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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.


Review by Brian Clegg


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