How the hunt for black holes causes a rift in physics

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space shows how rivalries developed during the fraught search for gravitational revenge.

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More than a billion years ago, gravity pulled two black holes towards an inevitable catastrophe. When their swirling dance was over, the collision fired a distinctive pattern of ripples out into the surrounding space. By the time those ripples reached Earth last September, they were so weak that they stretched space by only one-­thousandth of the width of a proton. And yet we saw them. The backstory to that detection, brought to us by the theoretical physicist Janna Levin in Black Hole Blues, is even more extraordinary.

The story of the search for gravitational waves is ostensibly a grandiose tale, involving billions of light-years of space, decades of preparation, and multimillion-dollar instruments: interferometers that stretch for kilometres but must be sensitive to billionths of a billionth of one metre. In Levin’s hands, however, the story shrinks to a human scale. She has delivered a compelling and haunting account of the flawed and flailing souls who were pulled together by the hope of finding gravitational waves but who, like the black holes they were trying to detect, destroyed each other in the process.

The first casualty is Joseph Weber, the pioneer of gravitational wave detection. He was ousted from the endeavour after becoming so desperate to find the waves that he abandoned scientific caution and restraint. Embarrassed colleagues distanced themselves; Weber became so isolated that when he slipped on ice in front of the gravity research building in Maryland, two days passed before he was found. He never recovered: eight months later, he was dead.

Then there is the eccentric Glaswegian Ronald Drever, “fantastically intuitive”, but too much of a lone wolf to survive in what had to become a thousand-person endeavour. Drever wasn’t just ousted or ostracised; such was his tenacity and outrage that the locks on his office had to be changed, and another doorway bricked up – actually bricked up – to cement his exclusion.

It was Rochus “Robbie” Vogt, the founder director of LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), who brought the builders in on Drever. Vogt is “moody and intimidating” and “fierce but fragile”, Levin writes. His jaw-dropping backstory involves surviving Nazi atrocities and a spell as a conscripted child soldier; he ended the Second World War a 15-year-old PoW. It’s more than enough justification for his many character flaws.

Vogt, too, was fired long before the machines turn on. He had no doubt that LIGO would detect gravitational waves, and that it would be a bitter-sweet moment for him. “It will not be my discovery,” he told Levin. “I will read about it in the newspaper.” Vogt has never been to the LIGO sites, though all his successors have invited him.

Only two of the core characters survive through to the end: the visionary Kip Thorne and the miracle-working Rainer Weiss. There are many bit-parts, though, and it is notable that nobody’s recollection of events quite tallies with anyone else’s. For all its celebration of the LIGO team’s achievements, the story is carried on an undercurrent of unease. The dollars spent are nothing compared to the human cost of getting big science done.

Most writers about science would have felt compelled to sanitise the story for the sake of its protagonists’ feelings and reputation. Levin is not most writers. Her fearlessness is impressive, given the reservations that the physicists and administrators she has interviewed feel about airing the project’s dirty laundry. She elicits an extraordinary candour from them. “Ron Drever is a tragedy,” Weiss tells Levin at one point. “Neither Robbie nor Ron ever really recovered. Nobody wants to resurrect this stuff. It’s unfortunately in the public record now. But it doesn’t have to be in your book.”

To Levin’s credit, it is here, and it is explored with compassion. Everyone retains their dignity. It is hard to imagine that a better narrative will ever be written about the behind-the-scenes heartbreak and hardship that goes with scientific discovery.

Black Hole Blues is a spectacular feat – a near-perfect balance of science, storytelling and insight. The prose is transparent and joyful. At one point, Levin compares the intricacy of LIGO’s interferometers to the schematics she has seen: there is nothing in common. “A line drawing is to a real interferometer what a hangman is to human biology,” she writes. It is as inevitable as gravity that this book will win a swath of awards, perhaps even before its subjects collect their own inevitable Nobel Prize. 

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin is published by Bodley Head (256pp, £17.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater