BLACK HOLE BLUES And Other Songs From Outer Space By Janna Levin

Black Hole Blues

I will be interested in any book that Maria Popova writes about. The Brainpickings project she masterfully cultivates every week is one of the only mailing lists where I truly look forward to receiving the latest installment in my inbox. There is true love and passion in her work. So when I received a one-off email from Brainpickings, calling out this book and her upcoming review in the New York Times, I immediately took notice. From the email, Popova is effervescent in her praise of the author Janna Levin’s writing, and the enduring power of the story she is documenting:

This particular book is one of the finest I’ve ever read – the kind that will be read and cherished a century from now. Dr. Levin is a splendid writer of extraordinary intellectual elegance – partway between Galileo and Goethe, she fuses her scientific scrupulousness with remarkable poetic potency.

In her New York Times Book Review, which landed on the front cover on Sunday April 25, 2016, Popova details how the book is an exploration of the search for “ripples in the fabric of space-time, first envisioned by Einstein in his pioneering 1915 paper on general relativity”. A fascinating topic that entranced me when the news broke in February 2016, for example see here and here, and it is one that Popova feels has been given it’s due attention in this book:

In “Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space,” the astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin chronicles the decades-long development of this magnificent machine — a quest marked by the highest degree of human intelligence, zest and perseverance. Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover.

Popova concludes:

After half a millennium of exploring the cosmos through light, we have entered a new era of sonic exploration. Even as he dethroned us from the center of the universe, Galileo couldn’t envision the galaxies and faraway marvels that astronomers would see with more powerful telescopes. The sonic universe might serenade mysteries just as enormous and just as unimaginable to us today.

But as redemptive as the story of the countless trials and unlikely triumph may be, what makes the book most rewarding is Levin’s exquisite prose, which bears the mark of a first-rate writer: an acute critical mind haloed with a generosity of spirit.

Kirkus Reviews agrees that the writing is rich and detailed:

The author’s portrait of these pioneers is especially engaging for her ability to contextualize humanness not just within the scope of the physical experiment, but in the face of such dizzying stakes—surely a Nobel is on the line and has been since the beginning. Levin herself is also wondrously present in this narrative, nimbly guiding readers through scientific jargon and reminding us of the enormous profundity of modern physics.

A superb alignment of author and subject: Levin is among the best contemporary science writers, and LIGO is arguably the most compelling experiment on the planet.

For more on Janna Levin and her work in this mind-bending area of science, I recommend this great interview on The Edge. She’s also quite active on Twitter and her website.

Book details:
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
By Janna Levin
241 pp. Alfred A. Knopf

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Image courtesy of NASA Hubble Space Telescope.