Title: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space; Author: Janna Levin; Publisher: Bodley Head/Penguin Random House; Pages:256; Price: Rs.599
Hailed as the scientific breakthrough of the century, the ‘observation’ of gravitational waves, as a faint, brief sound from a massive collision far, far away and far, far ago, has eclipsed discovery of the elusive Higgs boson, and signals a new method to track cosmic phenomenon with a view to understanding the fate of galaxies. But behind the achievement is a long, chequered story.
And Janna Levin is the right person to tell it, for not only is she a theoretical cosmologist but also an eloquent writer able to explain high science to laymen. Given full access to LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the scientists who created it, she was told in December 2015 of its first success in September while the rest of the world only came to know when the results were published in February next year.
In this first full-length treatment of the history and science of the project, she gives a detailed but accessible (no equations!), not to mention colourful account of the effort which not only validated a prediction of Albert Einstein’s century-old general theory of relativity but set a new benchmark in scientific ambition, despite obstacles galore in its nearly half a century span from conception to gestation to birth and growth.
It wasn’t easy. The experiment involved – as per an unconvinced expert: “Travel around the world 100 billion times. A strong gravitational wave will briefly change that distance by less than the thickness of a human hair. We have perhaps less than a few tenths of a second to perform this measurement. And we don’t know if this infinitesimal event will come next month, next year or perhaps in thirty years.”
Then, as Levin recounts, were the issues of key participants accustomed to doing things their own way, ego clashes, false starts and frustrations, sceptics in the scientific community, some effects of superpower rivalry at the start (the Cold War was on), lukewarm political support (and even hostility) with its most worrying manifestation being funding problems, and so on.
And not to forget, hunters with itchy fingers, overconfident speeding guards and spiders!
Levin begins her tale with a description of how gravitational waves originate in deep, distant space, when two black holes collide 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” but all this in “complete darkness” with none of the energy coming as light but instead in “purely gravitational form, as waves in the shape of spacetime….”
“An astronaut floating nearby would see nothing. But the space she occupied would ring, deforming her, squeezing than stretching. If close enough, her auditory mechanism could vibrate in response. She would hear the wave. In empty darkness, she could hear spacetime ring.”
Her focus is mainly on the scientists whose stories are the story of LIGO – MIT professor Rainer (Rai) Weiss (b. 1932), who developed the the laser interferometric technique, Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Stephen Thorne, (b. 1940), and Scottish experimental physicist Ronald W.P. Drever (b. 1931), who helped build the device but also Joe Weber, who first claimed to record the phenomenon but saw a fall from grace.
But there are more, such as Rana Adhikari, the Bengali-origin, Florida-born son of a NASA scientist, and one whose presence, as per co-workers, makes the machine work better, and a galaxy of other scientific greats also figure including Stephen Hawking, of whom we learn has a bad record in bets on scientific matters. Levin also gives a engaging portrayal of the two LIGO centres in Washington State and Louisiana.
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.
(10.5.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)