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Fear and loathing in the hunt for gravitational waves

Black Hole Blues And Other Songs from Outer Space

Janna Levin
Knopf
2016
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On 14 September 2015, at 9:50:45 universal time, humans detected for the first time a gravitational wave—a rippling, infinitesimal stretching of spacetime itself set off when two black holes spiraled into each other. That mind-boggling discovery was made by the 1000 physicists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a duo of enormous optical instruments in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Black Hole Blues provides a lively, if not wholly satisfying, account of the 40-year quest to build LIGO.

Black Hole Blues could hardly be timelier, as LIGO researchers announced their discovery on 11 February. However, Janna Levin, a theoretical physicist at Barnard College in New York City, had been working on the book for 4 years. She tells the tale not of the discovery but primarily of building the machines. It’s a story worth telling, as even in retrospect it seems nearly miraculous that the National Science Foundation (NSF) would gamble $1.1 billion on the risky experiment, which requires physicists to compare the lengths of each L-shaped interferometer’s 4-kilometer-long arms to within 1/10,000 the width of a proton.

The idea behind LIGO sprang from the mind of Rainer Weiss, an experimentalist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge in the late 1960s. It didn’t go far until Kip Thorne, a theorist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, took an interest in the 1970s. In 1979, Thorne brought in Ronald Drever, a notoriously difficult Scot, to run Caltech’s efforts, as research stalled at MIT. The imperious Rochus “Robbie” Vogt, freshly fired as Caltech provost, took over as director of the project in 1987, after NSF demanded that MIT and Caltech merge efforts.

The infighting within the founding group is legendary. Drever and Weiss couldn’t see eye to eye. Vogt fired Drever for giving an unauthorized talk on work related to LIGO and changed the locks on his office. None of this is new. However, in Black Hole Blues, Levin gives the principals room to reflect on their problematic history, and it’s poignant, for example, to hear Vogt vacillate between defiance and regret as he talks about losing control of the project. “The mistakes I made were because of the information I had at the time,” he says. “And because of my temperament.” (Drever now suffers from dementia, so Levin relies on interviews recorded by others in 1997 for his side of the story.)

Ninety-nine years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence, LIGO researchers detected the presence of gravitational waves in the fall of 2015.©CALTECH/MIT/LIGO LAB/XINHUA PRESS/CORBIS

Ninety-nine years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence, LIGO researchers detected the presence of gravitational waves in the fall of 2015.

The book could have gone deeper in several places. For example, Levin recounts how Caltech particle physicist Barry Barish replaced Vogt in 1994, at a time when NSF was about to pull the plug on the project. Barish managed to right the ship and convince NSF to follow through with $300 million for construction. But Levin doesn’t explain how Barish did it, even though his overhaul of the project’s management may be the real story of LIGO’s success. Similarly, she never explains why NSF backed a project that had so many vociferous doubters in the first place.

Black Hole Blues is also a story of Levin’s personal introduction to LIGO. She gives first-person accounts of her meetings with the principals and her visits to the LIGO instruments, presenting herself as a stranger in a (somewhat) strange land—she is, after all, a theorist. She refers to her subjects by first names and nicknames: Rai, Kip, Ron, Robbie. Her approach hints at the gonzo journalism of the 1970s.

This tack isn’t entirely successful. Instead of so much atmosphere, the book could have used an early chapter explaining how, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity arises from the warping of spacetime. Without one, the concepts of gravitational waves and black holes may never come into focus for the average reader. Similarly, the book could use a better explanation—and a diagram—of an interferometer.

Moreover, Levin doesn’t quite have the chops to write herself into the story. The reader may chuckle at her account of being stuck in a hot car at the Hanford site, afraid to so much as open a window for fear of upsetting a test going on nearby. Often, however, Levin simply gets in the way of the narrative. “I’m using convoluted double negatives because I don’t feel myself in a position to more precisely define [John] Wheeler’s state of mind,” she writes. It’s as if you’re trying to watch a parade and she keeps stepping in front of you.

Still, Black Hole Blues makes an engaging read. It hits all the highlights in the hunt for gravitational waves, including the efforts of Joseph Weber, an electrical engineer at the University of Maryland, College Park, who in 1969 claimed to have spotted the waves as they set massive aluminum cylinders aquiver. When others couldn’t reproduce Weber’s results, he refused to reconsider and eventually ruined his own reputation. Levin tells that all-too-human story simply, and that’s when she is at her best.

About the author

The reviewer is at Science, AAAS, Washington, DC 20005, USA.