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A Conversational Guide to Gravitational Waves.

RIPPLES IN SPACETIME: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy

Govert Schilling

Belknap Press of Harvard University

Press, 2017

339 pages, ISBN 978-0674971660

$29.95, hardcover.

GRAVITATIONAL WAVES ARE A HEAVY topic that could easily take a college semester to understand. If you can't quite squeeze that into your life, there's an easier way to grasp the history and science behind all the gravitational-wave hoopla: S&T Contributing Editor Govert Schilling's Ripples in Spacetime provides a comprehensive and approachable guide to a complex subject.

The book begins with a visualization of the first recorded gravitational wave event, known as GW150914, as it passes through the universe, our solar system, and ultimately across the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors. Schilling returns to this history-making event several times throughout the book, each time from a different angle. That thread ties the various chapters together as Schilling tours the history of our understanding of gravity and gravitational waves, covering topics such as cosmology, neutron stars, pulsar timing arrays, black holes, and multimessenger astronomy.

Along the way, Schilling takes plenty of conversational detours. The first is delivered Sagan-style: "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Only in this case, it's not apple pie but neutron stars that we want to understand, and for that we delve into a chapter-long overview of stellar evolution.

Likewise, after recounting the long history of gravitational waves and the various detectors made to find them, Schilling leaps back in time to the Big Bang. Even though it's a mind-bending change of topic, it's necessary, as a signature of gravitational waves could lie hidden in the Big Bang's afterglow, the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Schilling gently guides the reader through these switchbacks, offering encouragement even as he tackles common misconceptions about the origin of the universe.

Schilling's adept use of analogies is a great help to understanding these heady subjects. For example, have you ever wondered why, if the CMB was emitted 380,000 years after the Big Bang, we still see its glow? Schilling offers the scenario of a crowded city square: If everyone shouts "Boo!" at exactly noon, and sound travels 1 meter per second, then you'd hear "Boo" from people one meter away after one second, from people two meters away after two seconds, and so on. Even an minute after noon, you'd still hear "Boo!" from people 60 meters away--even though no one is shouting anymore. Similarly intuitive analogies abound throughout the book.

Perhaps because of the book's conversational style, Schilling takes several opportunities to explain not only the science itself but also his own role, and that of other journalists, in reporting the science. A great deal of media hype surrounded the detection of gravitational-wave polarization in the CMB, a detection that was later shown to be a hasty misinterpretation of the data (SET: May 2015, p. 12). This was a case in which words like "breakthrough" and "Nobel Prize" weighed more heavily in the mainstream media's attention than did the scientists' cautions, such as, "if confirmed by other experiments." Schilling chronicles the disappointment that followed the initially exhilarating press conference.

Media hype also surrounded the first actual detection of gravitational waves, though this time with the opposite outcome: The detection of GW150914 panned out and revolutionized astronomy. Schilling recounts the early leaks, the LIGO scientists' efforts to keep a lid on the results until they were confirmed, and the elation that followed the official announcement.

Schilling's personal experiences, intuitive analogies, and broad background make this introductory take on the search for gravitational waves both approachable and insightful.

* News Editor MONICA YOUNG carries a book with her at all times, so she prefers light books on heavy topics.
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Title Annotation:Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Author:Young, Monica
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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