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

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…