Skip to main content

Black Hole Blues - Janna Levin ****

I came across Black Holes Blues rather late, when Kip Thorne mentioned it as somewhere you would discover the difficulties the management of the LIGO gravitational waves detection project went through. It's slightly weird reading it now, after the first gravitational wave detections, as the book was clearly written before anything had been found (though there's a rapidly tacked-on afterword to deal with the discovery).

Despite the author being a physics professor, this is classic US journalistic popular science writing in the style that was arguably typified by James Gleick's classic Chaos - like that, Black Hole Blues is a book that is driven entirely by the people involved, based strongly around interviews, visits and fly-on-the-wall descriptions of historical interactions between the main characters. The science itself plays a distinctly supporting cast role to the detail of the people, their background and their psychology.

I absolutely loved this approach when I first came across it. I must admit that, by now, (Gleick's book is a remarkable 30 years old) it feels a little forced and there are occasions when I'm yelling 'Tell me a less about another origin story, and more about the science.' Sometimes Janna Levin can be consciously wordy, whether over-stretching the simile when she constantly refers to gravitational waves as sound (they're not) or when she puts in folksy human observations, some of which I simply don't understand, such as 'Part of Rana's charisma is related to the social power of indifference.' What?

Despite these concerns, though, this is an engaging story of big science - the ups and downs of a billion dollar project, showing the very human frailties of those involved in coming up with the ideas and making them real. Sensibly, Levin spends a fair amount of time on the doomed work of Joe Weber, whose bars proved controversial when no one else could duplicate his work. And we certainly get an impression of the size and complexity of the LIGO setup, even though it was sad that the science and engineering achievements were sometimes obscured by the obsession with the human stories.

I have no doubt at all that Levin knows the science behind this stuff backwards, but occasionally the approach seems to demand such hand-waving vagueness that we veer away from accuracy. I've already mentioned the description of gravitational waves as sound, repeated over and over in different ways. There's also an example where we are told that due to the gravitational waves generated by its orbit 'the Moon will [eventually] spiral into us' - where in reality what's happening is dominated by tidal effects, which mean the Moon is moving away from us. Again Levin inevitably knows this, but seemed to prefer the dramatic notion which overwhelms a vague qualifier.

Black Hole Blues is a great read and uncovers the human side of scientific work wonderfully. The only let down is, for me, that the art of the writing has overwhelmed the beauty of the science.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…