Glints of Silver in the Universe

By Stephen Rosen
Janna Levin Sonja Georgevich

“Black Hole Blues”
Janna Levin
Knopf, $26.95

If you read only one science book this summer, this is the one. “Black Hole Blues” is the engaging story of people who bet their reputations and their legacies on a science and technology long shot — the detection of gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been optioned yet, because this book would make a great movie, or maybe a weekly television series. I even have a title: “The Game of Waves.” (Just kidding.)

Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Ron Drever deserve our respect and admiration for their total commitment, their trials and tribulations, their obsessive Moby-Dick-white-whale pursuit of those feeble, ephemeral, space-time-curved ghostly phenomena: gravitational waves. And for their engineering, experimental, and theoretical abilities, their administrative skills, organizing a community of peers from all over, and their gifts of persuasion that got the National Science Foundation and others to part with more than a billion dollars spread over 50 years — with a cast of more than a thousand cooperating scientists worldwide to get this Herculean job done. And done very well.

Gravitational waves are introverts: They interact very weakly, if at all, with almost nothing and nobody. Light waves, radio waves, X-rays, microwaves, and gamma rays by comparison are extroverts: They interact with almost everyone and everything. We can see light. Not only can’t we see gravitational waves, but they alter space-time itself, by distances of one thousandth of the diameter of a nuclear particle, or about a 10th of a quintillion of a centimeter. In other words, their experimental equipment had to be very ingeniously sensitive to a very slight signal, and, furthermore, it had to be unperturbed by many extraneous sources of noise, like trucks passing, thermal motion of the molecules in the mirrors, the curvature of the Earth’s surface, seismic vibrations, random noise, and many more. The experimental apparatus is called LIGO, short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. 

Janna Levin’s excellent book is a warm human-interest story, with all-too-fallible real-life characters and a bit of easy physics, and it reads like a really good novel. In fact, Ms. Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, has written a novel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” which won a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. A Guggenheim fellow, she writes truly engaging prose, as if she was born to be a stellar chronicler of stellar events. Here’s how she opens her narrative:

“Somewhere in the universe two black holes collide — as heavy as stars, as small as cities, literally black (the complete absence of light) holes (empty hollows). Tethered by gravity, in their final seconds together the black holes course through thousands of revolutions about their central point of contact, churning up space and time until they crash and merge into one bigger black hole, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe, outputting more than a trillion times the power of a billion Suns. The black holes collide in complete darkness. None of the energy comes out as light. No telescope will ever see the event.”

This is gutsy writing by a person in complete command of her material. Chekhov, in his advice to his brother on how to write, said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glints of silver on broken glass.” 

Ms. Levin says her book is “a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool’s errand.” But it’s also a tribute to the passionate personalities who quested — with scientific ambition and superior energy — to know something profoundly elusive and ephemeral.

Her timing could not have been better. Her book’s publication date and Knopf’s advance publicity drumroll followed shortly after the announcement this past February of the detection of the aforementioned black hole collision. The announcement took place almost as soon as the two LIGO devices (one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State) began operating.

She introduces us to Caltech’s Kip Thorne, an “iconic astrophysicist, a brilliant relativist” raised as a Mormon in Utah and one of the 46 acolytes (along with Richard Feynman) of the famed John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton. (I would cast Adrien Brody in the movie.) She introduces us to Rainer Weiss: a rebellious kid-gadgeteer and former M.I.T. professor descended from a rebellious, wealthy German-Jewish communist father. (Maybe Mandy Patinkin?) She introduces us to Ron Drever, born in a modest Scottish village to a poor family, whose father was a struggling country doctor; they owned no car and bicycled everywhere. (Not sure who to cast.) 

She adds a dramatic epilogue after she was notified of the first detection: “On September 14 [2015], the two LIGO interferometers recorded a signal consistent with the inspiral and merger of two ~30 solar mass black holes.” These black holes were at a distance of one billion four hundred million light-years. As the “Star Wars” opening has it: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

When the news was released in February, I was with the 6-year-old twins in our family. You try explaining relativity to two 6-year-olds when putting them to bed. All they wanted to talk about was a certain body part of Albert Einstein’s.

“Dark Matter 
and the Dinosaurs”
Lisa Randall
Ecco, $29.99

After her earlier very well-received books on astrophysics and cosmology, Lisa Randall, recipient of many scientific honors and awards, has written a bold, provocative, speculative, controversial, and science-oriented book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” suggesting that dark matter indirectly triggered a cataclysmic cosmic event that cut loose a comet-like object, killing off the dinosaurs. 

Ms. Randall is an endowed professor of theoretical physics at Harvard, and two of her earlier books, “Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World,” were on the New York Times list of 100 notable books.

Here is how she frames her interesting conjecture: 

Paleontologists, geologists, and physicists have shown that 66 million years ago, an object at least ten kilometers wide plummeted to Earth from space and destroyed the terrestrial dinosaurs, along with three-quarters of the other species on the planet. The object might have been a comet from the outer reaches of the Solar System, but no one knows why this comet was perturbed from its weakly bound, but stable, orbit.

Our proposal is that during the Sun’s passage through the mid-plane of the Milky Way — the stripe of stars and bright dust that you can observe in a clear night sky — the Solar System encountered a disk of dark matter that dislodged the distant object, thereby precipitating this cataclysmic impact. . . .

I’ll tell you right up front that I don’t yet know if this idea is correct. It’s only an unexpected type of dark matter that would yield measurable influences on living beings (well, technically no longer living). This book is the story of our unconventional proposal about just such surprisingly influential dark matter.

Some specialists in the field disagree with her analysis, so it will probably take years for a consensus to emerge. This is the way science moves ahead: from speculation to conjecture . . . to controversy, data, patternicity, and eventually a theory. 

“The greatest discovery of the 20th century,” a remark attributed to Buckminster Fuller, “was that the invisible is more important than the visible.” He was referring to Freud’s work on the unconscious and Einstein’s epic theories of relativity. He could equally as well have been describing Ms. Randall’s bold suggestion. Or that of a brilliant Russian-Jewish theoretical astrophysicist, the late Iosif Shklovsky, who proposed that cosmic rays (my own specialty) from supernova explosions within 300 light-years of the Sun have been responsible for some of the mass extinctions of life on Earth.

The test of a “good” theory is that it be “vulnerable to disproof” or “falsifiable,” according to the philosopher Karl Popper. So the controversy lingers, for Ms. Randall and the followers of Shklovsky, and for us — until data can support or refute these fascinating conjectures.

 


Janna Levin and Lisa Randall will be signing copies of their books at the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night on Aug. 13 at 5 p.m. and guests of honor at private dinner parties afterward.

Stephen Rosen is a physicist who lives in East Hampton and Manhattan. He is the author of “Youth, Middle-Age, and You-Look-Great! Dying to Come Back as a Memoir.”

Lisa Randall Christopher Kim