Skip to main content

Gravitational Waves - Brian Clegg ****

The message of this book is summed up in its subtitle: 'How Einstein’s spacetime ripples reveal the secrets of the universe.' Gravitational waves really do reveal secrets – astronomical phenomena that can’t be observed any other way. The Einstein connection comes via general relativity – his alternative to Newton’s theory of gravity which is, notoriously, almost indistinguishable from it for most practical purposes. There are a few situations where the two theories make slightly different predictions, and in these cases general relativity comes out on top. When the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) reported the detection of gravitational waves in February 2016, most journalists treated it as just another of these academic “ticks in the box” for Einstein.

That’s underselling one of the most exciting breakthroughs in modern science – and this book aims to put the record straight. According to Brian Clegg, the LIGO announcement 'signalled the beginning of the biggest change to astronomy since the introduction of telescopes.' I’m not sure I’d go quite that far – the radio astronomy revolution of the 20th century was probably bigger – but gravitational waves may end up a close second. In principle they offer a means of directly observing hitherto purely theoretical concepts – from black holes and dark matter to the Big Bang itself.

When that first LIGO detection occurred, it wasn’t just a sharp spike above the noise background that people assumed had to be a gravitational wave (which is how I’d pictured it, based on media reports, before I read this book). It was a structured signal that, brief though it was, contained a huge amount of meaningful information. When properly interpreted, it told researchers not just  that the signal came from the merger of two black holes, but that they were located about 1.4 billion light years away, and had masses approximately 36 and 29 times that of the Sun. That’s not just 'confirming a theory' – it’s doing proper observational astronomy.

This is relatively short book, but it covers most of what an interested, non-specialist reader is going to want to know. It succinctly explains what gravitational waves are, how their existence was predicted, and methods by which they might be detected. It describes the design and construction of LIGO, the detections that have been made with it, and their physical interpretation. And there’s a substantial concluding chapter on what the future holds for gravitational wave astronomy.

With such a tightly packed book, it’s inevitable that some topics get covered in depth at the expense of others. For my taste, there was rather too much about the statistical analysis of the data to remove false alarms, and not enough about actually interpreting the data in terms of the astrophysical processes that produced it. But issues like that aren’t really a problem now that we have the internet. If you finish a book and your head is buzzing with unanswered questions, at least you know what to type into a Google search.


Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Andrew May
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under