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

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…