, Congress) to fund it, designing and building and rebuilding the devices that made the final detection.  Levin explains, briefly, the science surrounding gravitational waves and laser interferometry, but her focus mainly falls on the human drama of LIGO—those of us interested in academic gossip and university intrigue will appreciate this aspect of the book.  Levin makes clear her belief in the importance of LIGO and gravitational wave detections.  She explains concepts clearly—she’s a physicist at Barnard College of Columbia University, so she understands them. But the book falters in conveying this importance to the reader in a convincing way.

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