- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (29 March 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307958191
- ISBN-13: 978-0307958198
- Product Dimensions: 14.7 x 2.3 x 21.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,15,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space Hardcover – Deckle Edge, 29 Mar 2016
Special deckle edge formatThis book has a deckle edge format with distinctive, feathery edge papers. The deckle edge adds a decorative, textured edging to the book.
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“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….She 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)
“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
“Levin is herself a theoretical physicist (as well as an accomplished novelist), but in Black 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
"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*
“Lively, poignant, engaging….a story worth telling.” —Science Magazine
“[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
“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
“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 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 fascinatingly human narrative about the treasure hunt for evidence of gravitational waves…. Levin navigates the book’s complex science with skill, devoting sections to explaining how pulsars emit gravitational waves or why some scientists didn’t believe black holes existed until the 1990s….She writes with a smart, snappy voice that always follows one rule: she never editorializes on the facts….[which] rings true to the scientific method….Reveals the human struggle behind real world science.” —Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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 (UK)
“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)
"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)
About the Author
JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn, and has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Her previous books include 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.
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And yet astonishingly, the collision registered here on earth in the form of a tremor so slight as to defy imagination, a tremor displacing a giant mirror located in desert scrubland by no more than a thousandth of the width of a proton. In this book author and physicist Janna Levin tells us the story of the history of that event, the machinery that went into its almost imperceptible detection and most importantly, the human beings who made this discovery possible.
The book shines mainly in two aspects. Firstly, being a physicist herself Levin brings an authoritative touch to explaining the science behind gravitational wave detection. Both the history of the field as well as its present incarnations get due credit. The list of topics Levin touches on encompass such astronomical anomalies as neutrons and pulsars, intense x-rays from outer space and black holes themselves as well as more earthly accomplishments such as laser interferometers, radio telescopes and advanced electronics. Brilliant scientists like John Wheeler, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer who worked on relativity and black holes make frequent appearances. Both theory and experiment get a nod, and it’s clear that the best science involves both abstract theorizing as well as expert craftsmanship and engineering.
It helps a lot that Levin has access to both LIGO (the observatory where the waves were detected) as well as many other institutions like MIT and Caltech which spearheaded the effort, and she visits the labs in these places and gives us a glimpse of the rough hewn, often informal, often necessarily tedious work of actual science done by graduate students and postdocs. There are accounts of walking tours of the installations and stories of encounters with spiders and rats and with bass that showed up out of nowhere in one of the ditches near the equipment. There is mention of all kinds of quirky factors which can derail the extreme sensitivity of the mirrors, from earthquakes in China to the Moon's gravity. This is science at its string-and-sealing-wax best. I would note however that the scientific history and explanations of the complex machinery involved in gravitational wave detection don't constitute the strongest part of the book; the details can sometimes be spare and the history doesn't really go too deep. The writing can also sometimes get a bit stilted.
What makes the book unique in my opinion instead – and different from many other popular physics volumes - is the second aspect which gives us an excellent insider’s look at the human aspects of science. This part of the book should dispel any illusions about science being an impersonal, objective, linear and logical endeavor. Instead we meet scientists who are subject to bouts of jealousy, who accuse each other of foot-dragging and egotism, who claim that it was they rather than their colleagues who made a particular discovery or built a particular piece of equipment. And we encounter the haphazard process of scientific discovery itself, full of fits and starts, blind alleys and uncertainty, held hostage to the vagaries of government funding and public relations.
Levin especially has unique access to the three main scientists - Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ron Drever - who conceived LIGO, fought for funds and personnel, worked out the theory and experimental techniques and have really stayed with the project for their entire careers. They believed in it long before anyone did, and did not let setbacks of funding and skepticism from other scientists blunt their vision. Levin has extensively interviewed these scientists and the narrative is liberally interspersed with their own quotes and their backgrounds. The quotes are often inspiring and show scientific inquiry at its dogged best, but it also shows us how scientists are human beings; how they can occasionally be petty, impatient and insecure. Sometimes individual scientific styles merge and thrive, and sometimes they can clash and dissipate rather than channel energy. What is admirable however is that one way or another these scientists and others overcome their insecurities, worked together, fought in front of Congress to get hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to their project and saw their vision to completion. What we need to keep in mind are not their shortcomings but their success in spite of these shortcomings.
There is also a valuable lesson in the book in the form of the unfortunate story of a physicist named Joe Weber who claimed to have observed gravitational waves using a simple experiment involving aluminum bars way back in the 1960s. Other scientists could not replicate his results and he had to endure much censure and ridicule, but he stuck to his guns and kept on pushing for thirty years until the very end of his life. Although Weber was probably wrong in his science, his espousal of gravitational waves turned many heads and convinced other scientists to work in the field long before it was fashionable. His example shows us that sometimes even wrong science can lead others in the right direction.
Levin’s book is thus an admirable showcase of the human side of science, and it's as much journalism as science. It really shows us how science is really done rather than how it’s portrayed in textbooks and popular sources. And it ultimately convinces us that scientists are inspiring role models, not in spite of their flaws but because of them.
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