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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

November 17, 2017


There’s a reason scientists appear in so many Far Side comics. Especially certain types of scientists—theoretical physicists, astronomers, and other scientists who exist on the dark edge of our knowledge. Scientists who dedicate themselves to finding something that may or may not exist. In this case, it’s the story of a group of scientists trying to “hear” two black holes colliding by detecting their gravitational waves.

I don’t understand the science well enough to explain it, but it’s an incredibly poetic notion. Two black holes in the dark reaches of space envelope each other, and these tiny weird nerds on the other side of the universe have somehow convinced the National Science Foundation to fund the most expensive project ever, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a kind of space “listening device,” and are there at just the right time to witness the event.

Unfortunately, much of this book is bogged down in science politics and reads like a nerd tabloid. Jennifer Senior says it well in The New York Times Review of Books:

“To me, the real drama in this story, which Ms. Levin only flicks at in her seventh chapter but never fleshes out in full, is internal: What kind of blind faith does it require, what kind of terror must one beat away, in order to labor in total darkness — toward an objective that so many of your peers believe is folly?”

It’s unfortunate, because in the end, the scientists do hear what they are listening for. Levin was able to add an epilogue describing the moment, and I was so excited by it that I made an audible gasp. Really. The quest struck me as so quixotic, that I figured the book was going to wrap up with an image of scientists listening to empty darkness and a message of, “And that’s why scientists are so weird.” Instead, it ends with the equivalent of a hail mary touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl of the cosmos (sorry for the spoiler—it was in the newspapers too). That made the slog feel kind of worth it.


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