Book Review – Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin
Since I started writing novels some years ago I read non-fiction less often than I would like and far less often than I used to. But a daughter at UCT studying Astrophysics and a wifely Christmas present of this book (roundly garlanded as one of the best of 2016 by various opinion-makers) gave me license.
The subject is the 60-year story of the construction of two co-operating LIGOs in the US (I won’t bother with the expansion of the acronym, but it is an L-shaped, 4km long piece of insanely complex astrophysical equipment) and its very recent confirmation of Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves, now considered to be one of the most important experimental scientific confirmations of the last century. It is also the study behind the geniuses (and eccentrics) who envisioned and built the project.
The book doesn’t attempt more than a careful prose description of the science, so as not to fall into the trap of losing non-physicist readers along the way. Suffice it to say that billions of years ago two stars circled each other. They collapsed eventually into individual black holes and then merged. In the last 200 milliseconds of that merger, they released a massive amount of energy which warped space-time in a little ripple that travelled 1.4 billion light years to earth, which was ‘heard’ by the two LIGOs at exactly the same time on a day in September 2015. Billion of years. Billions of miles. And we design a piece of kit to hear the last 200 MILLISECONDS of the event, which proves a dazzling prediction of the theory of relativity.
If this doesn’t impress impress you about the boundless ambition of human curiosity, I am not sure what will. It has not only confirmed the theory, but opened the first truly ‘new’ field of astronomy in many decades, and will allow us to look deeper, further and more clearly into where we came from.
The science in the book is given bright colour by the descriptions of the fascinating politics of big science and the human brilliance, failings and tragedies of the many scientists who laboured on this near-impossible project. Janna Levin brings all of them to light in a way that only the best fiction tries to do. BTW – astronomer Kip Thorne (the driving force behind this for decades) also wrote the treatment for the film Interstellar.
Levin is herself a physicist and professor, but her use of language and an unusual stylistic flair can stand toe-to-toe with writers of any genre. This is a must read for anyone with who struggles, like I do, to make sense of the inscrutable world of advanced physics and cosmology and its practitioners, but who wish to get a clearly articulated glimpse of its mysteries.
You will leave this book knowing far more about the universe and the best of human ingenuity than when you started.