Skip to main content

Gravity's Kiss - Harry Collins *****

Though I was totally fascinated by this book, it isn't the one to read to find out everything you need to know about gravitational waves. Although Harry Collins does, in passing, mention aspects of the science and technology involved, his focus is to forensically examine the process by which a large group of scientists goes from a breakthrough discovery to releasing it the world.

Collins is a sociologist of science who has spent over 40 years working with the gravitational wave community, giving him the unique ability and insight to combine a reasonable understanding of their work and the opportunity to analyse what went on during the months from the initial observation of a possible signal to the press conference announcing the first direct discovery of gravitational waves. (Even those words 'first' and 'direct' get several pages of treatment as the community argues over whether or not they are justified.)

I have to be honest, this book won't work for everyone. Because I'm not a scientist but a science writer and interested in the process of scientific discovery and communication, it will appeal to me more than someone who's only interested in the science itself, but I found it wholly absorbing. Collins, practically the only outsider in the electronic network used by the gravitational wave consortium to discuss their work, takes us through the process almost in real time, as they react to and decide how to present their findings. One of the most absorbing aspects is Collins' real concern at the way the scientists lie to the wider community in order to protect their secret for the big reveal. While clearly the details need to be kept back, he argues convincingly that the outright misleading approach taken was unnecessary and unhelpful - leading even to the scientists holding back a second confirming observation which was already well-analysed when they made their announcement of the first discovery.

Because of his closeness to the whole process it's arguable Collins gives a bit too much detail sometimes - even I found some parts a little tedious - but that completeness is part of the power of his reporting. He also, considering his ability to spend so long on, say, those words 'first' and 'direct', rather surprisingly didn't comment on a scientist in this intensely picky process who made the hilarious statement that an astronomer 'literally exploded' during a talk. However, these are minor quibbles indeed.

If you want a real insight into what happens in one of these rare modern big science breakthroughs involving hundreds of scientists and a big budget, combined with impressive insights into the reasons why science and its communication are not as straightforward as many think they are, this is a wonderful book. Just don't buy it simply to learn about gravitational waves.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…