Book Review: Black Hole Blues

Several billion years ago, billions of light-years away, two stars lived in orbit around one another. As time went on, one of them died and then the other, until they became two black holes orbiting, sucking in everything around them, and creeping towards each other, millennia after millennia. The continued to orbit, darker than the empty space around them, until they collided and launched gravitational waves out in every direction and shook the fabric of spacetime.

Such is the theorized history of the universe until the present day. Gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime caused by the presence of massive objects in the universe, rocketed towards us at the speed of light for more than one billion years. During this time, we advanced enough to detect the distortion that these waves produced, which is the size of a thousandth the width of a proton. We built two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) sites to measure these waves and on Monday, September 14, 2015, they both recorded a burst as gravitational waves passed over the earth.

Janna Levin’s recent novel, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, explores the decades-long project that began as the dream of Rainer Weiss and culminated in the two enormous interferometers. The book documents the stories of three eminent scientists—Kip Thorne, Rai Weiss, and Ron Drever—known as the troika, as it unravels the field’s highly complex theories and serves as tribute to “a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor,” as described in the book.

Written by an eminent theoretical astrophysicist, Black Hole Blues makes the science of this endeavor accessible to readers of all scientific backgrounds. The book reads very smoothly; Levin follows the process from its humble origins to its victorious discovery, spending equal time on the science and the story behind the endeavor. The plot does not feel bogged down by technical jargon or by the complicated physics associated with the black holes. The science behind the story is certainly important, but the writing manages to put the reader into the narrative; the trials faced by the team are our own, and the excitement they feel as the project advances is shared.

Levin presents the scientists as real human beings, flawed in some ways, and records conversations between them, giving the reader insight into the team dynamic. Within any team, there are conflicts and power struggles as well as deep bonds and friendships, and Levin portrays both ends of the spectrum from a variety of different perspectives. The reader is presented with deep insights into the minds and relationships of the various physicists, which personalizes the narrative and makes the characters seem real rather than heroes on a pedestal.

Rating: 3.8/4